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Google Classroom.

I get it why it’s commonly used – it came to the fore at a time when teachers needed a quick solution to an immediate and pressing issue – lockdown. But while any talk of any further lockdowns have ceased, the use of Google Classroom lives on. I use it in my school, but I would love to consign it to the history books. Here’s why:

Technology certification - not everything is as it seems

This movement toward online tools was no accident – and I mean before the initial lockdown occurrences. The biggest players in edtech—Google, Apple, and Microsoft—are also the biggest providers of technology certifications for educators. If you go to sites like LinkedIn or Twitter, you will see a number of educators with  labels like “Google Certified,” “Apple Teacher,” or “Microsoft Certified Educator” (myself included, so this isn’t a personal attack on anyone) to their bios to signal their tech-savvy status to potential employers (or just a humble brag). But these labels say more about a teacher’s familiarity with, for example, Google Slides templates than they do about an educator’s ability to pivot to remote or hybrid learning.

Quite simply – being a good teacher means knowing how to use these tools (practically in the classroom) and also how to use these tools to enhance learning (pedagogy). The two are very separate, but not always seen that way.

And isn’t it a bit self-serving that these tech companies will evangelise to teachers on these tools? We’ve all heard (or know) the teacher “Who uses Apple for everything – I won’t teach without it!” But what does this do beyond the self-serving status advertisement? Apple might produce great products – but are they designed for educating? My answer to that question is: no. They are designed for consumers, to encourage them to spend more money within the Apple ecosystem, which only really benefits Apple’s very large bottom line. And of course, you can largely substitute Apple for the other tech giants.

One of my go-to comments in IT is ‘we can do this, but should we do this?’ Just because we have technology, does it improve the standards of our teaching? If the answer isn’t an automatic ‘yes, and here’s how…’ then we need to review our use of technology.

Evangelising for Big Tech

And while Google Classroom became a lifeline for schools and families, I wonder if it is now becoming a source of frustration? The product has been carefully designed to support workflows that are typically associated with in-person learning—workflows that make much less sense in an online or hybrid context – which is particularly important when it comes to blended learning, say when a pupil is isolating or working from home. The product is also inherently limited by Google’s careful avoidance on questions of pedagogy and what kind of virtual learning is most effective. Here, Google is woefully out of its depth. Google wants educators to turn to Classroom for answers; its new “Teach from Anywhere” site, for example, showcases a variety of product tutorials. But any question a teacher might have about the best, research-based models for effective virtual teaching and learning are likely to leave the site with their question unanswered.

If a company is positioning itself as a champion of edtech, but not helping me to address the question of how I can become a better teacher, then I will be sceptical of that companies motives. Digital certificates can be useful, but if it is only including how to use Google Slides or Keynote, then that ‘certification’ is only producing loyal subjects that will want the software/hardware. True competence in education technology is flexible. There will not be one tool to rule them all (that’s my homework for the half term break) – but teachers will already understand this fro their classroom practice already. We don’t use the same teaching tools for every maths lesson, so why would we expect that from edtech?

Simply because Google knows the truth – its product is limited. Perhaps by design – I wasn’t involved in that process at all, but because the product is limited, that means that it has limited effectiveness in our effectiveness in teaching our pupils.

One thing I realised recently about the platform is that it can’t indent text. Now I know this isn’t the biggest crime of the edtech world, but when you are teaching programming and need to indent code – it is important. Little things like this, all accumulate to create a larger mess which stops you from helping your students to learn – which is the first thing you want to do as a teacher!

In 1975, Bunge asserted that “the technologist is responsible not only to his employer and his profession but also to all those likely to be affected by his work. And his primary concern should be the public good.” This is our starting and ending point – what is the primary concern for our pupils public good?

The positives

Of course there are positives, but at what cost or what are we compromising on?

Google Classroom is free and will work anywhere. In lockdown that was very helpful when teachers had to set up online learning platforms over the course of a weekend to teach their classes remotely.

Working anywhere isn’t much of a claim anymore – any web app will do this, as will any other VLE platform

And in a world of depressingly tight school budgets, the free ticket is king. But let’s keep our heads here. The Facebook principle applies here. If the product is free, then you are the product. Google are masters of marketing and data. They use both to see what we use, what sites we visit and sell that information on. If students use their tools at a young age, the idea here would aloso be that pupils become ingrained in using Google tools (in much the same way Microsoft previously captured schools and business), then they use those products as adults. Once again we have a company acting in a self-serving manner that doesn’t help us develop to become better teachers.

But we all love something free, so there is that.

