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!

Taking control of your Calendars: Part 2

Ok, hopefully you’re read Part 1 of this article and you now have your calendars all set up in Google Calendar instead of iCal..  Now let’s get that all synced up to your phone.

One of the biggest benefits of Apple’s MobileMe service it the way it keeps your iCal calendars in sync with your iPhone. Unfortunately MobileMe costs $129/year here in Australia (even though it’s only $99 in the US and our dollar is almost 1:1 at the moment… don’t get me started on that!) The good news is that you can get exactly the same sort of synchronization at no cost by using Google Calendar instead of Apple’s iCal, plus you get all the extra benefits of sharing calendars that only Google’s cloud can offer.

If you’re a Google user then you’ve probably set up Gmail on your iPhone. The trouble is, when you set that up you probably did the obvious thing and went to Settings, selected Mail, Contacts, Calendars and then chose the Gmail option. That seems kind of obvious, but there’s a much better way to do it. When you choose the iPhone’s Gmail option you get the option to set up Mail, Calendars and Notes. Notes? What about your Contacts? Wouldn’t you rather have those?

Setting up Gmail using the Exchange optionInstead of choosing the Gmail option, you should choose the Exchange option. You’ll still use it to set up your Gmail, but by using the Exchange protocols it actually does two important things. One, it allows you to set up Mail, Calendars and Contacts – much more useful than notes. And secondly, it opens up the option to use Google’s Sync Services.

On your iPhone, get started by going to Setting and selecting Mail, Contacts,Calendars. Tap the Add Account… option. Tap on Microsoft Exchange (I know, I know… you’re using Microsoft Exchange to set up Google’s Gmail on an Apple iPhone… how weird is that?)

In the Email field, enter you full Gmail address. You can skip the Domain field. In Username, enter your full Gmail address again. Enter your Gmail password in the password field. For Description, give it a meaningful name, like, oh, I don’t know… Gmail?  Finally, I’d suggest you make sure that SSL is set to On. Tap the Next button.

The phone will take a few seconds to verify your account, and then the screen will expand to reveal a field for Server. In here, enter m.google.com, and then press done.

You’ll probably want to turn on all three options for Mail, Contacts and Calendars. Mail Days to sync can be set to whatever you like… I have mine set to 1 Week. The Mail Folders to Push should probably be set to Inbox.  That’s it.

If you now check your iPhone’s Calendar you’ll see that you now have a Gmail calender in the list. Awesome. If you’ve previously had Gmail set up on your phone the regular way you can (should) delete it, or you’ll have two copies of everything.

But wait a minute… your Google Calendar has all those lovely layered calendars, and the iPhone is only showing one of them. What’s going on? Where are the others?

By default, the only calendar that you see is the Primary one.  If you’ve set up your work Exchange account, your primary calendar will be set to sync with your Exchange account since that’s a limitation of Google Calendar Sync with Exchange. To see the others you’ll need to do a couple of extra steps.

On your iPhone’s mobile browser, go to http://m.google.com/sync and select your device (you can set up multiple devices, such as your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad)  On this page you’ll see all the secondary calendars you’ve set up on your GCal. Just tick the one’s you’d like to appear on your iPhone (up to 25 of them) and then tap the Save button at the bottom of the page. Done.

Now if you go back to your iPhone’s Calendar app, you’ll see all the secondary calendars in the list! Make sure there’s a tick next to all the ones you’d like to appear in your calendar list and you’re good to go. You now have perfect realtime syncing of calendars between your Google Calendars and your iPhone. Just like MobileMe gives you, but without the cost.  You also get your Gmail Contact list showing up on your phone’s address book too.

Speaking of contacts, once I decided that this Gmail mail/calendar solution was a clear winner, I also exported all of my contacts out of Apple’s Address Book on my Mac, then imported them into Gmail’s Contact list. It was silly maintaining two lists of contacts, and although there was a fair bit of overlap of the same people in my cloud-based Gmail Contacts list and my Mac-based Address Book, they were still two different sets of data, which used to drive me crazy. A single list of contacts makes much more sense, so by importing everything into the Gmail contacts and enabling that as my iPhone’s primary address book, it combines everything into one place. Of course, there were duplicate entries, but that was easily fixed in Gmail but going to the Contact list and from the More Actions menu selecting Find and Merge Duplicates. Too easy. I now have one single list of contacts, stored in the cloud, always up to date, and accessible from anywhere.

So far, I’ve got my school Outlook calendar feeding into my Google Calendar, aggregating it all into a single cloud-based calendar, and syncing it all back to my iPhone and iPad (as well as every computer I use). Perfect!

