GAFE: Personal Reflections

It is really no surprise to hear that the internet has changed the way we live and work in the realm of information science. Virtually anyone can create and publish information, new tools emerge on an incredibly rapid pace, and people of every level of expertise can locate credible information without a research consultation with a librarian. I think it is incredibly important for information professionals (aka Librarians) to be active participants in the communities in which we find ourselves. This means understanding how our fellow information detectives find and use information, and how that information is transmitted back into the community.

In academia, it is rare for a group of individuals to create new knowledge without publishing that information in some way. Typically, this takes the shape of formalized publications in journals which are recognized by the rest of the academic establishment. More and more, these publications are being augmented with data and supplemental material that is loaded on professional websites or within digital archives. By recognizing the most prolific authors and publications, information professionals can find and use the most authoritative published resources.

It has been quite interesting to take a step back from my participation in the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) community, to study GAFE as a formal information community. I realized that this community is a vital group of educators and professionals lierally from all around the world. Many of the participants are blazing a trail by utilizing a vendor provided cloud-based solution for their productivity needs. They not only discover new finds by “clicking around,” but they share that knowledge via websites, mail lists, conferences, informal meetings, and more. Google has recognized the value of these activities, and has worked to foster this cycle of discovery and information sharing. Not only was I able to learn more about the community in which I participate, but I learned a few new things about the tools I’ve used for years!

Put simply, information professionals can be more effective if/when we understand the communities in which we live and work. Not only does that allow us to understand how information is created, published, and shared, but it makes us more of a guide on the adventure that is research.


A Community of Explorers

For many educators, GAFE is a doorway into emerging technology. Here are just a few examples:

  • Google Drive and cloud computing
  • YouTube and shared video
  • Google Docs and collaborative editing in real-time
  • Google Hangouts and web conferencing
  • Google Sites and wiki-type editing of web content

The list could go on… One of the reasons the GAFE community continues to thrive is that new features and functionality are regularly released. The community becomes a source of information about the new and cool tools that are available.

For this week’s post, I interviewed an educator who both uses Google Apps and coordinates professional development for her site (and district). She echoed the need to have curated information about new releases from information technology professionals.

On a number of occasions, this educator has stumbled upon a new feature in Google Apps. Her nearly immediate response was to share the find with colleagues, and chat about ways this new bell and whistle might be used. This type of sharing is the quintessential feature of an information community!

One of the points she made is that instructors are less likely to use a tool in an instructional setting if they are not completely comfortable with the tool. An interesting idea she shared was to establish a regular exploratory session, where information professionals are on hand to “play” with the emerging technology. This might take the shape of an information faire, where there are no formalized presentations, but stations setup around a bustling room. Educators could vist booths and actually experiment with the new tools.

It is interesting to note that what one person considers an emergent technology is another person’s regular productivity tool. I personally think this is the beauty of an information community. By sharing the results of the inner explorer in all of us, the community can blaze many more trails than we each travel individually.

History of Google

OK, admittedly, I’m learning a lot about Google, and the information community around Google Apps for Education (GAFE). I hope you’re finding the information I’ve presented interesting as well!

Here’s a very cool site for the history buff in all of us. This is the official “in depth” history of Google!

Anyone even remember search engines before 1997? Maybe Lycos or Alta Vista? It’s pretty amazing how far things have progressed in such a relatively short period of time…

Google Support for Special Populations and Multiculturalism

The diversity of the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) community is very much prescribed by the diversity of schools and universities that utilize GAFE. To frame this in a very simplistic model, GAFE provides access to a wide range of free tools for schools, but to use those tools students must have access to computing devices. This double-edged sword absolutely impacts the makeup of the GAFE community.

For this discussion, I would like to focus on some of the ways GAFE enables communication and collaboration amongst a variety of communities. First, did you know that you can begin a document in English, then use Tools > Translate Document… to create a new copy of the document in a different language? This type of translation, while not always perfect, can help English language learners with the sometimes complex construction of English documents. It can also enable collaboration amongst communities that speak different languages!

I would also like to mention the captioning capabilities of YouTube. Because most of us use the captions as an “added tool,” we don’t always think of those student who might rely on the captioning.

