Google’s Classroom Gets Upgrades, Scrutiny

Associate Editor

Google recently released the first improvements to Classroom, its new software to help teachers using Google Apps for Education manage work flow in their classes, but not every school that uses Google has signed up for the free service.

Educators began using Classroom this school year for tasks like distributing and tracking assignments, initiating student discussions online, and organizing folders by student or class. In its announcement from last week, Google reported that 40 million teachers, students, and administrators are now using Google Apps for Education, a free productivity suite of tools that includes Gmail, Drive, and Docs. But some districts that use Google Apps have kept it turned “off” because educators already have a learning management system in place to handle the kinds of tasks that Classroom was created to tackle.

The five Classroom upgrades—more easily inviting students to groups; greater teacher controls; the ability to export all grades at once; offering a means to sort by first or last name; and adding an ability to update assignments’ status—are the first changes Google highlighted since the tool launched its beta version earlier this year.

The added grading functionality is in line with what learning management systems typically provide, said David Irwin, a managing partner of the K-12 education practice at Gartner Inc., an information-technology research and advisory firm. With the other features, like sorting by names and greater teacher controls, “it sounds like Google is listening to what schools/districts want, and making changes swiftly to address them,” he said in an email.

Classroom is an easy-to-use tool that “a lot of teachers have quickly adopted,” said Pete Just, the chief technology officer for the Wayne Township school district in Indianapolis, Ind. At a statewide “ed camp” he hosted this summer in Wayne, Classroom generated a lot of discussion, he said.

“It fits nicely with Google Apps for Education,” Just said, but it’s not a replacement for a learning management system. When teachers in his district say, “Classroom replaces what we were doing with our LMS,” Just said he interprets that as “we weren’t using the LMS.” Wayne uses MyBigCampus for learning management, and it is loaded with course content, he said.  

The Lower Merion Township, Pa., schools use Moodle as their LMS, and are running a pilot with Blackboard as the possible choice for future learning management, said George Frazier, the director of information systems.

Educators in Lower Merion can use Google’s productivity tools in Google Apps for Education, said Frazier, but he has not turned on Classroom, nor does the district allow access to the thousands of other apps, add-ons, and extensions.

“We’re taking the conservative approach,” he said, out of concern about what the privacy policies in all that non-Google software might allow. Classroom’s privacy policy would be covered under Google, he said, but he does not want to “turn on” a tool that could compete with whatever learning management system the district has in use.

For High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Ill., Classroom has not been introduced because Schoology is the district’s learning management system, which is integrated with the district’s student information system, and with Google Drive.  

“Teachers can do so much more with the rich features of the LMS,” said Keith A. Bockwoldt, the director of technology services.

Just said it might be premature to build heavily on Classroom. “Google tends to keep things in beta, which means they can take it away at some point,” he said.

A positive about Classroom is that it’s helping teachers go paperless if students are using devices to turn in assignments, he said.

Earlier this year, Google made headlines for its prior practice of scanning students’ and educators’ Gmail in the Apps suite. At the time of the original Classroom announcement, the company assured the education community that Classroom contains no ads and never uses schools’ content or student data for advertising purposes.

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