Mashing Up an Education Tech Platform

Kids at blackboardLast fall, as we set out to launch a new online curriculum at Creating the Future, Dimitri posted this post asking for input about possible technology platforms for teaching these classes.

Many people responded to that post, some in the comments, many more privately. Some suggested specific platforms, while others helped deepen our search by asking us more questions to help us narrow down what we really needed.

Those conversations made several things clear to us:

  • The world is changing so fast in this arena, that whatever we decide this month may be obsolete next month. (And that’s not meant metaphorically – things are indeed changing that fast!)
  • Our classes are in BETA, so that we can learn what works not just for the content and process of teaching, but for the technology as well.
  • It therefore made no sense to invest considerable dollars into a platform until we knew more about what we needed.

Our decision was therefore to create a mash-up of free and low-cost platforms, with the intention of learning more about what we were seeking AND about what is possible.

Having used these systems for 7 classes over 8 months with 21 students and almost a dozen instructors, we thought it was time to share what we are learning about these tech platforms.

The Mash-Up
Here is what we assembled:

ZOOM (VERY inexpensive):
For being together in class, including breakout capability. If we picture a real-life classroom, Zoom is about the interaction between the teacher and students.

Google Sites (Free):
If Zoom is the interaction, Google Sites is the classroom itself. Picture a schoolroom after all the kids have gone home. At one end of the room might be a marker board with the day’s lessons and the kids’ notes as they worked on a math problem. In another corner is a sheet with the day’s assignment, and in another is the class schedule. A monitor sits on a stand, for video. Posters around the wall provide insights and inspiration. All the stuff of a classroom space is what we used Google sites for.

Google Docs / Google Drive (Free):
For the whiteboard itself – notes from each class (taking the notes, then finding them later).

Facebook Groups (Free):
For coming together between classes. Facebook allows groups to chat, post photos and post files, which allows us to post the homework between sessions, and for people to chat about what they’re practicing.

What We’ve Learned So Far per Platform
Some of these platforms are amazing. Some are usable, and some are leading us to seek a better alternative.

Tin can phonesZoom: Amazing
If you’ve used Skype or Google Hangouts, picture everything you love about those platforms, with none of what you hate. 

Zoom allows up to 50 participants on a call, with 25 appearing on the screen at a time. Unlike Google Hangouts, Zoom allows you to see everyone on the call in equal size on the screen OR – like Google Hangout – you can focus just on the person speaking (in Hangouts, everyone but the speaker is a tiny scroll along the bottom.) So it allows for more people than Skype or Hangout, and more flexibility for how you want to see them all.

Zoom also has a function for breakout rooms, which is a dream. The instructor can step into those rooms to give additional information and then step back out. And the students can request the instructor to do so as well. I confess that after using it every week for our current class, we still giggle every time – as do our students – because it is just so awesome to be able to do this so seamlessly! 

Zoom has free accounts, cheap accounts, and more expensive accounts. We used the PRO account at $14.99 per month, because the free account has a time limit of 40 minutes.

But here’s what we can say about Zoom (and we’ve been saying it loudly, on Twitter and other social media, to anyone who will listen): Zoom is infinitely stable. In our months of teaching classes, and then switching from Google Hangouts to Zoom for all our online meetings, we have never had a dropped call – not once! We have even used it on our phones, and haven’t yet found an operating system in which Zoom isn’t stable. Having used Skype and Hangout for years, we know the stability problems those platforms have.

The proof of Zoom’s stability for us happened not in class, but in a 2 day meeting during a blizzard. One of our participants couldn’t be in the room with us, and so he beamed in via Zoom for the full two days. During both of those days, from 8:30am to 5:30pm during a blizzard, Zoom never even blipped. Having done one-hour Skype calls where we’ve had to reconnect 3 times just during that hour, Zoom’s stability feels like magic. (It’s not magic. Read the reviews of the platform and stability is high on almost everyone’s list!) 

Bottom line for Zoom is that we love it, our students love it, and the participants in our work teams love it. In every setting we’ve used it, at least someone has signed up for their own account, many of them becoming evangelists just like us.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Zoom is absolutely a 10.