The Ethics of Gmail Scanning

There is something to be said for technology that works so well and makes us so efficient that we often forget about the system entirely. The evolution to this environment is a natural progression (see the Gartner Hype Cycle). However, this can become dangerous with technology, where the underlying systems mature and change, even as the user-experience is only slightly enhanced. I think this is often the joint at which ethical issues can arise in unexpected ways.

Life in the United States has changed dramatically in the course of just over a decade. Not only have technological advanced propelled us into a more connected and data-intense society, but we continue to become aware of the ‘surveillance society.’ In April, 2014, the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) community learned that student, instructor and staff GMail messages were being scanned by Google. The ethical implications were immediately noted by GAFE members. One of the major benefits of GAFE is that ads are removed from GMail, and many members of the community assumed this meant that email messages were not scanned (this is the technology that helps Google identify which ads to present to users). The GAFE community reacted swiftly – articles appeared in the popular media, universities and colleges began to discuss the implications, and GAFE members reached out directly to Google for confirmation and to express concern.

In less than a month, Google responded to the issue by officially, and permanently “removing all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education.” They also scheduled an openly available hangout on air, where educators could see prepared remarks and answer questions. Additionally, a complete website dedicated to student privacy in Google Apps for Education was developed.

The reaction to Google’s official response was largely positive, but there were a number of unanswered questions. The company indicated that student data would not be collected or used for advertising purposes – but this does not mean that the data would not be collected or used for other purposes (anyone heard of Scroogled?).

The library community continues to confront issues surrounding surveillance and profiling based on user activity. In many cases, the library response has been to expunge analytics. After all, if the information does not exist, it can’t be used. You have to wonder if Google would ever consider this type of strategy. We all trust Google with a significant amount of information – search patterns, original documents, email communications, geographic location, and so much more. You can’t help but think of some of the ethical implications.


Bout, B. (2014, April 30). Protecting Students with Google Apps for Education [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Don’t Get Scroogled! (2014). Retrieved from

Google for Education. (2014). Retrieved from

Hype Cycle Research Methodology. (2014). Retrieved from

GAFE Perception of Information Services

“Google products just work – and they’re easy to use.”

This is the perception of many people in the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) community. In many cases, the streamlined design and user experience make it very easy to learn how to use the tools and services. As one member of the community indicated, if you can’t immediately figure out how to do something, you can google it and find an answer almost immediately.

For the most part, the GAFE community does not use formalized library resources. I believe there are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the rapid nature of updates to Google products. In the time it take an article to go through the publication process, the functionality of the Google product will likely have been updated. A second explanation is the self-perpetuating corps of Google experts and teachers. This ever-growing group of individuals is provided with training and insider information, in exchange for agreeing to provide information to the community. For example, Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers is a Google Certified Teacher that regularly provides information about the use of and innovation with Google products.

Many different types of participants create their own information resources. Teachers provide blogs and instructions for other teachers (many using Google products like YouTube, Sites or Google+). System administrators utilize mailing lists to provide information about updates and issues (again, using a Google Group). Even students share information about interesting and efficient uses of Google through the Google Student Ambassador Program.

A vast majority of these resources and activities circumvent formalized library resources, in favor of publication to the web.

Oftentimes, Google is referenced as the ultimate example of a great user experience. For example, the search engine satisfies all five of the signs of a great user experience: elegant UI, addictive, fast start, seamless, and it changes you (MacManus, 2012). In creating and updating their applications, Google frequently removes clutter, and focuses like a laser on the critical functionality (Schmidt, 2011). The company frequently reaches out to the community for input though focus groups, surveys, A/B testing (Schmidt, 2010). Ultimately, throughout its history, Google has built up a deep reservoir of good will, and it is keenly aware of the need to build and not deplete that reservoir (Schmidt, 2013).


