Google Cloud Results
Rapidly moving to secure and protected online learning
• Provides a comprehensive digital learning platform for dozens of schools and
3,600 students with Google Classroom
• Enables teachers to build up digital competencies in students with powerful communication and collaboration tools
• Strengthens and simplifies information security for teachers using two factor authentication with physical keys
Nestled amid the pine forests and lakes of west central Sweden, the Arvika Municipality is famous as a retreat for artists and musicians. Home to 26,000 people, the area is a sanctuary for those who want to live in a tight-knit community, close to nature. Perhaps surprisingly, Arvika is also at the forefront of innovation in Swedish education, forging the path for digital education environments.
“Our size is actually something of an advantage,” says Niklas Nord, ICT Strategist at the Arvika Municipality. “We have quite short chains of commands so we can move quickly and easily, once we’ve made a decision.” Nord is one of three ICT strategists employed by the municipality to work with the dozens of schools in the area, which employ approximately 1,000 teachers and educate around 3,600 students, ranging from toddlers in preschool to 20-year-olds in the upper-secondary stage.
Nord’s colleague, Mats Liljedahl, another ICT Strategist at the Arvika Municipality, says that in addition to managing the technology platforms, the strategists also have to look ahead and prepare the way for new technology: “A large part of our role is to prepare the organization for future changes. It’s like we have to gaze into a crystal ball.”
Developing a digital learning environment
“Google Workspace for Education is a true collaborative learning platform, rather than just an administrative tool for users. It adds an interactive quality to teaching and learning that we don’t see with other solutions.” - Mats Liljedahl, ICT Strategist, Arvika Municipality
It was in that spirit that the municipality began its journey with Google in 2008, when it deployed Gmail to replace the existing on-premises email solution in schools. School principals found Gmail to be a cost-effective solution that teachers could use intuitively without having to worry about running out of space or losing data.
The migration to Gmail was so successful that in 2009, the schools subsequently gave all of the students a Gmail account. Over time, both teachers and students began to experiment with other apps such as Google Docs and Google Drive for file sharing, especially after an initiative to give every student a tablet to work with. In 2015, however, the municipality replaced the tablets with Chromebooks for those aged 10 to 16-years-old, which accelerated the adoption of Google Workspace for Education.
“That was really the point at which things started to change for us,” says Nord. “The tablets were okay, but the Chromebooks were so intuitive and compatible with the Google apps that it was clear that this was the direction in which we needed to go.”
The municipality designed and built a three-level platform combining third-party specialist Learning Management Systems and the Google Workspace apps. At the base level sits the registry of all the students. On top of that is the administrative level, where teachers add and update student information such as grades. The final layer is Google Workspace for Education, which is the learning environment for teachers and students to work and collaborate in.
“Google Workspace for Education is a true collaborative learning platform, rather than just an administrative tool for users,” says Liljedahl. “It adds an interactive quality to teaching and learning that we don’t see with other solutions.”
The core of this learning platform is Google Classroom, which students use to organize themselves, carry out their work and collaborate with each other. “Google Classroom is the centrepiece of our learning platform, especially for the students,” says Nord. “It works as a single, centralized overlay for the students, where they can access assignments, reading materials and schedule their time, leaving them more time for learning and critical thinking.”
For teachers and administrative staff in the area’s schools, Gmail, Google Chat and Google Drive are vital tools for fast, effective communication and collaboration, as well as video conferencing tool Google Meet.
From high security to heightened security
“Using a USB key for two-factor authentication with Google Workspaces for Education is a huge improvement for security, it’s easy to use and the teachers’ and the municipality’s data is much safer now.” - Niklas Nord, ICT Strategist, Arvika Municipality
As a public education body safeguarding student and teacher data,, information security is of the utmost importance to the Arvika Municipality. The onset of the Europe-wide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, as well as Sweden’s own regulations, provided an opportunity for the ICT strategists to audit and enhance the municipality’s cloud-based learning platform to ensure it conforms to the highest security standards.