It’s paper free. We’re all in the climate-apocalypse, so we need to reduce our reliance on paper. And this is a good thing – schools can be black holes where paper disappears and is never seen or heard of again. So yes, getting away from a reliance on paper is good. But Google Classroom is like any other VLE in that regard.

The Negatives

This is why you came. This is also why I wrote this. Get comfortable, sit back, relax. Here comes the rant.

Comments – I surely can’t be the only person that has this issue: Why are pupil comments so hard to find? A notification comes up on my phone/tablet that a student has made a private comment. I will naturally assume they have an issue/question/are in need of help, so I open the notifcation and am taken to the screen where they have made the comment. Except I’m not taken to that page. I’m taken to the page before it where I have to remember the pupils’ name and then click on their submission area. This extra step puts an extra but unnecessary cognitive load on the user and takes a greater amount of time to get to the issue that needs addressed. It seems an odd process to enforce on teachers from a design perspective.

 

Limited integration options. Google has an entire suite of apps in its repetoire. Calendar, Docs, Slides, Drive, Sheets, Meet, Forms. The list goes on. But the integration list doesn’t. Making a similar point to before, it seesm odd to me that they have this list of apps that do not integrate with their Classroom platform. Setting a homework on Google Classroom should (but doesn’t) automatically add to a pupils’ calendar. Let’s make life easier for our students and teachers, not more difficult. We should be able to create and do more with less clicks, not need an unnecessary amount of more clicks to achieve the same job.  Or at the very least, have a level of integration that once setup, will do this for us. We are talking about Google after all. The same company who pride themselves on hiring the best IT nerds across the globe (and I say IT nerd positively with respect, as I am one too), and they can’t work out this integration? Seems odd to me that this is how they would set it up, unless it is deliberate.

 

Editing – When you create an assignment and you distribute it to learners, learners become “owners” of the document and they are allowed to edit it. This means that a pupil could delete any part of the assignment they want, which could cause problems, even if it happens accidentally. There are settings where you can give students a copy of the file, but this involves extra steps that other VLE platforms don’t insist upon, so why Google Classroom has included it seems to be an odd decision.

 

No automated quizzes and tests. This is particularly frustrating because of the time it consumes. As a work around, many will use Google Forms. But even this is annoying – it’s not meant to be used as a quiz. This continual work around’ idea that plagues education is so frustrating. We bend and re-purpose online tools for uses they were not intended to have. And yes this can be a creative solution to a problem, but it gets tiring of continually re-inventing the use of a product so that we can accomplish something. When creating Google Classroom, it must have occured to someone that teachers would want the ability to automate quizzes and tests. That it doesn’t have this, puts Google Classroom (and subsequently the teachers and students who use it) at a massive disadvantage.

 

No gradebook. This exists in other VLE platforms and is extremely useful for gaining the overview of a pupils’ progress. In my last job, a college admin team was in the process of building a gradebook that also incorporated specific weightings for individual assessments within each course. A mammoth job, but one that when complete, will allow a quick review of a student to see if they are struggling or failing, which can help with identifiying where assistance is required to act proactively, rather than reactively. Google Classroom doesn’t have this, and so teachers cannot see a holistic view of a pupils’ progress and so cannot make quick decisions about how to help the pupil, or which areas they require further assistance with.

 

Teacher absences. Fairly common during the pandemic! But when a teacher is off, no one but the classroom owner can access the course, which means that keeping the class content online is much more difficult. In a VLE, teachers can be given access to courses by admin and so this issue is avoided.

 

Assignments don’t show up in students’ Google calendars. You set a homework or assignment in Google Classroom, but it doesn’t integrate with Google calendars, so it can be easily forgotten. That Google Classroom isn’t fully integrated with all of Googles’ other products is a massive failing. If I had the ability to integrate all these tools, why would I choose to not integrate them?

 

Privacy. In a recent lawsuit in America, the State of New Mexico explained:

When students log into a school issued or personal Chromebook, Google will turn on the Chrome Sync function by default. This, in turn, automatically starts uploading students’ Chrome usage data—such as bookmarks, web searches, passwords, and online browsing habits—to Google’s servers. Google acknowledges in a help page that it can read this data but states: “With a passphrase, you can use Google’s cloud to store and sync our Chrome data without letting Google read it.” Unfortunately, the option to set such a passphrase to stop Google from reading private student data is off by default, and buried in settings that parents likely never see. (New Mexico v. Google, 2020, p. 12).

This is who we are trusting with our data and the data of our children. A company who will use that information to advertise to them. Add to this, the geographical data that Google will collect on its users (even when they opt out), and we have a company that should not be trusted – let alone trusted to be in our schools. We would remove a staff member who was collecting personal data on pupils and report them to the polioce. And rightfully so, but not Google. We let them walk right in and take the thing we would protect most – our pupils.

