Updated: An Open Letter to the Google Classroom Team

Since I published the open letter below, Google Classroom has changed, and the new interface that went live on August 7, 2018 brings a lot that teachers have been asking for. So, just for comparison’s, sake, my original open letter is a bit further down. Today’s Google Classroom provides teachers with more flexibility to organize and present their assignments and the questions they want their students to answer within the interface. There are also improvements in the feedback/grading section. My favorite is the ability to click on the name of any student (in the new “People” section of Google Classroom) and get a complete list of all work assigned to that student and its status: missing, turned in, graded. They even added a filtering menu off to the left of the assignment list which allows the teacher to view only the missing assignments, or only the turned in assignments.

The differences between “old” and “new” Google Classroom are pretty apparent, as soon as you open a class, and the differences start with the navigation at the top. As you can see from the banner image for this post, the old Google Classroom had three sections: Stream, Students, About. All announcements, assignments and questions went into the stream. Teachers could associate a topic with every post in the stream and any one post could be moved to the top of the stream.  Here is a screenshot of the top navigation in the new Google Classroom:

New GC banner

As you can see, we now have Stream, Classwork and People. This separates the assignments and questions (Classwork) from the general announcements (Stream). The topics feature only exists in Classwork, but it has been substantially improved: the topics now serve as headers. Even better, all of the topics can be rearranged in any order and posts within the topics can also be rearranged. Currently, however, the posts in stream have no organizational system at all: they cannot be assigned topics and they cannot be moved into a new order: the posts in the stream now appear in reverse chronological order only.

The new settings wheel in the upper right corner, to the left of the waffle (app launcher), now contains almost everything teachers need to adjust certain features, such as the interaction permissions of students in the Stream, as well as the join code.

Here is a 10-minute tour of the new Google Classroom  I recorded the day it went live, August 7. As Google is known to do, there have already been a couple of updates since then. The most notable is the ability to change the point value of an assignment or question right within the editing screen when teachers create the assignment or question. And more updates are coming, including a new “Resources” section, which became necessary when the new interface did not include the ability to add resources to the About page, as we used to to in the old Google Classroom. The release for that update is simply listed as “fall, 2018.”

And, for those of you who are curious, below is the original open letter:

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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