Perhaps, the simplest option would have been to firstly reduce the amount of data processed and stored and secondly not to use cloud-based learning tools, but that would have wiped out gains that the municipality had made with its digital learning environment. Besides which, the more the ICT strategy team learned about information security, the more it realized that the cloud could be an asset if used properly. “In local government at the time, there was a suspicion of cloud-based tools, based on ownership of data,” says Liljedahl. “But what we found was that using cloud technology properly could improve our security compared with a more traditional architecture.”
Enlisting the help of Google Cloud specialists Online Partner, the municipality began to look for ways to improve its already high standards of security while maintaining the technological gains it had made since deploying its cloud-powered learning platform. “Online Partner has been our official Google Workspace partner since 2017 and they’ve been invaluable in helping us to enhance our security,” says Nord. “We have regular meetings where we discuss all kinds of technical and legal issues. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”
The goal is for the municipality to not only enhance security around sensitive data, but also to simplify workflows and security protocols for teachers. For the ICT team, the latter point is crucial for the security initiative’s success. “We’ve tried to build an environment that takes us from a place of high security to one of heightened security, but it won’t work if it’s only for IT specialists or information security experts,” says Nord. “I often say that 10% of that has been technology, and the remaining 90% has been using change management to educate the teachers about it. We need teachers and other non-technical staff to be better equipped to protect the sensitive data they have access to.”
To that end, the municipality is in the process of implementing two major new protocols for its educators. Firstly, every teacher is given an extra secure Google Drive where they can store sensitive information and that only they have access to.
Secondly, teachers are now being issued with USB security keys for two-factor authentication. This dramatically reduces the chances of a security breach compared with a single layer of password protection, with the added bonus of being an intuitive tool for non-technical staff.
“Using a USB key for two-factor authentication with Google Workspaces for Education is a huge improvement for security, it’s so easy to use and the teachers’ and the municipality’s data is much safer now,” says Nord.
Building digital competencies for the future
“We’ve seen Google Workspace for Education become a catalyst for learning. We talk about quality in education, and that’s what we’ve experienced, especially around online communication and collaboration. It’s digital didactics!” - Niklas Nord, ICT Strategist, Arvika Municipality
For Nord and Liljedahl, the success of the learning platform boils down to one thing: how well it serves the students of Arvika. With Google Workspace for Education, they have built a cost-effective, secure environment in which students can learn everything that they would in a physical classroom, as well as build up the professional digital competencies around communication and collaboration that will help them later in life.
Perhaps the greatest test of the platform came in March 2020, when Sweden enacted lockdown measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to Google Workspace for Education, the two upper secondary schools of Arvika were able to transition from physical learning environments to a completely digital one in just 24 hours. In January 2021, thanks to Google Workspace for Education, the two schools with 13 to 16 year old students started partial distance learning. The results were as good as those achieved by the 16 to 20 year olds. This wasn’t just because of technology such as Google Meet and Google Classroom. It was also because teachers and students already knew how to work, communicate and collaborate effectively online.
From August 2021, with lockdown measures easing, teachers and students realized that there were some aspects of digital learning that improved on the physical experience, as well as replicating it. For instance, students found that taking ownership of their own schedule, rather than relying on whatever periods had been timetabled for them in classrooms, led to greater progress and understanding with subjects that they might have previously been struggling with.
“We’ve seen Google Workspace for Education become a catalyst for learning,” says Nord. “We talk about quality in education, and that’s what we’ve experienced, especially around online communication and collaboration. It’s digital didactics!”
While the Arvika Municipality continues to look for new ways of using Google Workspace For Education, the collaboration with Online Partner and the wider Google Workspace team has also led to closer relationships with other municipalities who are keen to learn more about bringing education to the cloud. “We’re working with a few other municipalities with an innovative ‘time bank’ model, where they actually buy time for us with Online Partner,” says Liljedahl. “In return, we share our results with them and give them guidance where they need it. They realize the potential, but we can help show them what worked for us and why, so they can implement their own digital learning platforms.”
*Google Workspace was formerly known as G Suite prior to Oct. 6, 2020.