How to Manage Your School’s Google Infrastructure

Distance learning has reinforced the centrality of Google’s services to schools across the country.

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, a Google Managed Service Provider (MSP) [like CTS] was often central to schools’ instructional and non-instructional programming. Teachers frequently used Google Classroom for both in-person and remote learning efforts, while administrators churned out Google Sheet after Google Sheet to manage budgets, create project plans, and store large amounts of student information. Board meetings were launched with a Google Slide presentation, which was, in turn, attached to an invite sent via Google Calendar. 

In fact, Google had so infiltrated the educational landscape in the U.S. that some began to worry about its data-collection practices and the extent to which student or staff data could be used to drive broader marketing initiatives that had little to do with teaching and learning. 

With the onset of distance learning, however, these concerns were quickly subjugated in the name of practicality: students needed to learn, teachers needed to teach, and a mechanism was required that would facilitate instruction for thousands of students who could no longer attend school as normally envisioned. 

Our team has worked with more than 60 schools across the United States, many of whom rely on Google to accomplish their unique missions. Beginning on day one of your school’s launch, we’ll make sure you’re aware of best Google MSP practices and help your staff gain the requisite knowledge to make the most of the platform’s offerings.

So how do Google MSPs manage their Google products in ways that seamlessly support student learning? The answers–such as clear organizational systems or naming conventions–may seem simple, but they can have profound impacts on individuals’ ability to collaborate effectively across departments, grade levels, and even sites.

Determine the “why” behind each document’s sharing permissions (editing, commenting, viewing) within your Google MSP.

At one of its more basic levels, managing an effective Google MSP begins with sharing resources–whether Google Docs, Slides, or Sheets–with the appropriate staff members and augmenting the specific permissions of each individual depending on their role in the collaboration process. 

As of now, Google provides three broad categories of permissions–editing, commenting, and viewing–as well as a fourth option, link-sharing, that allows anyone within a particular domain or, even more broadly, “anyone on the internet” to access a document, so long as they have the unique link assigned to that document. 

Generally speaking, it’s best for schools to avoid using Google’s link-sharing option on a regular basis: link-sharing is often too broad, provides relatively easy access to potentially sensitive information, and cedes the Google MSP administrator’s control of the document to others. While, in certain cases, link-sharing is useful for facilitating rapid collaboration, such instances should be the exception rather than the rule. 

Pivoting back to our three main options–editing, commenting, and viewing–editing provides users with the greatest degree of potential impact on a particular document. Individuals with editing access can make changes directly to documents (i.e., in a Google Doc. editors can make changes at the sentence-level). When providing someone with editing access, document owners imply that the individual is free to make such changes with relative freedom.

By contrast, users with comment- or view-only permissions have much less control over the actual content of the document. In the former case, individuals can, for example, highlight and provide feedback on specific strands of text, but cannot make changes to the strands directly. Viewing is even more restricted: no editing, no feedback, or comments, these individuals can simply look at the document, although they may be able to download or print a copy, depending on whether these capabilities are enabled. 

Understand the difference between file- and folder-based sharing.

When most individuals engage Google’s sharing permissions, they typically do so at the file level, sharing a single document with a single individual with whom they need to collaborate in some fashion. Sharing can, however, also be done at the folder level, in which multiple–even hundreds–of documents are instantly shared with an individual or group of people. 

On the Google Drive landing page, folders can be created by using the “+ New” button on the left-hand side of the screen. Once documents are dragged and dropped into the newly created folder, its contents can be shared in-bulk with individual users by right-clicking on the folder and selecting “Share.” 

Sharing the entire folder with an individual, regardless of their access level, gives them at least some exposure to all of the documents within the folder. For this reason, folders containing sensitive documents should be shared on a need-to-know basis. If an individual needs access to only one or two documents with the folder, the administrator should navigate to the specific document(s) and share it on the file level. Doing so grants the individual access to only those documents they absolutely need to see, rather than anything extraneous that also happens to be in the same folder. 

Educate your staff, students, and families on your domain-specific sharing policies.

One additional complicating factor for sharing concerns individual users’ domains. If link-sharing options are enabled for a particular document, it is almost always best to restrict the link-sharing permission to individuals within the organization’s domain. Depending on the size of the organization, link-sharing within the domain still gives potentially hundreds or thousands of individuals access, but the number of users is still infinitely lower than the other option, “anyone on the internet.”

With this choice, however, administrators often encounter individuals within their organization who, unbeknownst to them, attempt to access the document while logged-in to their personal Gmail accounts. These individuals may then proceed to request access to the document, which the administrator should if their intent is to appropriately restrict access, not grant. The back-and-forth between the administrator and the misguided user threatens to drain time from other priorities, so taking a moment to educate users on the importance of domain-specificity can prevent technical headaches down the road.

Set aside regular time each school year to clean-up or archive your existing Google Drive architecture.

Even with the most thoughtful sharing permissions established, managing your Google MSP resources, specifically the documents housed in your school’s Google Drive architecture, requires continual oversight. As individuals begin to access documents each school year, they often create copies, start crafting their own parallel folder architecture to organize personal documents, or otherwise disrupt the larger organization’s information management systems.

As a result, Google MSP administrators should set aside regular time–typically on an annual or semester basis, if working in a school–to clean-up their existing Drive architecture, re-calibrating user permissions and making smaller changes, like folder names, to ensure the integrity of the overall system. Without this regular maintenance, the Drive’s architecture can quickly fall into disarray and prevent individuals from quickly accessing the instructional or non-instructional resources they need to effectively perform their roles. 

Establish shared naming conventions for your Google MSP to aid document retrieval. 

While it may seem trivial, establishing shared naming conventions for all of the files within your school’s Google Drive architecture can significantly enhance the platform’s usability. Devoting time to train staff on your naming conventions at the beginning of the year–and, as referenced above, continually monitoring the convention’s usage throughout the year–is critical to maintaining an organized document library.

Because many school documents are re-created each year (e.g., “Day 1 of School Project Plan” or “Quarter 1 Parent-Teacher Conference Slip”), consider beginning each file name with the date on which it was created, followed by a title that clearly establishes the document’s purpose. For example, “3.19.17.ELA Testing Day 1 MBM” is far better than “3.9.17.Testing Plan”. 

Adopting these practices ensures staff are able to quickly access specific documents from your Drive, which may contain hundreds or even thousands of resources. You can always revisit your existing conventions at the end of a given semester or school year and adjust as necessary. 

Make specific student-facing files available offline, in case students lack internet access at home.

While we’ve mostly discussed the administrator and teacher-facing implications of Google MSP practices, it’s also important to note one student-facing feature that can significantly improve access to Google’s services: making documents available offline. 

Normally, to make edits or comments to a document, users must be connected to the internet, but by making documents available offline, students can still view and directly edit instructional resources as needed, with any changes saved once they’re able to reconnect. 

While there are several ways for teachers to make documents available offline, students can also do so by enabling the “Offline” feature under the “Settings” menu on the Google Drive homepage. While students will ultimately have to reconnect to have their changes saved, Google’s offline mode can, at the very least, allow them to continue working until they’re able to gain internet access. 

At CTS, we support clients in successfully managing their Google educational products.

Contact us today to learn more about our managed IT services and how CTS can partner with your school to tackle your team’s technology challenges.

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