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.

What's New in iTunes U 2.0

Today, Apple announced iTunes U 2.0. There are two major new features in this release of the app and I wanted to give you a run-down. In addition, my colleague Andrew Jewell sat in for Bradley on the Out of School podcast this week and joined me in a discussion of the new app.

Course Manager for iOS

The first major feature is that all the capabilities of iTunes U Course Manager on the web are now available inside the iTunes U app on iOS. I've wanted this since, oh, thirty seconds after I saw iTunes U 1.0 back in 2010, so it's great to have it.

In addition to writing and posting posts, the first new capability is that you can access your Camera Roll and upload photos and videos directly to your course. This is a huge win, given all the great content creation tools on iOS.

Not so long ago, Andrew and I were doing some iTunes U training with teachers in a local school. We showed them a few content creation tools, such as Explain Everything and it was all going swimmingly until we got to the bit where they had to upload these instructional videos to iTunes U. It was all easy import and export to the Camera Roll on iOS ... and then an amazingly convoluted step involving USB cables, Image Capture and Safari on the Mac. It was actually harder to upload the videos through the Mac than it was to create it on the iPad in the first place.

With iTunes U 2.0, those teachers would be able to just grab the video and upload it directly to their course in iTunes U.

The second thing you can do with uploading is to take files that you've created in various apps on iOS and use "Open In..." to upload them to your course. This is similar to the technique used to upload files to Google Drive, Dropbox or Showbie. Another huge timesaver for teachers.

The final improvement to Course Manager is the addition of "cross-store search". Simply put, this allows a teacher to search for a term and find all content relating to that term across all of Apple's store fronts: the App Store, iTunes Store, iBookstore and the iTunes U catalogue.

In short, you can create and edit all aspects of a course directly from your iPad now.

Class Discussions

The second major feature of iTunes U 2.0 is the ability to open up class discussions on any post in a course. The way I understand this works is that students can respond to any post in the course and the rest of the enrolled students and the teacher are notified of the discussion.

This isn't a submission and feedback channel. It's designed for discussion around the course posts that will be visible to all students.

I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on the new iTunes U when it ships on the 8th of July. These improvements - in particular, Course Manager on iOS - will make a huge difference to the way teachers work with iTunes U.

iOS 8 For Education

I've posted my initial thoughts on the implications of iOS 8 for education over at Macworld.

In short, I believe extensibility is the most important thing that Apple has added to iOS this year. Giving developers the ability to connect their apps together will have huge implications for the future growth of the platform.

I do have some reservations about things like iCloud Drive, so go read the article for the full story.

You Must Have an Answer

Regular readers of my blog, Twitter or podcast listeners will know that I'm a fan of Adam Greenfield's work. Perhaps, more precisely, I'm a fan of the way he thinks. We work in substantially different areas - I in education and he in urban studies - but I always find value in what he writes.

Adam recently posted a powerful essay on Bluetooth beacons and their implications. While I'm interested in beacons generally, I got the most out of the early part of his piece:

If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.

My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. ...

And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.

I feel similarly in my approach to technology. I'm not altogether interested in debating whether or how much technology should be used in schools. Like Greenfield, I recognise that technology is here to stay whether we like it or not.

Where I feel I converge with Greenfield, and why I get so much out of his writing, is that we both wish to argue for a more humane, more human-focused, more considered and thoughtful use of technology that empowers people rather than merely strengthening existing institutions.

The debate and the art here is not really about whether technology should be used in schools as much as whether and how specific technologies should be deployed for specific schools in specific areas.

If you've listened to our "Deploy 2014" podcast series on Out of School, you'll know that my approach all the way through has been to say this: the decisions you make and the solutions you propose to problems will be specific to your school ... but you must have an answer.

If you're going with iPad, you should be able to articulate exactly why. If you're not, you need similarly strong arguments. You need to be able to say what happens when it gets broken. You must know how to provision the right amount of network capacity, filtering, wifi and charging. What's the "right amount"? Well that depends on the situation.

Like Greenfield, I don't buy the line that all technology is great in school. The committed, enthusiastic and technically capable teacher can see the learning in anything but that doesn't mean it's going to serve the needs of the whole school community. At the same time, you must balance the best-tool-for-the-job argument against the costs of specifying, managing and working within a heterogeneous technological environment.

For more on this topic, I refer you to both the ongoing Deploy 2014 series on my podcast and specifically Episode 58: Against the Smart Classroom in which Bradley and I explore the parallels between Greenfield's book Against the Smart City with emerging "smart classroom" trends as embodied in technologies such as the Amplify tablet, Nearpod and "learning analytics".