But what about iCal? I do still find iCal handy as there are occasionally times when I’m not actually connected to the web. Google Calendar doesn’t have an offline mode (yet!) so it would still be useful to have access to my calendar via iCal. If only iCal could pull its calendar data directly off the Google cloud…

It can. Here’s how.

iCal PreferencesBack on your Mac, open up iCal’s Preferences. Go to the Accounts tab and click the + button to make a new account. Under Account Type choose Google, then enter your gmail address and password. Give it a moment to validate that, then go to the Delegation tab.  As long as you’ve set your secondary calendars up at http://m.google.com/sync, you should see all your secondary calendars in the list. Tick the ones you want to appear in iCal and close the Prefs panel.

The secondary calendars will appear momentarily in iCal under a Delegates fold-down triangle. Each delegated calendar will be hidden one level down under an alias to itself, but just click the small triangle to reveal it and make sure it’s ticked. You now have a fully synced iCal calendar, including secondary (delegated) calendars, that all emanate from your single, source-of-truth Google Calendar. The best of all possible worlds!  The only thing you might want to do now (for both iCal and GCal) is spend some time picking better colours for your calendar layers. (It’s a bit annoying that the colour schemes don’t carry across, but hey…)

One last thing. I actually have my school email set up directly on my iPhone by creating an Exchange account and hooking it directly to our Exchange server at work. This means I actually duplicate my work calendar, getting two copies of it in my iPhone calendar list – once via the direct connection to the Exchange Server, and once by the indirect connection through Google Calendar Sync and via the Gmail setup. However, I deliberately do this because having the direct connection to Exchange gives me near realtime syncing to the school mail/calendaring system, whereas the via-Gmail connection often has a lag time of up to 15 minutes or more. But its an easy fix to go into the iPhone’s calendar list and untick the GCal copy of the calendar leaving only the direct connection, and now I really do have a calendar system that works perfectly and all without spending a cent on MobileMe.

Hope this helps some of you… If you use any of this, let me know how it works out for you!

The Sydney Google Teacher Academy

What do you think of when you hear the name Google? To many people, it’s just the place to go when they want to find something on the web.  You just type a few words into that simple text box and, hey presto, you usually find what you’re after. To the majority of users on the web, that’s just what Google does.

If you’re a serious web user, you know they do a little more than that.

Last week, along with 53 other amazing educators from around the world, I had the pleasure of attending the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney. It was the tenth GTA since the program started, but only the second to be held outside the USA. There was a selection process to be part of it, and many more applied than were actually accepted. There was a ton of hype and excitement leading up to it, with Twitter carrying the anticipation of both those who would be attending as well as those who wished they were.  So what was it like?

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the GTA. I knew it would be a fast paced brain dump of information about Google tools. I suspected we would get some inside information about where Google was heading in the education sector. I hoped to hear from others about innovative ways that they were using Google’s cloud based services in their schools. I expected to be able to play with devices and tools I hadn’t used before. I hoped to to see a little bit about life in the Aussie Googleplex. I was looking forward to connecting in real life with many of the names and faces that were part of my online community, as well as meeting many new people. And of course I had great expectations for the networking and socialising that would take place amongst those lucky enough to be chosen to attend.

On all of these fronts my expectations were met and exceeded.

The information we received prior to the event suggested that it would be a fast paced tour of everything Google, and it certainly was that. From the start of the day we had ideas, suggestions, tips and examples thrown at us almost faster than we could absorb them. Thankfully someone started a collaborative Doc that we all took notes into, and together we managed to document much of it. We were given a fast paced tour through the full range of information search tools that Google offers – regular search, images, squared, maps, books, scholar, wonderwheel, realtime, alerts, news, custom search, recipes, readability, creative commons… the list of search variations and extensions that Google now offers is quite amazing. To be honest, there was not a lot in the list that I hadn’t seen before, but it was good to be reminded of the depth of search options that Google offers and to see just how far some of them have come since I last looked at them. Book Search and Scholar Search in particular have come a long way since I last used them.

The barrage of information continued through the use of Gmail, Calendar, Apps and Sites. Although I use all of these tools, most fairly regularly, it was useful to learn some new power user tips and to realise just how far some of them can be pushed beyond the way I currently use them. And as funny as it seemed to hear Danny Silva talking about “making Google Calendar sexy”, it was really useful to learn about that aspect of the Google toolbox. So useful in fact that I came home and completely reorganised my own use of calendaring, dropping Apple’s iCal and moving my whole online life to Google Calendar instead. That might be the subject of a whole other blogpost sometime, as I think I’ve finally hit on a usable cloud/mobile solution that works for me, that doesn’t require Apple’s outrageously expensive MobileMe service.

