A First Look at Google Classroom

I recently gained access to the first version of Google Classroom, Google's classroom management system for schools.

The obvious comparison in my mind is the comparison with iTunes U as the other first-party classroom management platform. It's interesting to look at where both of these platforms are today.

Obviously iTunes U is a far more mature product, having had nearly three years in production to gain all of its refinements. Google Classroom is a brand new 1.0 product, so bear that in mind as we go through this.

The Common Stuff

Both platforms do the student management stuff similarly: have students enter a random course code to be added to the class. This is by now pretty standard stuff in edu platforms.

Google Classroom allows the teacher to add people to the course but, strangely, only by picking from your Gmail contacts or previous correspondents. There's no way to upload, say, a CSV of class IDs. iTunes U doesn't have any way for a teacher to add people; it has to be done by self-enrolment.

Both platforms allow teachers to share materials with students. iTunes U requires the teacher to upload from their local storage into a "materials" space in iTunes U. Google Classroom allows upload but also picking from the teacher's Google Drive or searching YouTube. Both platforms support attaching URLs to assignments.

Google Classroom doesn't have any way of attaching materials to a class without attaching them to an assignment. In iTunes U, you can add materials to a course for students to access without making that item an assignment. iTunes U only allows you to attach one item per assignment whereas Google Classroom allows multiple. This is a really nice feature.

iTunes U has tight integration with eBooks through its connection to iBooks. Books are treated as a distinct upload type and gain some special features, such as two-way notes and highlights sync with iBooks. Classroom doesn't appear to do anything special with eBooks at all.

The Learning Model

The way that iTunes U and Google Classroom put their parts together is very interesting. They're actually quite contrasting approaches to the problem of "learning management" (which is a hateful term but at least broadly understood).

iTunes U is built around the idea of a "course". A course contains an outline, posts, notes and materials. The posts are attached to one of the top-level items in the course outline. This is a reasonable way to structure things but can sometimes be over-structured for some of the more ... ah ... fluid teaching approaches I have seen in action.

Google Classroom is much more focused on the assignment as the basic unit of education (helloooo America!). The class is essentially a stream of "announcements" and "assignments" in reverse-chronological order. It's difficult to see how you could use Google Classroom to deliver a substantial amount of structured learning content, the way you can do in iTunes U. Again, this feels US-centric to me: the course material will inevitably be in the textbook, so why bother putting it into Classroom?

Assignment Workflow

iTunes U has never done anything to help a teacher manage the process of digital hand-in, grading and return of assignments. Google Classroom takes up this challenge and leverages Google Docs for much of the interesting bits of it.

When the teacher attaches a Google Doc from their Drive to an assignment, they can choose three options: "Students can view file", "Students can edit file" and "Make a copy for each student". iTunes U, being based on a download model, defaults to "Make a copy for each student" always.

From the student's point of view, the assignment submission workflow is - to my eyes - a little complex. The complexity starts when the "Turn In" button on Google Docs that Google's preview video showed only appears in documents that you have been given by a teacher through an assignment, or that you created from the "Create file" button in Google Classroom. There's no general way to "turn in" an arbitrary Google Drive document directly from the editing interface.

In most cases, though, it seems that the idea is that you use the Google Classroom interface to pick a file (or multiple files) to turn in for an assignment, either from your Google Drive or via upload.

The only support for marking a document that Classroom supports is the standard Google Docs mechanisms of shared editing and comments or edit suggestions. No harm in that; they're powerful tools. It's just that, if the upload is a PDF, photo or video, you'll need to find some other tool to annotate the document.

The teacher can give a numeric grade in the Google Classroom interface and this grade is reflected back to the student in their "Assignment" tab. It's possible to attach comments to all of these: a comment on submission, a comment on the grade being returned and so on. This is quite a nice touch and similar to existing systems like Showbie.

Working with iOS

(At the time of writing, I'm not actually able to log into Google Classroom in Safari on my iPad, so this is a guess at how things will work.)

The interface to Classroom is entirely web based, and it appears to be fully functional within the constraints of Safari on iOS. The big limitation is probably that uploading things is tricky.

I assume that using the Google Drive app on iOS, you'll be able to put files into Drive from various apps and, later, select that file to turn in for an assignment. That's a lot less elegant than hitting a "Turn In" button and, with that amount of file handling involved, a bigger opportunity for students to "lose" a file.

I'm also assuming that the Google Docs and Sheets iOS apps don't know about "Turn In" via Classroom but they might get that ability in a later update. It's not clear to me how Docs knows when to show that button or what makes a given Docs file "Turn In-able".

Living with Classroom

There are a few features that iTunes U has gained over the years that Google Classroom currently lacks which might make it a little difficult to live with in real-world situations right now. These features mostly relate to supporting the way that schools and teachers organise themselves.

Classes are often taught by more than one teacher. iTunes U allows two teachers to share a class and edit it together. Currently, Google Classroom only allows one account to own a class.

Teachers change over the course of a school year. iTunes U allows a teacher to transfer ownership of a course to another teacher. This capability is not currently present in Google Classroom.

iTunes U also supports sharing courses. That is, making a duplicate copy of a course and sending that to another teacher. This feature might not be so important for Google Classroom, given its greater focus on managing assignments. In iTunes U, this feature allows one teacher to write a whole course and then give it to a team of teachers to teach to separate classes.

Conclusions

Google Classroom is clearly very much a 1.0 product while iTunes U has been through a few years of actual use in the field. I don't believe the comparison is unfair, though. My EdTech philosophy is that you have to evaluate what's right in front of you at the time you deploy without making assumptions about what a product might become in the future.

I've tried to tease out where the heart of Google Classroom lies. My initial reaction was to categorise it as "Google's iTunes U" but it really is not. It's more like "Google's Showbie".

Classroom definitely needs work and needs refinement, but it is a promising system if you're looking at something that's Google Drive native. The file handling for assignment hand-in was initially confusing but it's a workflow that students will learn without too much trouble. It's probably too fiddly on iOS right now - Showbie is a much better option for iOS-centric deployments.

I don't know who runs Google's education initiatives but it's clear to me that they are a super-pragmatist. Between Chromebooks, Drive and Classroom, they're building a system to very closely service the needs of exactly what schools do right now. They're on course to deservedly take a big bite out of the "Windows laptop you use to type reports on" use case that many schools still see as the primary use for computers in the classroom.

Microsoft should be very worried.