Cloud

6 tips to get the most out of Google Apps for Education

More and more educational organizations are moving to Google Apps for Education. Tim Burke of BetterCloud suggests a few best practices for Google Apps admins in the space.

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Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Tim Burke, director of IT for BetterCloud, has seen first-hand the challenges that administrators of Google Apps for Education face. They must manage accounts for hundreds, thousands, or sometimes tens of thousands of teachers and students every year. Google offers tools and settings that make things easier, but people don't always use them.

"A lot of educational admins are not following some of the best practices," said Burke. "They're leaving a lot of value on the table."

I spoke with Burke about his experience and suggestions for Google Apps for Education administrators. The following tips were drawn from our conversation and edited for clarity.

1. Manage your Organizational Units

Burke: "Maintaining a clean, accurate Organizational Unit (OU) structure is one of the fundamentals of running a Google Apps domain. You can turn on and off every individual [Google Apps] service via OU. A lot of time you'll see some services turned off for the students, but left on for the teachers. So in your OU structure, split off your faculty from your students.

For example, certain schools have policies where they just don't want students using their personal phones. They don't want that Google Apps account tied to an iPhone or to an Android. So, they turn off mobile device syncing for students, but leave it on for faculty.

There are different ways that you can do your Org Unit structure. If it's a single location, do it by graduating year. The nice thing about that is that—unless a student gets held back a year—their graduating year doesn't change."

2. Configure your apps

Burke: "It's always a challenge. You want to protect your students from being distracted and from anything that isn't age appropriate, but you also want to be able to empower your teachers.

One school set their OUs for K-5 to disable Google Chat, because they didn't want their younger students having access to it. But once you got into middle school and your OU changed, then you had access to [Google Chat].

By default, Google likes to leave things very open. For example, if you create a brand new Google Group, by default everyone can email [the group]. And I had customers where they had an email group that was meant for teachers only, but students were emailing it. ... The admin just hadn't taken the time to set it up properly."

SEE: Private school's Chromebook program explains why Chromebooks have captured nearly 20% of the educational market (TechRepublic)

3. Manage your Chromebooks

Burke: "Kids love Chromebooks. A lot of schools have rolled them out. They're really great devices. They're such great devices that they started disappearing.

There's a setting in the Admin Console where not only can you remotely wipe a device if you know it's lost, but Google also has this thing called forced re-enrollment. So these devices enrolled on the Google Apps domain get stolen, someone else tries to wipe it, and they can wipe it, but it will boot back up and you'll need to login with an active Google Apps account on the domain it was registered with initially.

Basically, forced re-enrollment is a permanent tie between that Chromebook and your domain, so that if it walks off it can't be associated with a personal Gmail account. It can't even be used unless someone in the domain signs back on. For every apps domain, I recommend that you turn on forced re-enrollment."

4. Discuss your Acceptable Use Policy

Burke: "Students and teachers should read their Acceptable Use Policy. ... It's really important whether you're a student or a teacher to know what is permitted and what is not. These accounts don't belong to the student, they belong to the school.

One school used our tool to provision all their students and users a couple weeks before the school year started, but they sent the credentials for first login to the parents—along with the Acceptable Use Policy and a one-page document on how to have a conversation with your child about the Acceptable Use Policy. [It] covered what you're supposed to use your Google Account for, and what you're not supposed to use it for. It was a really interesting way to force that discussion that I don't think a lot of parents have with their children."

SEE: Acceptable Use Policies (Tech Pro Research)

5. Simplify Google Apps management

I asked Burke what BetterCloud offers that the Google Apps Admin Console doesn't provide natively.

Burke: "Our biggest feature is bulk management: Being able to export your entire directory to a Google Sheet and then hide users, or suspend users, or change their OUs, or change their email addresses, or reset their passwords. You can do all of these things in bulk right within Google Sheets.

For example, I saw one domain that hadn't deprovisioned all the students that had graduated. They had almost 2,000 user accounts of students that had graduated from high school still active. They used our tool to deprovision those accounts.

We have a new product that's currently in beta right now that we're calling Workflows, which allows you to take triggers that we can pick up from Google and then automatically take actions on things. You can have a workflow, 'if student added to Grade 5 OU, add to Grade 5 Google Group,' so you can tie OUs and Google Groups together.

We have data loss prevention (DLP) that works near real-time. You can setup alerts that look for certain phrases or regular expressions. For example, you could write a regular expression that matches Student ID numbers and flag it using BetterCloud, then have BetterCloud take certain actions, such as fire off an email, remove the document entirely, or change the owner.

We also have email monitoring. It silently forwards a copy of one email received from one mailbox to another mailbox. We've seen cases where schools have used email monitor to track student abuse of email—where a copy of every email sent from a 'problematic' student goes to the assistant principal."

SEE: Google Apps vs. Office 365: A side-by-side analysis (Tech Pro Research)

6. Collaborate with Google Apps

Burke: "The one thing that is absolutely game-changing is the real-time collaboration in Google Drive: Having students able to self-organize and all sit in the same document at the same time. And, being able to go back and forth via comments in Google Docs with your teacher is really valuable.

I've [also] seen schools that have one shared calendar for the football team, and one shared calendar for the swim team. It's a really powerful way to organize things that happen to fall outside of school hours.

A lot of schools are still booking their media rooms or conference rooms or their laptop carts manually. You can very easily do that as a Calendar resource in Google Apps."

What do you think?

If you're an administrator of Google Apps for Education, what are your top tips for managing Google Apps at your school? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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