Trying Google Apps For Education

At Liam’s new Kindergarten, I’m responsible for the computer stuff. So I thought I’d make things easier by using Google Apps, which is free for educational institutions.

My aims were to have:

  • Official email accounts, without the bother of managing our own email server. (Google Mail)
  • Mailing lists (or groups) so we can send mail to one parents@ email address instead of copy/pasting long CC lists.
  • An online calendar that we could use to show official events, which could show up on peoples’ iPhones and Android phones. (Google Calendar)
  • A shared space for official documents. (Google Drive)
  • Private photo galleries. They can’t be public because people don’t like pictures of their children being online. (Google’s PicasaWeb, I hoped)

I was really looking forward to playing with this stuff, hoping that it would quickly do useful things, and hoping that it would be easier for non-technical people to administer when I’m not around. But I’ve been rather disappointed.

The various problems lead to me having to choose between two options, both of them inadequate:

Option 1: Domain users

In this scenario, I would add someone@ourdomain.com accounts for all of the parents.

Pros:

  1. We would be able to see all contact details for parents and teachers in the “Directory”. That would be available on peoples’ Android phones, too, and maybe on iPhones.
  2. We could use PicasaWeb to share photos and view them as galleries.
  3. System administration would generally be easier. The simplicity makes
    it easier to avoid sharing something publicly by accident.

Cons:

  1. We would give everyone an @ourdomain.com Google account. That would give them a @ourdomain.com email address, using GMail, which would be useless to them. Parents would each have to manually set up GMail to forward to their personal email address, though I could tell them how to do that.
    (You could send email to some.parent@ourdomain.com, but when they replied, you would see them replying from their some.parent@hotmailorsomething.com email address.)
  2. If parents already have a Google account, they would need to switch between them in the web browser. That’s fairly easy using Google’s multiple sign-in, but that does not work well right now. Sometimes you’ll find yourself using the other account suddenly.
    It’s a particular problem for Google Apps that don’t support multiple-sign in, but real people do use those apps. For instance:

    • If you click on a link to a PicasaWeb album, you’ll just be told that the album doesn’t exist, until you log out, log in as the other user, and try again. That is beyond the abilities of the typical user.
    • Google Checkout, used when buying from Google Play, will offer a choice of users to log in as, but I’ve regularly seen it ignore your choice and continue as the wrong user.
    • When going to the GMail site, if you are logged in as a user with no gmail email address, it will offer to create one for you with a “Add Gmail to your Google Account” page. If you try to switch users to the user with a GMail account, it will just take you back to the same page for the previous user.

Option 2: Non-domain group members

In this scenario, I would not add someone@ourdomain.com accounts for all of the parents.

Instead I would add their regular email addresses as members of groups such as parents@ourdomain.com. The various Google Apps seem to allow sharing to group email addresses, understanding that that means sharing to the group’s members, though that’s not documented or hinted at.

The parents would have to create Google accounts for these non-Google email addresses, which is still possible via this link to create a Google account without being forced to have a Google email account, though that link might not work in future. (Update from 2013/04: Indeed, it doesn’t work now, so you have to disable the gmail email address after creating the Google account.)

Pros:

  • People could use their existing Google accounts and existing email addresses.

Cons:

  • We could not use Google’s contacts system to share a list of contacts. We’d have to maintain a separate list on a web page. It wouldn’t be available in the normal way on an Android or iPhone phone.
    This just isn’t possible with Google Apps unless all the people have domain accounts, with domain email addresses. Google recommend the use of 3rd-party web applications that let you manually sync address books every now and then, but that’s not good enough.
  • We could not use PicasaWeb to share photos. We could use Google Drive
    instead, but this doesn’t offer a gallery view showing sets of photos
    with back/forward, etc.
    This is because PicasaWeb does not support sharing to a Google Apps group. You can only share to users in your domain, or you can share via an obfuscated, but public, URL.
  • Update: Google has now changed the login page shown to users when they try to access our private Google Sites site. It asks for just the first “someone” part of a “someone@ourdomain.com” login name, with a link further down the page so people can login with their regular Google username. Most users don’t understand what’s happening when they enter their full regular Google username in the login page, and they don’t find the link to the normal login page.

Summary

For now, I find that Google’s multiple sign in is so awful that I cannot risk asking people to deal with it and cannot risk having to support them with it. Therefore, I have to live with sharing photos via Google Drive instead of PicasaWeb, and having no shared contacts list.

I feel that we wouldn’t have this problem if Google Apps really supported domains rather than just using redirects. For instance, I’d like to use email at mail.ourdomain.com, instead of typing that into my browser’s address bar only to be taken to mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox . A real domain would have its own users and there would be no conflict with regular Google users. Obviously that would be harder for Google to do.

Things would also be simpler if PicasaWeb supported multiple-sign in, and if it supported sharing to groups. Or if Google Drive allowed image files to be viewed via PicasaWeb. It’s to be expected that educational institutions will want to share photos privately. I wanted to use that as an attractive way to get people into the system.

It should also be expected that educational institutions, like many organizations, want to deal with people who will never have an official email address for that organization.

 

2 thoughts on “Trying Google Apps For Education

  1. Hi Murray,

    Negative feedback received.

    One minor quibble: no need to use a secret link to avoid GMail. During sign-in, a person can provide any email address as their “existing” email address. After the sign-in flow, just disable GMail. The @gmail.com address is deleted and the existing email address becomes the address by which that Google Account is referred to.

    Hope that you’re well,

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