Contrary to popular perception, faculty are not reflexively opposed to online learning. In a recent survey of 3,500 postsecondary faculty and administrators, Tyton Partners found that a majority of faculty—63 percent—valued the potential impact of courseware.
The trouble is, they lack the time and training to pursue it. The solution isn't another learning management system (LMS). Educators need an easy onramp to blended learning that leverages the tools and repositories they already use. Google might have the answer.
Google G Suite for Education is already a fixture in K-12 and higher education. According to Google, 70 million students and teachers rely upon the online suite—half of all primary and secondary students in the US and more than 800 colleges and universities, as of last spring. Increasingly, Google's tools are the tools of education, as noted by the New York Times.
Google Classroom, which the company brands as "mission control" for G Suite, serves as a gateway to that popular suite. Classroom is no rival to a traditional LMS. However, by prioritizing simplicity and collaboration, it could serve as a bridge between classrooms and the technological infrastructure that administrators use to measure student learning.
Compared to established systems like Blackboard (founded in 1997) and D2L (1999), Google Classroom is a toddler. This August will mark the product's third anniversary, and it's growing up fast. Last month, for example, Google added the ability to invite students and co-teachers using Google Groups.
When the product is enabled by an administrator, educators can create electronic extensions to classes with just a few clicks. Instructors can share announcements with YouTube links, create assignments that leverage Google Forms, and share and annotate Google Docs. For their part, students can access classes on any device—desktop, smartphone, tablet, or Chromebook—using the same credentials they use for G Suite.
While some enterprising educators have found ways to pilot online classes through Google Classroom, it's designed to support traditional in-person classes. I don't regard this as a limitation. As I've noted before, there are often tradeoffs to taking classes online, whereas most research suggests that flipped classes—especially pre-class activities—promote active learning and improve educational outcomes.
Google Classroom makes it easy—exceedingly easy—for educators to flip classes, or at least to channel some learning through a digital environment. It's a welcome addition for any educator who uses G Suite for Education. In fact, now that Google has made Classroom available for personal accounts, it's a welcome addition for any educator who uses G Suite.
Google Classroom's primary virtue is that it lowers the barriers to experimenting with technology-enabled instruction.
Alice Keeler, who wrote the book on Classroom, trumpets its simplicity. "The genius of Classroom is that it's so simple," she said. "If you've sent an email, this is for you. I can get someone up and started, collecting assignments, in less than five minutes."
Google Classroom leverages the materials instructors have already loaded into Google Drive. That is, where an instructor would have to manually upload a syllabus into Canvas or Moodle, she can simply select it from Drive for use in Classroom.
When I spoke with Erin Horne, assistant director of professional education who co-initiated the Google Classroom pilot program at NC State University, she praised the product's interconnection with G Suite.
"Google Classroom worked well with all of the tools I was already using," said Horne. "From an instructor standpoint, Classroom makes it very easy for me to facilitate that collaboration. As opposed to creating one document and sending it around, with Classroom I can see the whole process and give them feedback throughout that process, as opposed to treating their work as this final product that they submitted to me."
Google Classroom is also more conducive to process-oriented assignments than a traditional LMS.
Bethany Smith, associate director of instructional technology training, who co-initiated the NC State pilot with Horne, said Classroom is well-suited to the project-based learning that occurs in education departments. "Every assessment is a project that needs to be turned in," explained Smith. "For example, students develop a lesson plan over the course of the semester."
With Google Docs, instructors can annotate lesson plans before students enter classrooms, and students can tag instructors with comments. Should they need to discuss an assignment in real-time, students and instructors are only a tab away from the rest of G Suite.
"From a teaching standpoint, the greatest benefit of using Google Classroom over the other learning management systems that I have used is the opportunity for collaboration between students as well as collaboration with me as the instructor," explained Horne.
None of these collaborative features is unique to Classroom per se. For example, Moodle supports chat, videoconferencing, document versioning, and peer review. Google Classroom benefits from widespread familiarity with G Suite. There's a reason Schoology and Edmodo have opted for interfaces similar to that of Facebook: the best tools are the ones that we already know how to use.
Scaling Up and Out
That Google Classroom extends G Suite doesn't make it a capable course-management or learning-management system. Faculty and administrators agreed that the platform would benefit from additional assessments, discussion forums, and a full-fledged gradebook that could calculate student grades based upon assignments completed.
Nevertheless, in some instances, limitations could break bad habits. Consider course duplication. While duplicating a course may expedite setup, it doesn't always serve the interests of students.
"I think one of the best things about Google Classroom is that you can't reuse the whole class," said Keeler. "You can't just duplicate all of your assignments because every time you reuse an assignment, you should think for a second about whether it's good for your students. It forces me to be a lot more reflective and adaptive to student needs when I have to reuse materials one at a time."
In other instance, educators have improvised solutions. Smith noted that instructors can create groups assignments using their Classroom roster with add-ons Doctopus and Goobric. Others have used Google Forms to create self-grading multiple-choice assessments, as described here. But there are limits to the extent to which educators can scale up Google Classroom.
While Google has released an API to support third-party integrations, those integrations tend to be manual in nature. For example, developers have created tools (e.g. rosterSync) through which educators and administrators may sync class rosters using a CSV file. But let's clear: an API will not enable large-scale adoption at institutions that rely upon automation. There's a reason that large universities such as NC State have constrained adoption to pilot programs: they're waiting for the tools that will automate the creation of courses and collection of student data.
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"Google Classroom isn't going to replace our LMS," said Smith. "What I would personally love is for our LMS to integrate with Google Classroom, so we could use Moodle Modules to create Google Classroom assignments."
That sentiment was echoed by Stan Martin, director of Outreach, Communications and Consulting at the university's Office of Information Technology: "I don't think our Learning Technology group sees it as a replacement for our current LMS, but they want to be able to leverage some of its functionality for the group work."
Google ought to acknowledge those institutional investments and interoperate with existing learning-management and student-information systems via the Learning Tools Interoperability standard. When it comes to higher education, integration isn't optional. (As it stands, most administrators aren't eager to support a second LMS.) However, if Google can address those administrative concerns, Classroom could provide a bridge between the students and faculty who already work in G Suite for Education and administrators who use LMSs to collect, manage, and report student data.