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Remote learning flourishes at Academies Enterprises Trust after upgrading to Workspace for Education Plus

Finding opportunity in the midst of the pandemic

Bringing together dozens of far-flung schools—large and small, rural and urban—under Academies Enterprise Trust presents many challenges. Several of the schools joining the trust have a history of under-performance, and one-third are in areas most affected by child poverty. The trust’s mission to improve the performance of these schools, with technology playing a key role. In 2011, the trust began its Google adoption journey, adopting Google Workspace for Education Fundamentals as the single system for email, document storage, and document collaboration for all schools. The trust added Google Classroom in 2014.

“For us, Google is the great equalizer,” says Richard Sparks, e-learning strategy manager for Academies Enterprise Trust. “Everyone knows how to use Google, so it’s an easy leap to make. It reduces the complexity for people who aren’t technical. It was the only platform that could scale with us if we added schools to the trust, without difficult implementation or high costs.”

In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures around the world, the trust’s IT leaders saw another opportunity to add Google tools that would help teaching and learning continue. With Google Workspace for Education Plus, Academies Enterprise Trust not only added new capabilities that fostered remote learning, but also positioned its schools to broaden access to education content in the future.

A few months into the pandemic, the trust took advantage of features available without cost for a limited time in Education Fundamentals, and eventually upgraded to Education Plus. The enhanced features in Google Meet, including the ability to record meetings and to stream video to larger numbers of viewers, played a key role in the trust’s decision to upgrade to Education Plus.

Google was the only platform that could scale with us if we added schools to the trust, without difficult implementation or high costs.

Richard Sparks, E-Learning Strategy Manager, Academies Enterprise Trust

In the early weeks of the pandemic and the closure of Academies Enterprise Trust’s schools, IT leaders’ most urgent need was more capabilities for connecting remotely. “We’d been using Meet for a few years already—primarily, with our administrators and people who conduct trust business,” says Sparks. “But it wasn’t really used for teaching and learning.”

Usage of Meet took off once everyone was relegated to working, teaching, and studying from home. With Education Plus, Academies Enterprise Trust is able to connect up to 250 people in virtual meetings, and livestream to as many as 100,000 within the trust’s domain. In addition, educators can record classes for reference, or make classes accessible to students who can’t attend live classes.

Karl Bernard, IT business partner for the trust, says administrators and teachers realized quickly that they could carry on managing the trust without the need to meet in person. “I work with 29 of our schools, with a few hundred miles between them,” Bernard explains. “Instead of spending nine hours on the road to meet with headteachers, it was easy to explain the benefit of using Meet for these meetings.”

More flexibility in content creation

For the trust, Meet has become a powerful content creation tool. “We’re creating our own library of what we call ‘Masterclasses’—that is, academic content that we share across the trust,” says Sparks. The recorded classes cover topics such as math, English, and science.

Before upgrading to Education Plus, the Masterclasses were produced by teachers using third-party video applications, which were usually more complicated to use. With Meet, the process of creating and recording Masterclasses is much easier. And by using new Meet features in Education Plus, like breakout rooms, polling, and quizzing, educators can also add more interactivity and engagement to lessons.

“Now we create more of our own content, and everyone is empowered to do so,” Sparks says. “We can keep everything within the Google ecosystem, and there’s no extra training required to learn how to record the classes.”

With Education Plus, the trust’s educators are branching out into creating live Masterclasses for more viewers. “We’d never been able to offer Masterclasses at this scale before,” Sparks says. “We love the efficiency of having all of these functions—meetings and classes, recording, and streaming—performed by the one tool.”

Better tools for IT management

The security built into Education Plus tools such as Meet—for example, the ability to restrict livestreams only to viewers within the trust’s domain—gives Sparks and Bernard greater peace of mind.

“From my point of view, a big part of what makes all of this possible is the security baked into Google products,” says Bernard. “Because we can trust Education Plus, more people have the confidence to take advantage of its new features. For example, teachers know that everyone attending a class is within the trust’s domain—they don’t have to worry about anyone attending from outside of our community.”

The reporting and data we can access in Education Plus is much more streamlined and intuitive—and that gives us a much more expansive view into use and performance of our services. It helps us suss out problems and strategize about how to make things work better.

Karl Bernard, IT business partner

Security isn’t the only IT benefit from the Education Plus upgrade. “In the past, much of our network analysis had to be done manually, using spreadsheets.

In the future, Bernard also hopes to tap into Education Plus analytics using BigQuery, including examining audit logs for Google Drive and Classroom. “Right now, I’m doing analysis in Google Sheets,” he says. “Access to BigQuery will make my job easier and faster.”

Lasting benefits from the pandemic response

As they look back on 2020, Sparks and Bernard are able to see some silver linings in what has been a challenging time for schools and students. “In particular, many more people are using Meet who might not have used it before,” says Sparks. “We think content creation with Meet has a lot of momentum behind it because people are feeling very empowered by how easy it is to use.”

The trust’s IT team is also hopeful that as schools are able to slowly resume normal operations post-pandemic, school administrators and educators will continue to adopt Education Plus features to work more efficiently and teach more creatively. “We see how we can make decisions quickly simply by starting a Meet,” Sparks says. “It’s the smart way to move projects forward.”

Sparks also anticipates growth of both the trust’s live lessons and its Masterclasses, as educators become more adept at using Meet’s live features and recording tools. “We want children to be able to learn more about a subject, no matter where in the country they’re located,” Sparks says. “Now we have the tools to push this plan forward.”

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