Update your Search Methods

In 2013 Google released Hummingbird, perhaps the most significant update to their search algorithm since the search engine launched.

From the Search Engine Land blog, here’s how they describe it…

“On September 26, Google announced a new algorithm impacting more than 90 percent of searches worldwide. They called it Hummingbird. Google’s Amit Singhal later said it was perhaps the largest change to the algorithm since he joined the company back in 2001.

Hummingbird allows the Google search engine to better do its job through an improvement in semantic search. As conversational search becomes the norm, Hummingbird lends understanding to the intent and contextual meaning of terms used in a query.”

http://searchengineland.com/google-hummingbird-the-keyword-what-you-need-to-know-to-stay-ahead-175531

 In plain English, this means that the conventional wisdom of the way we teach search – identifying important keywords, eliminating unnecessary terms, removing the conversational parts of a question, etc, is no longer quite as critical as it once was.

I’ve heard many teachers tell students “never just type in a question to Google in plain English” but that’s exactly what Hummingbird is designed for. With so many searches now being done via mobile devices using voice, the evolution to plain language questions and semantic queries is the next evolution in Google search.

As a demonstration, here are 50 questions, all done using voice search, to show you just how powerful this new algorithm really is.

Of course, these are mostly simple fact recall style questions, and more sophisticated queries will still benefit from a more sophisticated approach to writing search queries – using good search terms, excluding words or phrases, using search operators like site:, filetype:, etc, as well as making the most of extras like colour filters, date ranges, and so on.

But if you’re still telling students not to write plain language queries because that the advice you’ve you’ve always given them, maybe it’s time to update your advice?

And of course, it highlights why the things we ask students to do these days need to be based on far more than simple fact recall. With most students now carrying around Google in their pockets, the value of “facts” has been completely commoditised. We need to focus on helping them develop knowledge and wisdom, not just facts. Facts are cheap.

Header Photo: J Brew on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7NxJZy
CC BY-SA

Why I don’t want to lose Google Reader

Reader logo

I just left a comment on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog Websites of the Day, in response to a post called The Best Alternatives To Google Reader Now That It’s Being Shut Down. As the title suggests, after Google dropped the bombshell today about closing down Google Reader, Larry was very helpfully suggesting some alternatives. And they are good suggestions of course, but I think this decision to shut down Reader is more far-reaching than just finding an alternative tool.

Anyway, I left quite a long comment on the post with a few ideas that were on my mind, so I thought I’d crosspost it here as well, just in case it helps stimulate further discussion.  But please do go visit Larry’s original post…

Larry,

I agree with you… I’m deeply disappointed that Google is shutting down Reader. And as good as these suggestions for alternatives are, I suspect most of them will be fairly poor replacements for Reader…

a) Reader is a part of the Google suite of tools. When I’m logged into Gmail all day, have my Calendar and Drive open, regularly connecting to YouTube or Maps or Blogger, then the convenience of having Reader as part of that suite is huge. In a school situation, running Google Apps for Education, the fact that it’s just a built-in part of the environment you work in is hugely powerful. Single sign on. One click, boom, you’re there. Alternatives will break that convenience.

b) Reader is not just a website, it’s a whole RSS management engine. Most of the ways I consume the RSS feeds in Reader don’t actually involve me going to reader.google.com. Instead, they are picked up by Flipboard, River of News, or some other service. I have feeds that act as triggers for cron jobs. I have feeds that do all sorts of things and end up on all sorts of other services and devices, and the reason I can do this is because the Reader API is so open and ubiquitous. When I open FlipBoard I see an option to automatically grab the feeds from Reader… I don’t see any other options there for Bloglines or Feedly or Newsblur. I may be able to set that up manually, I don’t know I haven’t looked, but these other tools don’t have anywhere near the ubiquity of the Reader API.

c) I think your fears about losing Feedburner are well founded. I’m concerned about that too.

d) Like many bloggers, I’ve gradually built up a readership through people subscribing to my blog. While I don’t suppose that all of them subscribe using Reader, I’m sure many do. I’ll be expecting to see my blog readership numbers fall through the floor when Reader gets turned off. I think the same will happen to many others.

e)Ooverall, I’m just disappointed that Google would even consider doing this. As an enthusiastic Google user, Google Certified Teacher, and Google Apps Certified Trainer, it makes me annoyed and embarrassed that Google would kill off a product that so many people clearly care deeply about. Reader may not be sexy and shiny like Google+ but it’s hugely powerful and has an huge following. To see the #Reader hashtag push the #pope hashtag from the top spot today certainly makes me wonder how they can claim that “hardly anyone uses Reader”. I’m hoping they will listen to the people and reverse this decision, much like they did recently with Calendar Appointment Slots. Google CAN show they listen to what people want. I just hope they do it this time as well.

d) I get that Reader is a free service. I get that Google has the right to do whatever the hell it wants with it. But to give it to us and then suddenly take it away feels like bait and switch to me. It makes me question what else might get taken away some day. And it makes me feel much less like I can rely on, or trust, Google.

e) I’d even offer to pay an annual fee for Reader, but that hasn’t even been offered as an option. Not now, not in the past.