Byrne, R. (n.d.) Free Technology for Teachers. [Web log] Retrieved from

Google for Education: Student Ambassador Program. (2014, October 11). Retrieved from

MacManus, R. (2012, January 29). 5 signs of a great user experience [Web log post]. readwrite. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A. (2010, March 1). Learn by asking [Web log post]. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A. (2011, January 15). The benefits of less [Web log post]. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A. (2013, April 3). Putting the “you” in UX | the user experience [Web log post]. Library Journal. Retrieved from

GAFE Information Seeking Patterns

When you aren’t sure about how to do something, or you’re looking for a piece of factual information, what do you typically do? If you’re like most of the world, you turn to Google. We all became used to searching for information using Google. The user interface was impressively simple, elegant, and efficient! It should come as no surprise that these initial successes were only the beginning for Google. Beginning in 2006, the company grew into web-based productivity tools called “Google Apps.”

For nearly a decade, information consumers have taken advantage of both the search engine and productivity power of Google. The apps have evolved into a full suite of services, which include email, file storage, word processing, data collection and analysis, presentations, video publication, website hosting, calendaring and more. Google continues to add features and functionality, and it has fostered a community of educational users called Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

At its core, Google was developed as a search utility. The information seeking patterns of members of GAFE involve a unique combination of Google, community-based resources, and (on a more limited scale) academic publications. Different types of members of the community also tend to use different information searching methods.

Information needs from community members tend to be very practical. They are asking questions like ‘How do I…’ or ‘What is this feature?’ or ‘Can I do…’. Most of the information seeking practices tend to fall into a sense-making approach. The need arises because there is a gap between a person’s understanding and the situation at hand. (Savolainen, 2009)

Example from interview
A system administrator recently sought to understand what a typical user would see when presented with a specific scenario. S/He knew how the system had been configured, but was not sure what a non-administrator would experience. S/He engaged in collaborative interactive activity, which were not specifically oriented toward information. (Burnett, 2000)

A majority of the information practices could be described as active seeking or active scanning. Individuals tend to find resources they find helpful, and they return to those sources when confronted with a specific question. (Savolainen, 2009)

Example from interview
A technical trainer shared how s/he discovered a very useful website that contained videos and tutorials for all level of tasks in Google Apps (i.e. introductory, regular, and advanced). The videos were very easy to use, and s/he was able to find the information when it was needed. When confronted with new questions, the technical trainer typically started the information search on this informative website.

In some cases, GAFE community members are interested in new developments and basic information. They want to consume the information, but not contribute to the ongoing discussion. There are a large number of these type of “lurkers” on the GAFE email listserv and community web interface. (Burnett, 2000)

The type of search that is conducted also varies depending on the information need. For example, if the need is the answer to a very specific question, then individuals tend to conduct fast surfing. When seeking to identify the possible uses of Google Apps, GAFE members tend to conduct broad scanning. However, when an individual is trying to set something up or resolve a technical issue, they tend to conduct a deep dive. (Heinström, 2005)

Example from interview
An instructor was recently exploring the possibility of using Google Apps in his/her course. S/He had conducted a variety of internet searches to see how others had used the system. S/He also contacted colleagues and spoke to computing support personnel to talk about possible uses of GAFE. This type of information seeking could be considered broad scanning, but it lead to a deep dive when s/he was ready to actually develop curricula and activities.

As an additional example, some information seekers want to identify case studies and the results of pedagogical research surrounding GAFE. Many times, individuals in this scenario play the role of consultant or instructional designer. They are looking to build on the experiences and expertise of early adopters in a way that minimizes technical / pedagogical issues and maximizes return on investment. These individuals tend to search in article databases and academic sources for information relevant to a specific scenario. (Erdelez, 1999)

It is intriguing to watch people seek out information on a suite of tools that was built by an organization that began as a search utility. The instinctual method for seeking out information tends to be that underlying search interface, more than library interfaces. In this case, the information that is sought is much closer to the point of creation in the information cycle. Most GAFE community members are not looking for peer-reviewed articles, they are looking for blog posts, FAQs, help documents from Google, or discussion board posts that seem to be endorsed by at least one other information seeker.

Burnett, G. (2000). Information exchange in virtual communities: A typology.  Information Research, 5(4). Retrieved September 7, 2014, from .

Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3).

Heinström, J. (2005). Fast surfing, broad scanning and deep diving: The influence of personality and study approach on students’ information-seeking behavior. Journal of Documentation, 61(2).  Retrieved from

Savolainen, R. (2009). Everyday life information seeking. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences. .