An Open Letter to the Google Classroom Team

First of all, I want to just put it out there: I LOVE Google. I love how they are constantly not only creating new products, but updating and (usually) improving existing products. Through their impressive suite of tools and apps including Google Drive, Google Classroom, Google Cardboard/Goggles, and more, Google has revolutionized the way people work, communicate, and interact with our world and other people. I recognize that. I was a Google Certified Teacher (London Google Teacher Academy, 2012) and will be applying for their upcoming Certified Innovator community (with NO guarantee of being accepted, of course). If this makes it to the Google Classroom product team (and I REALLY hope it does), please know that my comments below come from a place of love. I want Google Classroom to be the site for teaching and learning that I believe Google intends it to be.

Google is known for constantly updating and improving its products. When it comes to Google Classroom, however, a visit to their product update page reveals that the updates have been relatively few and unsubstantive in terms of improving the experience for teachers and learners and creating that digital teaching and learning space I mentioned above.

So, in case your were wondering, Google Classroom Team, I have a list of suggestions that come from my own experience, as well as the experiences of teachers I work with, that I think would improve the user experience for your many, many Classrooms around the world–and more importantly, create a more dynamic, engaging, and robust online learning community.

    • Rather than “templating” documents that are “assigned” with each student receiving their own editable copy in Classroom, treat those documents like anything else in Google Drive and update them automatically in Classroom if they were updated by the teacher. Or at least be more upfront and TELL us that what we are uploading is a template whose future edits won’t be received by students. Currently, if you update the source document AFTER posting the assignment in Google Classroom, the thumbnail of that document will be updated and reflect your changes, but the document itself–the one the learners received DOES NOT update or change. This is misleading to the teacher for two reasons. First of all, Google is known for its real-time updating and collaboration and this seems at odds with the way Google products function. But users are also misled because the thumbnail that is viewable in classroom DOES actually update. As a result, users are inclined to think that the students receive the most updated version, but they don’t. There isn’t a warning anywhere to tell you that if you update that document, the students won’t receive the updated version. If the teacher happens to look in the Google Drive folder associated with the assignment, they will then see “[TEMPLATE]” next to the document title, but the teachers have to run across that in the particular Drive file associated with the assignmet–a file they didn’t even personally create–in order to notice it. Google Classroom guru (and noted teacher and author) Alice Keeler explains the logistics and use of the “templates” really well in this post, but I still think Google Classroom could improve the user experience by making it more clear to teachers when they attach a document they intend to be distributed to each student as individually editable copies. They shouldn’t have to stumble upon Alice’s post or upon the assignment folder in Google Drive in order to know that this will be the result, especially not when the thumbnail picture DOES update. 
    • Give teachers the ability to create threaded discussions in Classroom, The “Questions” feature is a great start, but it has some serious limitations. First of all, teachers cannot currently “moderate” the students’ responses before they become visible to the other students. As a result, teachers often opt to post a question, but not allow students to see or reply to other students’ responses. In addition, the even if one allows the students to post and reply to each other, the result isn’t in a threaded discussion format, which makes this much less effective as an asynchronous tool for students to share and reply to thoughts, ideas, and questions they are exploring as their learning community is working through a content-area objective. But Google already has the solution for this:
      • Resurrect Google Moderator; it was ahead of its time and Google pulled it a while ago, but it is PERFECT for the Google Classroom environment! The code for this exists somewhere in Google’s vaults. Just bring it back and add it to the “post” options for Google Classroom. 
    • Allow teachers/owners of Google Classroom to create sub-pages in Classroom for navigation and especially for organization of multiple classes. The “topics” feature simply isn’t robust enough for the kind of organization teachers and learners need if they really are going to use this space as a virtual learning environment. The current ability to drag classes into a new order on the Classroom home page also isn’t enough. Teachers often not only have their own rostered classes loaded in Google Classroom, but numerous other “classes” they created or belong to for professional learning, for collaborative group work they do on behalf of their schools and districts and more. In my case, I have 15 (yes FIFTEEN) different Google Classrooms just for our district’s “Equity through Leadership” collaborative teams alone. On top of that, I also have multiple “Classrooms” for leading professional learning on the use of Google Classroom, and many additional classrooms. And I am NOT unique in this.

      screenshot of Google Classroom home page.

