Monday, December 8, 2014

Google Classroom: Top 5 Fixes I'd like to see before I sign up for a second semester

This semester, I took on a new role as director of instructional technology just as google released a new tool: google classroom. Given how thoroughly google-dependent our school already is, I thought it was a natural fit and signed myself and my students up for a semester of piloting google classroom. Here's what I've found.

Google Classroom is close to being great. When I compare the user interface of google classroom to the user interface of our school's online gradebook, it's an object lesson in UI design. Where our gradebook is byzantine, slow, and opaque, Google classroom is simple, smooth, and clear.

That said, google classroom gets details wrong, and it gets them wrong in ways that matter. More importantly, for reasons I can't quite comprehend, google seemed to stop short of making classroom a full-blown powertool on the level of its other google apps.

As it is, I'm unlikely to use classroom for another semester; I do better with my own cobbled together system using a range of scripts + docs +mail + calendar to get things done.

Here's the top 5 fixes I'd like to see before I commit to classroom for another semester:

#5. Allow collaboration everywhere. The killer feature of google docs is collaboration. Remember the days of editing a shared word doc on a server and being locked out while a colleague edits? Yeah, that was awful; google's real-time collaboration + revision history is awesome. How ironic then that google classroom makes no convenient way to assign small group projects or work with coteachers.

#4. Allow multi-step assignments. Good teachers use google classroom to help students draft, revise, collaborate, re-draft, copy-edit and, finally, publish work. When I was in grad school, I couldn't have dreamed of tools as good as google docs for teaching the writing process.

Alas, google classroom makes it easy to create an assignment with a single due date, but leaves me hanging if I want to have a multi-step assignment (brainstorm due to share with a team on one day, a draft due for feedback a week later, and a final draft due a week after that). Classroom only allows associating a single due date with an assignment and has no way to carry docs from one assignment automatically over into a new one.

It is possible to have an assignment go back and forth between teacher and student multiple times using "resubmit" and "hand back," which is what I've done, but my students complain that it's hard to keep track of due dates for revision this way, and they're right.

#3 Fix the assignment view in google drive for teachers: When you're grading a virtual stack of papers, little details matter, and google gets most of them wrong.

First, there's no easy way to sort documents by student first or last name, which is usually how they're listed in a gradebook. Second, if students attach files of their own, they don't get renamed with their name in the title. Third, if students hand in multiple files, they don't get grouped together in any way.

In my pre-google-classroom life, I had a folder for each class and each student had a single folder named last-name, first-name. This made it trivial to go down a class list and check work. Google classroom gives me nothing as easy.

If you have multi-document projects, like the one I'm grading right now, it can be a nightmare simply sorting out which document came from who (this is made worse by the ownership problem -- I can't sort the files by owner because the owner is me in all cases once the student's have handed the work in).
#2. Fix the broken ownership model. Google classroom has students own documents until they get turned in; then teachers own them until they hand them back. And so on. Teachers should be co-owners of the documents from the beginning.

Lacking ownership means no ability to access revision history until an assignment is turned in, which robs me of one of google docs greatest powers in the classroom.  (Think of this simple scenario: I'm about to conference with a student who has been "writing" in my class for the last 40 minutes. Before I move over to their desk to talk, I'd like to take a look at what they've produced -- under a traditional doctopus or shared-folder model with shared ownership, I can peek at revision history and see exactly what they've done with their 40 minutes of classroom; with the google classroom ownership model, I've got nothing).  

#1. Create a scripting API: the beauty of classroom is its simplicity, so I don't really expect google to get everything right. There's no way they can handle all the different ways teachers assess (rubrics, standards-based, point-based, etc. etc.), or the different features we might want to implement (group work, multi-stage work, models, and on). It's easy to see that if they do implement all these features, they'll quickly lose the elegance that is one of the main features of classroom to begin with.

The solution? Add-ons. Writing custom scripts for docs and sheets is a breeze and a boon for schools. Releasing classroom without an API for scripting stands in the way of educators who want to really get a hold of it and make it work for real schools. Google can't hope to get this right for all of us, but they can give us the power to do it ourselves. Once they do so, an ecosystem of hacker educators will spring up to make creative uses of classroom google never imagined. Until they do so, we're all left sitting on our hands, meekly hoping that google will deign to implement our next feature request.

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