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Free suite of online tools fosters collaboration among students, teachers

Google Apps Education Edition helps Illinois district meet its technology goals, save $35,000 and transform learning

Maine Township High School District 207, located outside Chicago, represents five schools and approximately 7,000 culturally diverse students speaking more than 60 languages. District 207 schools reach well beyond the classroom, offering athletic and fine arts programs as well as clubs and activities providing opportunities for personal growth and development.

“Just a year ago, District 207 was well behind the average school district in the area of instructional technology,” recalled Henry Thiele, Maine Township’s director of technology. The schools used a slow, text-based email system and a calendaring application that lacked much-needed features. Teachers, students, parents and board members all wanted a system that delivered more capabilities, allowed innovation and offered a better way of learning.

"Because Google Apps are intuitive by nature, people just naturally start using them."

Thiele and his team determined that getting better technology into the classroom meant finding a system that provided features such as HTML support, improved storage limits and seamless ease of use. He was also drawn to a “cloud-based” solution ? one that allowed secure access to hosted information and made information easily available through any browser.

His search led him to Google Apps Education Edition, a free, integrated suite of communications and collaborative tools that includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and a range of tools for document creation and publishing ? all of which are easily available through any browser.

In addition, Google Apps for schools is ad-free and allows users to have email addresses at their own district’s domain. A new, free product added to the suite, Google Message Security powered by Postini ?enables robust email security that allows administrators to limit messages based on who they are from, where they are going, or the content they contain.

“Google Apps met all of our needs,” said Thiele. “It was the only product that made sense for us.”

It took only a few days to migrate all 7,000 students to Google Apps. Success was immediate, as shared ideas and teaching methods rapidly spread across the district. For instance, students began sharing information in real-time with other students, enabling them to work together on shared projects. Teachers started using Google Apps to distribute notes online and assign pre-reading activities to be completed before class.

In other areas, Google Docs improved the way students managed information such as student elections, and it let teachers monitor workgroups and build curriculum with other teachers. Google Calendar helped the orchestra schedule practices and concerts and share that information with parents. Google Sites allowed students to create and launch a website exploring alternative energy sources. “Because Google Apps are intuitive by nature, people just naturally start using them,” said Thiele.

The migration to Google Apps changed how students learn and teachers instruct as the collaborative working and learning environment moved outside the walls of the classroom. Students can access their work from school or home, and multiple users can collaborate on the same document, real time, even when they’re not physically together.

Outside of this new focus on cooperative learning, the district was also able to reallocate an estimated $35,000 ? originally budgeted for student email ? toward a new email archiving system. In addition, staff won back valuable time that was being wasted on maintaining outdated systems.

“The switch to Google Apps has allowed teachers and tech staff to divert time they used to spend struggling with hardware and software problems, and direct that time to teaching and learning,” Thiele said.

For more information about Google Apps Education Edition, please visit