We spent a good deal of time looking at Google Apps for Education (GAFE), something I found really useful since my school uses them more and more, and as the year progresses I can see that use will increase exponentially. We looked at Sites in some detail, which was interesting because I’ve never really thought of Sites as being a wiki product although it’s now pretty obvious that that’s what it is. Again, as we ramp up our use of GAFE, the Sites component will begin to play an increasingly important part of the toolset we offer our students. Potentially, the use of Sites, Apps, Gmail and Calendar could cause us to dramatically rethink the current tools we offer to our students. All free, all managed by Google. Pretty amazing really.

We looked at some lesser known tools like Hapara, had a GTalk video call with Mike Lawrence from CUE in the US, and also heard from one the project heads of the Blogger and Google Apps team. There are some fantastic things coming for Blogger users, enough to make me seriously question my continued use of WordPress. A lot of this discussion was under NDA so I can’t elaborate on it, but the demos and examples we were shown really blew me away. If this is what HTML5 will do to the web, we’re in for some interesting times ahead!

Towards the end of the day we had a talk from the project lead of Mobile, who brought in a bunch of Android devices for us to play with, including the as-yet-unreleased-in-Australia Motorola Xoom tablet. I have to say I was very impressed with what Android offers, and enjoyed being able to play with these gadgets.

Speaking of gadgets, one of the nice surprises we got as we entered the room was a Cr-48 Chrome laptop to play with. Unfortunately we had to give them back at the end of the day, but I’d been keen to try the Chrome OS so getting a Cr-48 to use was much appreciated. Unfortunately, we were having a bit of trouble with the wifi (dodgy wifi at Google of all places! This was one place where I expected Internet access to be kick-ass!) so the Cr-48 struggled to really impress me. Being a completely cloud-based experience – the OS is essentially just a Chrome web browser – the flaky wifi made for a disappointing Cr-48 experience. I like the concept of a machine that is entirely cloud based. Flash memory means it boots in seconds and you log in with your Google account then basically just live in the browser. I liked the way that the Chrome OS automatically synced with my Chrome settings from my other computers, adding all my favourite extensions and remembering all my settings. Overall, I found the Cr-48 a little frustrating. While I can see a network-based machine would work for certain use cases, I think I’d find it far too limiting as my only computing device. Despite the fact that I had been really looking forward to trying the Cr-48, by mid morning I’d resorted back to my MacBook Pro (where, ironically, I still spent almost 100% of the rest of my day using nothing but Chrome Browser!)

Just before lunch we were given a tour through the Googleplex to see the fabled work environment at Google. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed in the building so I have no pictures to show, but I found it interesting that so much thought was given to the architecture of creating a whimsical, playful and personal space for people to work in. As well as the actual “work areas” of desks, computers and monitors, there were many hidden spaces for people to use to relax, chill out, get some private time, meet in small teams, think, meditate, and so on. From small little cubby holes where Googlers could lock themselves away to work in silence, to meeting places that looked like something out of a movie set, to whole rooms populated by indoor gardens and playful decor, there was something for everyone. It was not unusual to find quiet corners with large TV screens, couches and game consoles, to sleep tanks, to pool tables and foosball games. Unlike teachers, whose lives tend to be ruled by bells that ring every 55 minutes, it was good to see that people in the real world are free to manage themselves, work hard but find time to play, and be trusted to produce. It was good to see that Google’s famous “20% time” is alive and well here in the Sydney office.

The Googleplex struck me as a particularly pleasant working environment, where the workers were given both resources and trust to use them responsibly. I couldn’t help but imagine the same environment being used in a school, where students had their own places to work and meet and talk and play and produce. I’d love to see a school using this same architectural model of open space and interesting interior design, of playfulness and whimsy, of trust and productivity. It made me further realise what an enormous impact the physical design of a space can have on the learning/working environment.  The closest I’ve seen in education have been the Discovery and Unlimited schools in Christchurch, but providing a more Google-like environment for more schools would be a very interesting experiment.

We got to hear “Inspiring Ideas” from six teacher participants who were selected in advance to give a 5 minute presentation of some innovative ways they have been using Google tools with their students. I was lucky enough to be one of the six presenters, and although 5 minutes is not a long time to fully present an idea, it was fun to share something with the group and interesting to see what others have been up to.

