The first e-learning platform I ever encountered was the Open Source project ‘Moodle’, which had been used for the University of Oxford’s undergraduate and professional training courses. However, when we tried to install and use Moodle for my college, we found it to be somehow cumbersome to install and difficult to administrate, a trade-off for its massive customizability. Moodle as a free, Open-Source product provides a highly flexible and useful e-learning platform, but requires an intense learning curve for administrators and lecturers alike. It reminded me in this regard of the Open-Source OS Linux.
Above: Moodle is a free, fully-developed and highly customizable e-learning platform (click to enlarge)
My second brush with online platforms was during my Master studies with the ‘Blackboard‘ Virtual Classroom, employed by the University of Liverpool in combination with Laureate Lens, developed by Laureate Education. Both packages are fused into a coherent and polished high-end GUI. It is one of the best solutions I have seen so far, but Blackboard requires a sizable financial commitment which not every school is ready to make. The same is true for Adobe Connect Learning, a well-developed live platform that I was introduced to during my e-tutoring training with Oxford University. When I heard about the Google Classroom I got excited. What I was looking for was a workable out-of-the-box virtual classroom, something more tangible and less time-consuming than Moodle.
What it is – In a Nutshell
The Google Classroom is an online platform that allows educators to post assignments, questions and teaching materials online, while students can submit their work in digital form and discuss their projects. The main interface between teachers and students is a stream of posted messages. Teachers can easily check which assignments have been handed in and they can correct papers using Google documents.
Getting Started within the Google World
The reason why the Google classroom is relatively easy to set up is simple: the classroom runs externally on Google servers, works via Gmail Login and is using Google Apps. It is googely all the way, so a familiarization with the basics of Google Apps is definitely a prerequisite. Students cannot use their own emails at this stage to interact with the classroom as all operations run via a customized, central URL at ‘your-domain-name.com’, which needs to be registered at a reasonable 10 Euro fee for the annual domain registration.
The Google Classroom is not a freely available application since only verified education providers qualify. Once the classroom is set up, a Google support manager is assigned to one’s case, which I found to be a great service and saving considerable time when ironing out teething problems.
Screenshot above: Creating classes and navigating between them is fairly intuitive. On the left we see the navigation bar that allows jumping to any other class quickly
Benefits and Stumbling Blocks
Student Registration and Benefits: Although advertised as being easy to apply via three different methods, is still a fair bit tricky and buggy. To start, students need to be registered as active users via the Administrator Panel, and also need to be listed as Contacts and/or registered via Google Groups. The latter I found useful since groups can be set up that match classes, making student invitations to classes easier. On my wish list would be a one-stop registration process as the current process can become tedious when student numbers become larger. Benefits for the lecturer are to be able to manage students via a centralized platform, keeping track of students’ assignments and fairly efficient grading. Students find their learning materials in a single place and they can communicate with colleagues about their ongoing projects via various communication channels. To me the biggest benefit is improved student-lecturer communication. There is, important to mention, of course no advertising in the virtual classroom. Attractive to digital natives is that student can log into the classroom via mobile apps to check for lecturers’ feedback, posting of new assignments and reminders of deadlines.
Functionality: The GUI looks polished and uncluttered and Google’s designers have done a great job in keeping things simple. The Google classroom looks beautiful. It offers the easy creation of courses, registration of students, posting of announcements and assignments, facilitation of streamed conversations and grading. Data and archived classrooms are stored on Google Drive. For close to no money, this is a considerable package.
Yet, there are some functions that I am dearly missing. In the ‘stream’ where students and lecturers post their messages it is e.g., not possible to attach documents, such as in MS-Word format, in reply to an initial post. For example, students who post an essay cannot get a corrected copy from their lecturer in the same thread, which is awkward. Only the first post allows for attachments, so the lecturer has to start a new thread to post the corrected version, which gets messy when serving an entire class. Future integration to plagiarism checkers such as Turnitin or writing support platforms such as Grammarly would be directions to extend audiences.