File cabinetFacebook Groups: Usable
Facebook’s group function has served us well for our asynchronous communication needs between classes. The ability to follow a thread of conversation is what Facebook is all about, and it does that very well. In addition – and very importantly – whether you like Facebook or hate it, the majority of people in our classes are already there. They don’t have to learn another platform or remember another password and user name; they just have to look at their stream – or if they’re really diligent, re-think their notifications to be sure they see the group’s posts.

What Facebook does not do well is the rest of what groups need as they are communicating about stuff. And this observation would hold true for uses far beyond our classes, for example a high school alumni group, a family planning a reunion – any reason people gather.

That’s because groups who are talking about stuff need places to share the physical product that relates to that stuff, in ways that easily allow them to find it again. The list of all 43 cousins for the family reunion. The list of who’s bringing what food to the potluck. Aunt Susie’s recipe for fried chicken.

Facebook absolutely allows groups to post that stuff. What it does NOT do well is archive it so you can quickly find it again.

Same thing with posts. If a group has been together for a while, scrolling or searching to find a specific post is not easy.

Unlike the option available for an individual’s Facebook stream, groups in Facebook cannot download all the group’s conversations. (For an individual, it’s the click of a button). If Facebook goes down, or changes its policies, all your group’s data is gone.

So yes, Facebook is usable and yes, folks are already there. But if something else came along, we’d be open to explore.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Facebook would therefore get a 6 or 7 for our communication needs, and a 4 for document sharing and ease of searching overall.

Woman teaching a man how to do mathGoogle Sites and Google Docs / Drive: Seeking alternatives
I’ve been watching as Dimitri has built websites and blogs for years. And pretty consistently, the grumbling as he works with Google Sites is more consistent than any other website-building platform I’ve watched him use.

Mostly his complaint in building the sites were the same as I find with Google Docs and Google Drive, or with Gmail for that matter: Google is not particularly user friendly. It’s not particularly UNfriendly, it’s just not easy to intuit what you’re supposed to click, where you’re supposed to go, how to do some of the simplest of tasks (like upload a file) or find stuff.

Part of the issue is precisely what is great about Google: It is tremendously powerful and constantly improving. What “constantly improving” means in the land of Google, however, is that they are constantly moving things around on the screen. That button you’ve clicked 3 times a day for the past year? It’s no longer there. That pathway to get to the thing you use once a month? The whole path changed two weeks ago, and good luck trying to find where it is now!

In addition, in an effort to create an environment of trust in our classrooms, we secured our docs so that only class participants could see them. Unfortunately, over 50% of our students at any given time were receiving errors as they attempted to access those documents, noting they were not authorized. Because Dimitri did individual trainings with every single student before the class, walking them through all pieces of this puzzle, we know they were indeed authorized. But if they rebooted their computer sometime between that call and the 6 weeks of the class, and they did not sign in using the same account… well, let’s just say we used the docs for storage, and then talked our way around them without having to rely on them.

In fact, we wound up posting at Facebook some pieces we had anticipated posting to Google Drive – and given what I just noted about Facebook, you will understand our Google-frustration when I say it was easier for people to find stuff when it was posted to Facebook than when it was stored at Google.

I am sure there are people who love Google products and find them easy as pie to navigate. In our experience, with over 50% of our 21 students and 5 instructors having problems accessing documents created and stored there, this is the area for which we are seeking alternatives.

On a scale of 1 to 10, we would rate Google Drive, Docs and Sites a 5. There are worse, but we’re sure hoping there are better.Man at a college-lecture-hall-sized blackboard

What’s Next
Our online classes continue to be a success from the content standpoint, and we are excited that those classes give us the opportunity to explore what’s fresh and working well in the world of working online. As we keep learning, we’ll keep sharing what we’ve learned.

And we hope you will do the same!


Photo Credits – Wikimedia Commons
Kids at blackboard: Public Domain
Tin can phones:  Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla
File cabinet: Pete Birkinshaw, Manchester, UK
Woman teaching man how to do math:  Public Domain
Man at college-lecture-hall-sized blackboard: Public Domain 

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