Of course, the people were the real magic of the day. Although it was useful to experience the firehose of Google tools, there really wasn’t very much that I hadn’t seen before. Certainly spending time looking more closely at the tools was useful, but you could argue that a motivated person could learn all these things simply by playing with them and watching some YouTube how-to videos. Although the tools consumed a large part of the day, the real value was in connecting with some amazing teachers. Some of the best parts of the day were in the small group sessions, and especially during the optional half-day unconference session on Thursday, where we got to spend a little more time actually talking and sharing with each other. It was great to put faces to names, to meet people I’d only ever known online, and to meet new people I never knew before. The official dinner on Wednesday night, as well as the unofficial dinner I organised at BlackBird Cafe on Thursday night, was a great way to get to know the other participants, and I suspect that many future collaborations will emerge as a result of this whole event.

On the whole, it was a great experience, learning more about powerful tools we all use every day, seeing a bit of vision for how organisations can work, and connecting with other innovative and inspiring educators. Several people have asked me “was it worth it”, and my answer is definitely “yes!”

But that’s not to say it was perfect either. There were things I’d change about it if I had the power. The main one is that one day is simply not long enough. The teachers who were accepted into the GTA were all very  intelligent individuals with a demonstrated ability to learn and use these tools, so they were able to keep up with the fast pace. But I can’t help thinking how much more powerful the event would have been if we were given more time to unpack these tools more fully into our own educational contexts, to really think through what they can do for us and to share ideas for how to best leverage them. I mentioned this to the organisers and while they agreed in principal, their thinking was that we can go away after the event to do that. To some extent I see that as being a little back-to-front… we can learn more about the tools anytime, but we are only face-to-face with this group for a very short time. The better solution would be to have a longer event. Apple’s ADE Institute goes for 4 whole days and gets the participants sharing and collaborating on CBL projects together. Adobe’s AEL Summer Institute goes for 5 days and participants work together and learn from each other over that time. Our biggest complaint about schools is a crowded curriculum that doesn’t allow enough time for reflection and play. The GTA suffered the same problem.

One day for GTA is simply not long enough, and doesn’t do the program justice. Especially with it being held here in Sydney, with so many people traveling such a long way to get here, it seems a shame to have it all wrapped up in a day and half. I realise that there are budget constraints to these programs, but to really get value from them requires some time to take it in, think about it, ask questions, put ideas into action. Just like working at Google itself, the GTA would benefit from some 20% time.

Remember, the actual GTA is just one day. The extra half day unconference – which many people commented was the most valuable part – is optional, and wasn’t funded by Google. It was done voluntarily by the organising team (thank you!)

The problem with having to pack so much into such a short time is that it puts way more focus on the actual tools themselves, rather than the pedagogical uses of what can be done with the tools. A few people I met had a quiet grumble about the very tool-driven nature of the GTA, seeing it as being counter to what we say is important in education. Smart teachers have a mantra of “It’s not about the tools”, and yet we spent a full day focusing almost solely on the tools. This is not to suggest that all the tool talk wasn’t useful – it certainly was – but the short timeframe forced us into putting a lot of emphasis on the tools and not nearly enough on the pedagogy, and that’s unfortunate.

I also wanted to comment about the physical environment of the room we worked in. Again, I know there are always constraints when working in someone else’s space, but I was surprised to find the room set up with rows of tables all facing the front. Especially because there were parts of the day when we were working in teams, having the rooms set up like a traditional classroom with rows of desks and an obvious “front of the room” where people could deliver content, seemed counterproductive to the goals we say matter to us. If “21st century learning” is about teams and collaboration and discussion and flexibility, then it would have been good to be working in an environment that facilitated that more effectively. Putting desks in islands where teams could face each other, and physically creating a learning environment that represented the pedagogy we say is important would have been better. That might sound like I’m being overly critical, but if we can’t model these things at this kind of event, then where can we model it?

Overall, I very glad I was able to be part of the Sydney GTA. It was a great chance to be part of something special, and to join a global team of Google Certified Teachers who stay in regular contact online. It was great to meet people from all over the place, and to realise that no matter where we teach, we have a lot in common.

Special thanks to the GTA team of Mark Wagner, Lisa Thumann, Wendy Gorton, Danny Silva, Kern Kelley and Dana Nguyen. It was really good to meet you all, and I even got the chance to go hiking in the Blue Mountains with Mark, Lisa and Wendy before they headed back home.

I’m looking forward to doing some great stuff with all of this information and working with other GCTs over the coming years.