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I might have spoken in riddles when I first compared Google’s latest offering, Spaces, with its stalwart Sites. So here is one plain conclusion: Their use can be socially negotiated, but they are very different tools.

Let me be more specific with two of my most recent examples.

Example: Google Space.

Google Spaces is a reverse-vertical tool. If its users are familiar with the reverse chronology of Google+ and Twitter, then Google Spaces is a no-brainer.

The latest posts rise to the top and demand attention. However, important conversations and content can sink to the bottom with neglect because there is no pinning function.

This is an inevitable consequence of vertical chat-like tools. Only the fresh and foremost gets attention and this might be good for dynamic and informal contexts.

Example: Google Sites navigation.

Google Sites, on the other hand, can be a forward-horizontal tool. Its content can be laid out like book chapter sequences or branching options for users to take.

Such a structure might place a lower cognitive load on users more accustomed to an LMS. As Google Sites is less constrained than LMS platforms, a skilled designer and facilitator can make the navigation shallow but broad, the sequence logical, and the content more meaningful.

The horizontal menu serves as an advance organiser. This provides learners with an overview, helps establish expectations and goals, and provides quick access to components of a module or workshop.

This does not mean that Sites cannot be social. The tool has comment threads on every page. However, the designer must ensure that these are enabled and users must be logged into the Google system.

Sites is also open enough so that any chat or collaboration tool is embeddable. My favourite embeds include:

Every one of those tools can also be linked or embedded in Google Spaces. However, their use must seem organic or emergent from a conversation. This might be done in a team teaching context, e.g., one main facilitator, one techie, and a few tutors. This is how a few medical schools might run team-based learning sessions.

However, a facilitator flying solo in a blended learning environment needs to prepare and organise resources in advance. Since this is a more likely scenario because human talent comes at a premium, the better tool is more likely the more open and flexible Google Sites.

If you asked me to put the new kid on the block, Google Spaces, against the grizzled veteran that is Google Sites, I would cite this humorous adage:

Old age and treachery will always overcome youthfulness and skill.

The choice is not just a personal preference. My verdict is based on using both for ICT modules I conducted recently.

Google Spaces is decidedly mobile, light on features, and chatty. I could have designed experiences for my adult learners to suit the tool, but that would have been a mistake.

My learners spanned what many label Millenials to Baby Boomers. The range of expectations was far too wide to bridge with Spaces.

However, the time they were born into was not that important. Like most learners, they had grown used to lectures and LMSes. Passive content delivery in person, on paper, or via woefully awkward online systems was comforting.

My modus operandi is never to give in to such low expectations. However, I recognise the need to provide structure and scaffolding. This is where the design-your-own-web-pages orientation of Sites was more powerful.

Both Spaces and Sites allowed me to embed a variety of URLs, videos, photos, Padlets, Dotstorms, Google Docs, Google Forms, Google Spreadsheets, Google Slides, etc.

Spaces made it fast and easy on mobile, but you had to play by its rules. Sites was mostly desktop-bound and comparatively slower, but it was also more forgiving and flexible.

In the end, both produced online experiences that were mobile-friendly. However, when you factor context, content, pedagogy, and technical affordances all at once, the more generic Sites beat the more specific Spaces with one arthritic hand tied behind its back.

I have been using Google Sites since its inception and have way too many course, module, and workshop sites hosted there than I can count. This open tool is like an old person that Google retired to an old folks home and almost forgot. There it remains spritely and strong.

As long as Google does not pull the plug, Google Sites remains the gold standard and reminds me not to fall into the cool tool trap.

Yesterday I outlined one way I end a series of modules in a course. I take group photos not just as a souvenir of our time together, but also as a symbol of the design and pedagogy of the experience.
 

 
Today I describe one way I start the ball rolling. Instead of introducing myself conventionally, I ask my learners to Google me [example].

I provide a shared online space, e.g., Padlet, where they state what they find out about me. As the task and tool are simple, the activity typically takes less than five minutes from the time I provide instructions to the time my learners complete the task.

Then I ask them why we do this. Here are a few typical responses and my rationales for this icebreaker.

A few will invariably suggest that I am providing practice for a tool that we will use later for learning tasks. They are correct.

It is a tinkering exercise to start learning a skill. The task is non-threatening because there is no course content and it is driven by curiosity or novelty. Once mastered, that skill and the technology become transparent and my learners can focus on what they need to share or learn.

But this technical practice is furthest from my mind.

My learners invariably find out quite a lot about me online. Almost all of it is relevant and correct, and occasionally some of it is not.

I use this experience to point out that:

  • there is power in learner-centred discovery about something new
  • their search behaviours are often superficial, e.g., they find this blog and copy information from it
  • not everything they find online about me is right
  • Padlet is one way to collect their findings

I use this shared experience to set expectations that:

  • they are responsible for problem-seeking and problem-solving
  • some search strategies are better than others
  • my role as facilitator is to guide their learning by offering wisdoms on their strategies and choices
  • it is important to externalise or visualise their thinking

I actually look forward to my learners finding wrong information about me. In one module, a participant found a female Ashley, and despite the clear gender difference, copied and pasted information about that Ashley into Padlet.