      We can’t create folders for classes on similar themes or create a navigation system (similar to sub pages), so the result for people with many classes is this.

      As a result, many of us have Google Classroom Home Pages that are completely unmanageable because we can’t create a navigation system that links related classes together so that they can be collapsed into a category and “unclutter” our page. Nor can we create new groups within one class and just post to those groups (which would also be a nice way to reduce the cluttering problem on the homepage if designing a navigation system isn’t possible). The current options for choosing which students will be included in an announcement or assignment isn’t sufficient, because in the case of professional development, the “students” haven’t enrolled yet. For that to work (so that I could create just ONE class for my Google Classroom professional development for example), I  would need to be able to create announcements, assignments and questions for specific groups of learners within the same “Class” from the beginning, even before they arrive. Since I can’t do that, I have no choice but to create numerous Classrooms on the same topic so that each group of teachers with which I am working only receive the posts when the posts are relevant to them. Clearly, the “topics” feature doesn’t help with this either. 

    • On the subject of “topics,”  it turns out that learners and educators don’t explore subjects and objectives in isolation! They constantly build upon previously-learned material. Teachers purposefully “spiral” content from previous weeks, months, or even years into lessons. And they also purposefully connect lesson content and resources to multiple learning targets and themes within their own subject areas, but also across subject areas. As a result, we need to be able to select MULTIPLE topics for each announcement, question, and assignment rather than be limited to only ONE topic.
    • Please, please, please can we have more robust text formatting using a Rich Text tool bar/ribbon in Google Classroom so that teachers can craft detailed instructions right on the classroom page instead of requiring students to click on a document to view formatted directions? We need to be able to number, add bulleted lists, or put statements in bold or even another color. But in Google Classroom right now, the ONLY formatting option we have is the “return key.” This is simply insufficient for teachers really trying to use Google Classroom as a robust learning space.
    • Educators need to be able to drag and drop posts in Google classroom to change the order in which they appear. The current option (and only option we have) to “move” one post “to the top” simply isn’t sufficient for the needs of educators and others who use Google Classroom, such as facilitators of professional learning. For example, a couple weeks ago, I was creating an online PD course called “Teaching Digital Citizenship” in Google Classroom. But I had to start on a piece of paper and design the entire course in reverse order so that the content and assignments would appear in chronological order to my audience when they take the course.
    • Allow teachers to add information to the calendar. And/or, add an option that can be toggled whenever teachers add an announcement: “add to calendar?” Sometimes, teachers want to “announce” a test on the calendar. Currently, they have to make that announcement an “assignment” in order for it to appear in the calendar.
  • And finally, to enhance the way we can communicate with families and guardians (as well as students) through Google Classroom, I have two additional “asks” of Google:
    • Add links to resources that are shared in Google Classroom to the view that parents have in the guardian summary so that parents can view and/or print out a resource, for example, if necessary. Currently, the “guardian summary” is a static document that includes what was due and what is upcoming. But announcements aren’t visible. Links and resources that are shared via Classroom aren’t included in the Guardian Summaries. 
    • Enable two-way communication for the Guardian Summaries. Why can’t parents email back? 

I’m not the only one asking for these features and more. Here’s another blog with some of the same requests and some additional ones.

If you also use Google Classroom, and you would like to increase the chances that some of these improvements might be made, click on the question mark in the lower right hand corner of your classroom homepage (the one where all your classes are listed). Choose “give feedback” and share any of the above requests with the Google Classroom team. They really are reading all the feedback. In fact, Google Classroom is the ONLY Google product that has its own team of people reading only the feedback from that one product (all the other Google products share a team whose members review feedback from across the entire span of the rest of the Google product line).

Thanks in advance for listening, Google. I really, really do love your products!



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