It’s all just very disappointing.

Office vs Drive: Some thoughts

Office vs DriveLike many schools around the world, our school has used the Microsoft Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for many years. Most of us know Word, Excel and PowerPoint well enough for our daily tasks. Although some of us might be willing to admit we probably don’t use it to its full capacity, we’ve been using it for so long that we don’t stop to think much about what, if any, alternatives might be out there.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Office is an amazing piece of software. Like you, I’ve grown up with it and watched it evolve over many versions and seen lots of features get added over the years. If you really know what you’re doing with Word, PowerPoint or Excel, you can make documents that are quite amazing in their complexity.

And then along comes GoogleDocs, or Drive as we now call it. From humble beginnings as an online word processor called Writely, the Google Drive system has also evolved and changed and grown over the years. Sure, it’s not the full-blown productivity monster that power-users of Microsoft Office might be used to, but for the great majority of users it has everything they need. I like to think of it as having 90% of the features needed by 90% of the users.  It has most of the stuff you need, and not a lot of the stuff you don’t.  One benefit of this is that it’s far simpler to use.

It would be a little foolish to just think in terms of one over the other. Each has benefits and advantages, as well as limitations and drawbacks. But each is incredibly powerful in its own way. Which is why we still provide you with both.

So when do you choose Microsoft office and when do you choose Google Drive?  Here’s just a few thoughts on that.

In general, I use Google Docs if I want to…

  • create documents really quickly and easily. I spend most of my computer-using day in my web browser with Gmail, Calendar and Drive open in tabs. Because I’m already there, I find it hugely convenient to be able to create new documents in just one click.
  • keep track of the documents I make. I make a LOT of documents each day. The fact that I don’t need to think about where and how I save them, and then being able to get back to them really quickly is a huge timesaver for me.
  • work on a “living document”. For documents that grow and evolve over time, that have edits and updates regularly applied to them, there really is no better choice than using Drive. Just think about how many documents you create that are works in progress. Probably most of them.
  • create a document can be distributed to others without versioning issues. Having a single master version of the document that is always up to date, while still being able to share it with others, is a huge deal!
  • collaborate on a document with others. Being able to work together on a document with others, in real time, regardless of where they might be, is simply amazing and an absolute game-changer in how we can work together to get things done.
  • work on more than one machine. I have a couple of computers at work, a couple at home, and a whole lot of tablets and phone devices. Having my work saved in Drive has made it completely irrelevant as to which machine I choose to work on.

I would use Microsoft Word if I wanted to…

  • Have very specific control over layout and formatting options. Having those options is really nice but I do find that for the majority of the documents I produce I really don’t need 287 font choices, garish page borders, complex tables inside tables and so on. But when I do need such things, Word provides them.
  • Lock down the final copy of a document in order to distribute it to “normal” users. I’d still probably create, edit and evolve the document in Drive, but then I have the option of exporting it out as a Word file at the end if needed.

I’ve always found that the only way that I can effectively evaluate new technologies is to use them regularly to do real work. So when our school moved to Google Docs over a year ago I figured I would try to move everything I usually did in Microsoft Office over the Google Drive, just to see how feasible it really was to work in that environment. I realised I might have to tweak a few habits and accept a few compromises along the way, but I wanted to see if it was doable.

The answer surprised even me. Not only do I find it perfectly feasible to work primarily in the Drive environment, but I can’t actually imagine going back to do it any other way. Seriously. The “compromises” that I thought I’d have to make have been so minimal, while the increased productivity and satisfaction from just being able to get things done faster, easier and more effectively have been enormous.

I won’t be removing Microsoft from my computer anytime soon, because Office it’s still a kind of defacto standard for documents and I never know when I really might need to use it. But I have to tell you, I haven’t needed to even open Microsoft Word now for about 8 months, something that I’ve found both surprising and liberating.

For many years, Microsoft Office was the right tool for the job, primarily because it was the only tool for the job. And the problem with that is when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. While Office is certainly still a powerful piece of software, it’s often overkill, or worse, it lacks the features that might actually be useful to you.  With Drive, you now have some interesting alternatives. Take the time to evaluate both systems. And next time you reach for a word processor, or a spreadsheet, or a presentation, stop and ask yourself if you’re making that choice out of habit or whether you’re really reaching for the tool most suited for what you want to achieve.