An authentic mistake like this is an opportunity for me to remind my learners to be more critical of what they find online and how they think. It is easy to search superficially, but it is harder and more important to think deeply.

As fun and as interesting as this activity might be, old habits die hard. Since most learners do not seem to be taught critical thinking skills with search tools, they rarely use other tools or strategies, or go beyond the first page of results. This is why the introductory Googling activity is not standalone. It is the start of my battle to change and win mindsets. It is my attempt to create more independent and critical learners.

I messed about with the recently announced Google Space tool last night.

The tool was intuitive because I use Google’s suite of tools on both desktop and mobile platforms. If you need a primer, this video by @rmbyrne should help.


Video source

I decided to recreate a simpler version of a Google Docs-based notes page that I made for a conference and a remote mentoring session. This is my Google Space for some notes on flipped learning.

My Google Space for flipped learning.

The items appear in reverse chronological order (most recent item at the top). This could be useful for communicating and collaborating while planning remotely or asynchronously. However, at the moment Google Spaces does not offer any text formatting and items for discussion cannot be moved to customised positions.

I created the Google Space with the desktop tool. As of last night, the iOS version was not yet available in the Singapore App Store. (3pm update: The app is available now.) However, the Android version was ready for download.

I did not test the Chrome extension that allows you to add web resources to your Google Spaces at the click on a button. This is similar to adding items to Diigo or scoop.it from a browser-based extension or bookmarklet.

I am certain that some educators have already thought of ways to use Google Spaces in class. I wonder how they might take advantage of this simple tool in their personal learning networks.

At the moment, Google Spaces is a bit of an odd duck. It is simple to use and seems to overlap with a few platforms in the Google ecosystem (apps suite, Photos, YouTube). But it seems to be a solution seeking a problem.

I am not sure what that problem might be. Perhaps it is an early response to Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp. More user tinkering will clarify its role in the ecosystem.

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I could go on about why this quote might almost singularly represent pedagogical change, but I could also challenge you to Google for answers.

I could also explain how I created the image quote, but you can easily use Google to find out how. But I will share the original CC-licensed image below.
 

The droids we’re googling for by Stéfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Stéfan 

One of the best things about Google Photos is how I can upload a photo to the cloud on one device and see it on another device that is connected to my Google account.

I have been using Google Photos since its launch and this was my previous reflection on it.

The editing tools are quite good. The auto-categorization by time and the image search tools are convenient. But try to manually arrange the sequence of photos so that you can tell your own story and you are stuck.

This is where the web version of Google’s Picasa shines. On a desktop or laptop computer, I can drag and drop single or multiple photos around in organize mode.

But the manually rearranged photos only works for me. When I sequence photos to tell a story, I get something like this:

But when I share the photo album with someone else, they see this:

They are the same photos, but in the wrong order. Google Photos favours chronological order. However, that is not the only way to tell a story. That is not the only way that makes sense.

I hope that Google Photos provides this granularity of control to users like me. We are not lazy or stupid. We want technology to help us create. We also want it to not get in the way.

Are you crazy?

That would have been my reaction if someone told me several years ago that my iPhone photos could be put online automatically, be organized, be searchable by theme, and I could have this all for free.


Video source

But today we have Google Photos. Anything a smartphone can capture, photos up to 16 megapixels and videos of up to 1080p resolution, can be sent to Google’s cloud storage without using up your storage quota.

One reason why Google Photos has appeal is that it meets human needs by doing the mundane and heavy lifting. Any photos you take can be uploaded, categorized, and archived automatically.

Once there you can edit, share, and manage them across different devices. You can share them with other people too.

Google Photos may not create new needs, but it addresses existing ones extremely well.

I decided to try the Search tool as I had read that it was good in some ways and not in others. I tried the suggested tag “Cars” because the thumbnail featured my MacBook Air instead of a vehicle.

This is a partial view of the “Cars” search.

The top two photos were spot on. The fact that the first was a thumbnail from a time-lapse video I took in London that featured just the roof of a cab was impressive.

The bottom left shot was of a drawing that my son did in 2008. Google’s algorithms could figure out a child’s drawing of a car.

The algorithms also identified Dr Who‘s Tardis (a screen capture of one of my presentations) and my laptop as cars. The fictional time-travelling device and my computer certainly take us to wonderful places, but calling them “Cars” is a bit of a stretch.

But the algorithms and machine learning can only get better and that is how Google stands to gain by making this platform open and free.

For people to participate in such a global experiment takes trust. Trust that Google will not misuse our photos. Others might point out that we are trading some privacy for convenience. All this means is there is change.

For change to happen, there must be awareness, buy in, and commitment (ABCs of change).

  • Awareness: We know of Google Photos and what it might do
  • Buy in: We believe Google’s privacy policies or are willing to trade some privacy for convenience
  • Commitment: We use the platform and in the process help both Google and ourselves
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