Google Classroom: What It Is – And What It’s Not

Something pretty cool happened during the summer of 2014: Google released the beta of Classroom, their take on organising the edu assignments workflow through Google Drive for schools using the free Google Apps for Education (GAFE) cloud service package. Just prior to the fall semester start, Classroom was rolled out worldwide – even though it was still slightly half-baked. However, educators around the world had got their message through: they needed Classroom now!

So, what was – and is – the big deal with Classroom? I would say that, prior to the Classroom release, it was very difficult to get the assignments workflow right using Google Drive  in schools – in fact, it was basically impossible without some third party tools. I would definitely have not implemented GAFE without a way to get the folders and sharing settings set properly on Drive for teachers and students. In my case this meant using a very smart Google Apps script – a small program – called gClassFolders (now discontinued) developed by Bjorn Behrendt and then basically re-written by Andrew Stillman, the edu programming guru perhaps best known for his superb Doctopus Add-On for Google Sheets.

In other words: Google Apps for Education was actually not built for schools; it was mainly the same package as the standard Google Apps, developed according to the needs of the business sector. For better or worse, most schools function very much differently from the commercial businesses and the organisation of schools is often a completely different story as well. So, there was a great need for a easy-to-use graphical user interface to tackle the way school assignments are created using Drive and other resources, then sent out to students and later handed in back to teachers. This is mainly what Classroom is all about.

There are many questions being asked about Classroom all the time, often the same ones over and over,  so let’s try to get some of them straight. Classroom does a great job with assignments but there are – not surprisingly – many things that are still on the wish list. However, the Classroom team is listening to the educators and iterates very fast so some of the no-no’s below might very well have been fixed when you are reading these lines.

  • Q: What does it take for a teacher to get started with Classroom?
  • A: The school must have implemented Google Apps for Education (GAFE), simply because Classroom is a part of GAFE. With other words: Classroom is not a standalone product. A teacher who wants to get started needs definitely to get in touch with the local GAFE admin as well.
  • Q: So you mean I can’t do anything with Google Classroom without GAFE in place, even though we are using other Google services?
  • A: That’s what I mean.
  • Q: Our teachers and students are in different GAFE domains. Can we use Classroom?
  • A: Short answer: no. A bit longer answer: not yet, probably later down the road. This is apparently a tough one, due to the way Drive works way deep down under the hood. [Update:] the ‘Trusted Domains‘ feature addresses this issue.
  • Q: Can Classroom be used for teachers’ professional development?
  • A: I can’t think of many scenarios where that would make much sense but there are those who do! Perhaps if the pd relies heavily on assignments.
  • Q: Do I have to know everything about Google Drive in order to use Classroom?
  • A: Nope, you don’t, but I find that basic understanding of how Drive works is necessary – just because the main function of Classroom is to create a good assignments workflow using Drive.
  • Q: Can multiple teachers work together with a  class through Classroom?
  • A: Short answer: no. A bit longer answer: not yet, natively through Classroom, but there are other ways – for example, using Doctopus; see this post. The ‘co-teacher feature’ is probably among the most frequent feature requests so it should be in the roadmap alright. Not an easy fix, due to the frequent changes of  ownership which are the very core of Classroom. Tops my personal wish list! [Update:] Yes! Works like a dream. Co-teachers can do everything the owner of the course can, except deleting the Classroom course..
  • Q: Can Classroom be used for group assignments?
  • A: Not natively, but there are (more or less clunky) workarounds.
  • Q: Can I create a Classroom assignment draft, to finish and publish it later?
  • A: So far, no. [Update:] Yes and the drafts are created automatically.
  • Q: Can I copy assignments?
  • A: The ‘re-use’ feature was rolled out in August 2015 and enables the teachers to use and modify old assignments when preparing new ones.
  • Q: Is there a connection between Classroom and Google Calendar?
  • A: Nope. Would definitely make good sense, though, so expect this one to pop up, too. While we’re waiting: check this workaround Yes there is! Every Classroom course has a ‘built-in’ simple calendar in Classroom and then there is also a link to the teacher’s (and the same way for student’s) Google calendar.
  • Q: Is there a way to connect the parents to Classroom?
  • A: Not directly but – again – there are workarounds. Whatever the deal, I would not grant parents full access to my Classroom class. Showing them the due dates is great though – using Google calendars – but takes some (manual) work.
  • Q: Can I let the Classroom team know about a feature I’d like them to implement?
  • A; Yes you can, and you should – click the question mark bottom right on the Classroom page to send feedback.

There are great resources for Google Classroom users available, both through the official Classroom support site (you might want to go directly to the Google for Education Help Forum) and some Google Plus communities. The main G+ community is Google Classroom (surprise!) with more than 16.000 close to 20.000 participants at the time of this writing. Tons of activity and engagement there! There is also a Swedish Google Classroom community, by the way, with almost 300 enthusiastic participants which is pretty cool :) And yes, all of these Swedish guys are proficient in English, too! On top of all this, there is lots of excellent material available on YouTube – all it takes is a quick search.

To wrap things up: I’d be surprised if there are no mistakes in this summary so please feel free to let me know what should be corrected – or added. Any questions about Google Classroom are also most welcome; no guarantee I’ve got the answer but, if nothing else, I should at least be able to point you in the right direction!

About niiloa

Language teacher, EdTech coach, GSuite superadmin, EU eTwinning Ambassador, advocate for international school collaboration
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