Shiny Object Syndrome

ChromebooksFor a while now I’ve been really keen to get my hands on one of the new Chromebooks but they have been as scarce as the proverbial rocking horse poop. I played with the original CR-48 units at the 2011 Sydney Google Teacher Academy, and although I thought they were a brilliant concept, troubles with the wifi at the time (at Google HQ of all places!) had me going back to my MacBook Pro sooner than I planned. The basic concept of a Chromebook is a computer where the operating system is basically just a browser (although I don’t think it’s really fair to refer to Chrome as “just a browser”.)

Still, by minimising the operating system to little more than a support system for the web browser, it really enables the web to emerge as the platform. With most of the data stored away from the machine – in the cloud – it means that users don’t have to worry about locally stored data. With the “software” on the machine really just being web services on cloud-based servers accessed via the browser, it means that your “software” is always up to date and always the latest version. If you lose the Chromebook or it gets damaged, you lose no data, since there was no data on it to begin with. Just grab another Chromebook, log in with the same Google account and you’re back to exactly where you were.

For schools in particular, it’s a brilliant concept. No software to install and maintain, no user data to store locally, nothing to back up, light and portable, easy to share… just log in and use it.

So for all of these reasons and others (Hey, I just like gadgets!) I was really keen to get my hands on one of the recently released Samsung units. The reviews have been very positive, although dealing with the lack of supply has been pretty frustrating. Lots of people want to buy them, but they have been really hard to get in the US and near impossible everywhere else.

In the leadup to the Sydney Google Summit I was hoping to get hold of one but it didn’t happen. I tried to buy one on Amazon but they refused to ship to Australia. I probably could have bought one on ebay, but for an arm and a leg. Fortunately, while at the Summit I had a chat with Suan Yeo, the head of education for Google in Asia Pacific and he mentioned that he might be able to organise me a loaner.

Well, long story short, I got an email yesterday letting me know that if I wanted to swing by the Sydney Google offices there was a shiny toy made of Chrome for me to play with for a month. Woohoo!  I dropped by after work and picked it up, and I’m now writing this blogpost on it.

Here’s my plan. For the next 30 days I plan to use ONLY the Chromebook for my own personal computing use, just to see how feasible it really is to live entirely in the cloud.  Of course, there are still things I need to do for my job at school that will require access to network drives and printers and so on, so I will have to keep using my Windows machine there. But I will have the Chromebook on my desk during the day and I intend to use it exclusively as my personal machine for the next month. I’ll blog about it here and let you know how it goes, what works for me, what doesn’t and try to give you an insight into what it’s like to live exclusively in nothing but a browser.

First impressions…

I really like it.  I love the size and weight for portability, although the smaller screen size is certainly making my eyes work harder than the larger 15 inch screen on my MacBook Pro or my iMac. But it’s certainly no worse than the 11 inch MacBook Air I have been using as my portable machine. The general build quality feels quite adequate… a little plasticky compared to an aluminium bodied Macbook, but then, so do most other computers. It’s certainly comparable to similar machines, and amazing when you consider it sells for about $250.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the additional functionality that I didn’t expect. Despite not having a “file system” as such, it does have a desktop, a downloads folder, and it can read and write USB and SD card drives. The access to Google Drive is pretty seamless, as you’d expect.  I don’t recall what the earlier Chromebooks did for storage prior to Drive, but having Drive certainly makes them quite usable. The keyboard is full size but has extra buttons that are specific to the Chromebook (and the keys are in lower case, which looks really odd at first.) There are lots of keyboard shortcuts that I want to learn to make it even more functional to use, and they can be accessed by pressing ctrl-alt-?.

Signing into the machine with my Google account immediately brought all my apps, themes and extensions across from my other machine, so within minutes I was working away as though I’d owned the machine forever. Very cool.

Battery life has been amazing. I took it off charge this morning, used it at work all morning, took notes in a meeting, showed it to quite a few people, spent a couple of hours browsing the web, have just been writing this post and it’s now nearly 4pm and it’s still going strong.  Even with the screen brightness turned way up, which is the way I like it, I think I would easily get a full days use from it.

The trackpad is quite good, and it has the same two-finger scroll and two-finger secondary click that I’m used to from the MacBook. I don’t much like trackpads at the best of times, and would always prefer to plug in a mouse (which I haven’t done yet) but the trackpad is about as good as it should be.

So, it’s looking good so far. If you’re interested in following my month with a Chromebook check back here again over the next few weeks and I’ll let you know how it’s going.

Google Teacher Academy in Sydney

At the recent Google Apps for Education Summit held at MLC School in Sydney, details for the next Google Teacher Academy were announced. Rather appropriately, the next GTA will be held in Sydney on May 7/8 at the Google Offices in Pyrmont.