Who Can We Trust?

When we see that Google and Microsoft’s stance in the pedagogy discussion is neutral – which is never truly the case (nothing can be truly neutral, especially when you consider how Google tinker with their search algorithm and have been punished for negatively impacting small businesses who overlap with Google products), educators might be surprised, then, to discover that the research very heavily supports a very particular form of virtual learning: on-demand lessons, combined with live, personalised check-ins.

In otherwords, it is the human touch that makes the difference.

Universities, FE Colleges and other HE instutions have long known that asynchronous learning is a well-established model that works. In this model, the curriculum is created, content designed, activities and learning contexts decided and then the student accesses the learning content at a time that suits them.

All of this is quite a seachange for school teachers. We cannot use the technology to simply extend what we have done before – we need to rediscover the science of learning to think about how learning can happen without us present.  Learning does not need to continue synchronously and we as teachers, do not need to be there when it happens-we can construct the environment in which we know learning can take place when the pupils access the material. We should never be using a digital platformto extend what we do in an analogue context.

And so we are left with a reality in which some preschoolers are being told to spend six hours a day on Zoom or Google Meet or MS Teams, and the companies behind those platforms have little incentive to recommend against that approach, despite this being what most people (and teachers),would consider to be extreme. Smaller organisations have been identifying needs and creating resources; meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are keeping quiet on instructional best practices while they scramble to evolve their video platforms in response to Zoom. There is more response over their product (in response to their competitors), than the young people using these products.

However, schools are starting to realise that being ‘Google Certified’, ‘Apple Certified’ or ‘Microsoft Certified’ does not provide the individual teacher with the necessary skills to address the current crisis in education. The biggest indicator to student achievement (and raising student achievement) is through raising the ability and skills of the educator. When I become a better teacher, my classes receive a better standard of education and achieve better grades. At no point does any technological platform, software or certificate come into the equation.

So What Works?

Think. Research. Discuss. Decide. Implement. Review.

Think (and Discuss): Think about what you need your online platform to do and what you would like it to do. The ‘need to haves’; the ‘would like to haves’ need to be discussed, collated and compiled to get a comprehensive view of what the school needs. From this, an audit can also be taken to address skills gaps and training needs. The main aim here is to arrive at a list of features and tools that your school needs in order to function effectively in its’ online provision.

Research: Take your list of requirements and research what VLE platforms are out there. Talk to the companies to determine how the features will meet your needs and how the platform will benefit student learning. Compare and contrast what each platform can offer, what it would take to become operational and if there is a learning curve in using the platform (and how steep it might be).

Discuss (and Think): This is a whole school decision. It should never be left with the IT department, so involve other departments. Bring them along and empower them in the conversation. What works for IT could be irrelevant for Art and so this needs to be discussed at a whole school level. This section does not need to happen in sequential order – discussions should be happening across the school to determine the needs of the school and how the needs of the pupil can be best met.

Decide: There is a danger of continuing discussion for ever and ever, but quite simply, when you know, you should know! I’m a great fan of the phrase: measure twice, cut once. When you have your list of needs, and a shortlist of which platform can meet those needs, then the decision should be relatively straightforward.

Implement: You’ve made the decision, so this is the time to act on it. Make a (fair and relaistic) plan with the staff to have the new platform up and running in the department or key stage areas. Don’t have it during the school year though – I have been there in the past with that type of decision, all it achieves is to raise stress and anger levels among teaching staff. Don’t forget there may need to be training in using the new platform, so incorporate this into your launch plan and get stuck in to the work!

Review: When everything is complete, the platform is up and running and training sessions complete, review the process – individually; in departments (or key stages); and as a school. What was completed well, what could be improved? Is there scope/requirement for further training? Can good practice be shared or highlighted? The review process so often features in peoples’ minds as a negative process, but it can be seen as a postive one, where it aims to build staff confidence and competence.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m not going to through the baby out with the bath water – clearly there are positives in Google Classroom. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t continue to be used by schools.

It’s the shortcomings that bother me; the lack of connecting dots; the fact that it could be much better without an awful lot of work.

Perhaps because I have built my own VLE platforms, and used others I might have a greater exposure to this area of teaching. I do think as teachers we should expect the very best for our pupils – regardless of whether it’s a free tool or not – why choose the second best option?

As a profession, we absolutely should be asking the question: “can we do this better?” to a lot of aspects of our educational existence. How we present our lesson material to students can make a difference – they can learn outside of the classroom if we create the right context.

To paraphrase the whispered comment made to Ray Kinsella (showing my age here), “If you build it, they will come”, I’m going to say “if you build it, they will learn.”

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