Saturday, January 17, 2015

Google Classroom--From Tinkering to Committing, and Reflecting

For about the last five years I've been fully committed to using Google applications with my students.  From Sites, to Docs, to Chrome, to Blogger, I've found the the Google ecosystem can work pretty well to support all different aspects of learning.  So, of course, when I caught wind of Google Classroom, I enlisted the help of my students to help me figure out if and how it could work.

Like with any new web tool, at first, I'm a tinkerer...and while each tool is different, there's a certain process that I'll typically go through.  I'll try it out myself, signed in as a student.  Then, maybe I'll have a student who finishes an assignment early try it out and report back to me.  And, depending how that goes, I'll determine the next steps to take.

With Google Classroom, the initially tinkering I did went pretty smoothly, but I continued with this tinker-er mindset a bit longer because, well, Google Classroom was more than a web tool that I may have students use to compose a project.  Classroom could be THE web tool that would connect just about everything else digital that students did in my classroom. This is a quite a commitment, and, after a couple of months of feeling it out, it's one that I'm happy to make.

I'd like to devote this post to writing a bit about why I'm sold on Google Classroom, as well share a little of my thinking about what it enables and constrains.

Prior to this year, I had been playing with the idea of shared folders in Drive for class assignments.  Creating and sharing folders for each class and different assignments where students could "turn-in" work.  This wasn't ideal for a classroom environment (for a few reasons that I'm not going to go in here), but I did like how it created a shared digital space for students' work that also took advantage of the features of Drive.  Google Classroom takes this organization method a bit further, making everything more tightly integrated. Assignments are easily distributed, progress is easily tracked and feedback is simple to give, and everything is stored in Drive.

Below are a few ways that Google Classroom has already changed things for me:

Type up an assignment on a Doc, and Classroom will make each
students a copy that gets stored in Drive and can be easily 
turned in when students are finished. 
  • Making the paperless workflow smoother. While I like the idea of using technology make much of the classroom paperless, most of what I've tried has felt disjointed for me (and for students as well, I'm sure).  I've struggled to find a simple and organized way to keep track of assignments, attach grades and meaningful feedback, and post resources.  Google Classroom has changed that, as it provided us a single space in  that allows for both posting and turning in multiple types of digital files. I can post assignment that contain resources from Drive, the web, or my computer.  I can make a handout in Docs, attach it to an assignment, and with one click have Classroom make a copy of that Doc for each individual student so they can type on it and turn it in when they are done (a cool turn in button appears on the top of the Doc!).  
    Classroom allows for multiple types of
    files to be attached and shared by the
    teacher, or turned
    in by students
  • Broadening students'  use of digital tools. What I especially like is that the work students' turn in is not limited to that created in Drive.  I can let students create a project using any digital tool they like, as Classroom also gives students' the option of turning in their work as a link. 
  • Increased flexibility.  A big part of the reason why I don't always have multiple assignments and projects going on in my room at once is that I just can't keep up.  Maybe it's because organization has never been my strong point, but it seems that whenever I let my learners lead me and have the tasks grow organically (something that I often do), I eventually find myself at a place where I'm not quite sure what's happening where, who is starting and who is finishing, which end is up, and which is down. Of course, I still put myself in this position from time to time anyway during the school year because this is when the best learning happens. But now, with Classroom, I can dive headfirst into the mix more often and let Google sort it all out. 

There is a lot more that Google could do to Classroom to make it function more like classroom network sites such as Schoology or Edmodo, but taking it too far in that direction would compromise it's greatest asset....simplicity.  Simplicity keeps the learning curve small for teachers and students, simplicity allows it to meet a wider array of teacher needs, and simplicity enables it to both stand on it's own or be integrated into a teachers existing digital hub.

I hope that Google decides to keep Classroom simple.  Of course, it will evolve in response to the needs of teachers and functionality of technology.  I've already sent them quite a few suggestions, a couple of which I've seen them quickly adopt. Below are a few others that I'd also like to see that I think could work while still maintaining the platform's simplicity.
  • Integration with forms.  I frequently use Google forms for class assignments (quizzes, surveys, exit tickets), but in classroom a form cannot be added from Drive as an assignment.  Rather, the form has to be added as a link.  This may not seem like a big deal (I didn't think that it was, at first), but it has caused quite a bit of confusion on the part of my students because when the open the form and complete it, the assignment is still marked as unfinished.  If I give an assignment as a Document, a button appears on the document that the student can press to turn it in, and when they do, the assignment is marked as turned-in on their Classroom dashboard.  It's a cool feature and it's what students are used to.  It would be even cooler if forms could be made to work this way too. 
  •  A customizable notification system. (connect to the idea of differentiation and flexibility discussed above).  I don't want my email inbox filled up with notifications of students turning in work.  That something that has annoyed the heck out of me with other teacher workflow tools.  But, in classroom, if a student turns in an assignment late, I have no way of knowing apart from the student telling me or going back and checking old assignments.  
  • Integration with add-ons and scripts.  I'm just now figuring out the beauty that is the world of add-ons and scripts in Docs.  For example, I use the Flubaroo script to instantly grade assignments that give through a Google Form, and currently I'm getting ready to try out Doctopus and Goobric to attach completed rubrics to students' work in Classroom (here is the tutorial that inspired me).  It's all really exciting technology, and it'd be even more exciting if Classroom were to integrate it within its ecosystem.
  •  An app  Before I could publish this post, this changed.  The Google Classroom apps are now available in iTunes and for Android.  Woot woot! I've got them both freshly downloaded and will be tinkering with them in class next week. 
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As I've mentioned at the start of this post, I'm sold on Google Classroom.  They've got a winner with it, and I'm sure that teachers will realize it.  In a lot of ways, it's what I've been searching for since the first post I published on this blog in '08 (really...it is....read it).