Full details and a link to the application form can be found at http://www.google.com.au/edu/teachers/google-teacher-academy.html

It’s a great couple of days and although it can certainly be a bit of a brain dump and information overload, you’ll have the opportunity to network with other passionate and dedicated educators, meet with some of the local Sydney Google staff, become a part of the very active Google Certified Teacher community, and join in some fun social events as well.

The event is open to people from all over the world… at the last Sydney GTA in 2011 we had participants from the US, Guam, France, Russia and other places. People come from far and wide to attend the GTA. Of course, I happen to think it would be nice to grow the local GCT community even more, so come on you Aussies and Kiwis, get your applications in by February 28.

I’m looking forward to meeting lots of you there!

Tablets in Schools: A Hangout on Air

I posted this on Google+ last week…

Do you teach in a school that uses tablets? (iPads, Android tablets, etc) Have you been involve in planning the rollout and implementation of a tablet program in a school? Do you have thoughts about how suitable tablets are for education? Do you have any success stories to share? Warnings to give?

Come along and join in the conversation as we take this opportunity to learn from each other about this fast growing area of educational technology.

Here’s what happened.  It’s a long recording (1:18:00) but has lots to think about…

Thanks to everyone who joined us, both in the actual Hangout and also in the live stream.

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 3

Thanks to everyone who came back to me with such positive responses to the last two posts… it’s great to hear that other people were also able to benefit from some of the things I learned about Google Calendars recently.

This final post will just tidy up a few loose ends and give you an idea of some of the extra things I’m doing with my calendars now they are set up the way I wanted them.  It’s working far better than I anticipated, and certainly far better than Apple’s MobileMe service ever worked.  And did I mention that Google Calendars are free? (I’m pretty sure I did!)

Add to TasksWe’ve touched on Gmail, Contacts and Calendars, and looked at how these can be synced to your iPhone and iPad. Naturally, they can also all be synced to your Android phone and tablet if you have one of those. But what about Tasks? In the spirit of GTD, it would really help to be able to have a decent task (ToDo) list that also worked with the rest of my digital (Google) lifestyle.

Gmail does have a Tasks list, although it’s pretty anemic. It appears as a tiny little popup at the base of the Gmail screen and it looks very basic, even nondescript. No wonder people miss it. And it is basic and nondescript too, at least until you start doing something more interesting with it. The goal is to use the Tasks list to become a storing place for emails that you need to act upon in the future.

It’s easy enough to do. When you get an email that requires you to take some action, either in general or by a certain date, just click the More Actions button and choose the Add To Tasks option. (If it’s more of an event than a to-do, you can also choose the Create Event option to add it to your calendar… you decide)

Once you add the email as a Task, you’ll then find it in your task list in the lower right of your screen. Click the small right-pointing arrow to dig into the new task and you’ll find you can set a few other parameters for the task, such as editing its name if necessary, setting a due date and leaving some additional notes.  For this exercise, just set a due date. Once you’ve done this, click the Back To List button to go back to the list view.

Where it gets interesting is when you look at your calendar now you’ll see the Task showing up on your calendar on the due date, complete with a little checkbox to tick once you’ve completed the task.  I really like the workflow here – taking an email and turning it into a task which them appears on my calendar. Yes I know that other systems can do this sort of thing, but I like the simple way that Google makes it happen.  I also need to thank Roland Gesthuizen for showing me this stuff… I never realised you could integrate tasks into your calendar in this way.

Of course, it would be really useful to have these tasks also appear on your phone so you could access them (and tick them off) anywhere and anytime you wanted. There’s no built in app on the iPhone to do this, but there is a third party app called GoTasks that does it very well. Install GoTasks (a free app!) from the App Store and your tasks will appear on your phone in a nicely readable list that syncs directly from your Google account. Nice one!

If you’ve managed to follow along and get all this working for you, here’s one more handy tip. The standard Calendar app on the iPhone is pretty basic, and although it still works ok, it’s limited in its features.  No week view or year view, no custom colour coding on calendars, no landscape mode, etc.  If your iPhone calendar app is leaving you feeling a little unimpressed you should try Week Calendar from the App Store. At AUD$2.49 it’s a bargain and well worth the cost. It’s superior to the standard calendar app in every way and is more like what the standard app should have been. A special hat-tip to Brent Walters from Ontario for putting me onto this app.

So there you have it… some hopefully useful suggestions for helping you migrate your key applications – mail, calendar, contacts, tasks – to the Google cloud and to have them accessible from anywhere. No more getting out of sync, of having important information stored on different computers, of worrying about it whether the dog ate it, or even just getting muddled and confused and losing stuff.

Put it in the cloud! Sync it. Access it from anywhere, on any device. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!