Above: (a) Any file-type, including video, can be posted in the stream as attachments to initial posts, (b) typical invitation list of students: the two students on top (light blue) have not logged in yet which is clearly indicated, (c) the home page gives a clear overview of all classes.
Announcements to the Class and Wish-List for Improvements: Lecturers can create and post announcements and questions easily within the stream. Eventually, like in a Facebook post, any important, overarching notification drifts further and further away as the stream grows and progresses. What I’d like to see in the future are permanent announcements that are not part of the stream and that can be set aside, such as general course-information, a detailed overview of the subject, a navigation guide for beginners or any recent notice to the entire class. The current ‘About’ tab (‘About the class’)is not sufficient and visible enough to signal students.
Fixing the three basic issues mentioned above (1. Easier student registration, 2. Enabling attachments to subsequent posts and 3. Offering permanent notifications to a class) would be on top of my wish list. I hope someone at Google is listening.
Online corrections of students’ academic assignments have the great advantage that they can be carried out far more detailed as compared to paper- assignments, especially when using review-comment functions. Detailed feedback to students is a huge argument for e-learning and also for Google’s classroom in this context. Google Classroom is using Google Documents for the commenting on and returning of students’ assignments. Note that when you save Google Documents as MS Word format, annotations and comments are translated adequately and they appear exactly as in an original MS Word review (see below). Advantages of the Google Documents application is that it allows for collaborative multi-user access to a single document and automatic cloud-backup. Disadvantage of the Google Document application is that it only works in a browser and online, Google Documents is not working offline. Editing options are not yet as refined as in MS Word. Consequentially, users may switch back and forth between formats.
Catering to Digital Natives: It took little time for my students to become friends with the Google classroom applications for mobile phones (for Android and iOS) that allow for immediate classroom access. The applications support the behavioral pattern of digital natives – quick access via mobile phones is a tremendous motivation for students to participate more regularly. Students can check quickly when assignments are due; they have instant access to learning materials and can communicate effortlessly with fellow students about their projects – Google Hangouts (supporting messaging, voice-calls and multi-user video conferencing) included.
Above: Student submission page – the lecturer knows exactly how many assignments have been turned in and by whom, allowing for the returning of and commenting on students’ work.
Conclusion: A convenient and useful tool in addition to existing face-to-face classrooms, but no stand-alone e-learning platform
I am using the Google classroom currently as a complementary tool to face-to-face, ‘analogue’ classrooms. The Google classroom is not a stand-alone e-learning platform. Users who know Moodle or Blackboard and who have become accustomed to setting up classes in orderly weekly cycles, the segmented posting of learning resources and a differentiated streaming service (inclusive of a message editor) may find these missing features a deal-breaker to employ the Google classroom. The Google classroom is definitely sophisticated enough to be used as a supporting learning tool. It is also user-friendly enough to be employed by most lecturers without demanding a steep learning curve. Latest features are publicized by Google.
Besides, we should not forget that the more we conduct classes online, the more our e-tutoring skills need to keep up with technology. Staff training is required. The tricky question for Google is to decide which age-group the Google classroom should serve as the product matures. One size does not fit all. On undergraduate level, the Google classroom seems ideal, especially for blended learning. On graduate level that requires tools for more self-directed learners and subsequently more advanced functionality (the ‘constructivist classroom‘ as guiding philosophy here), the Google classroom will definitely require more development and diversification. A last issue is privacy and liability issues in case of data loss. Institutions of Higher Learning may want to be in full charge of their data and therefore host platforms on their own servers.
Given that students have become accustomed to working online, the Google classroom provides a powerful support for face-to-face classes. For very little investment, the Google classroom is an ideal partner for blended learning and flipped classrooms. Reading the fine-print in Googles introduction pages, Google has never promised a fully working e-learning platform. Given modern teaching environments, the actual question for educators is how much more tedious and uncoordinated course-management gets by not going partially digital. School and college managers also need to take into account that administrating an online classroom requires additional time and work from staff, it is not a shiny new tool that comes entirely for free.