Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Google Classroom: Fall 2016 Updates

In August, literally days before my classes with students were about to begin, Google Classroom unleashed an update. I decided to let some time pass so that I could work with this update before deciding how I feel about all of it. Now that some time has passed, I'd like to share a few points of consideration...

One of the great new updates is the ability to tag or categorize your assignments. I think it's helpful for teachers with year-long classes to divide up their lessons into units, chapters, or even activity types, such as a discussion question vs. a long-term project, or a group activity. I personally am using the tags to divide my lessons up into different topics, such as "Digital Citizenship" or "Google Apps for Education."

I do wish that there was an ability to add more than one tag to assignments, because sometimes there is an overlap of topics, and it would certainly make assignments easier to search for within the stream. Ease of search, and tagging/categorizing is kind of a trademark characteristic of Google products, so I'm a little surprised to see that that hasn't come into play just yet.

There are a few other things about the updates that aren't necessarily improvements, but changes to the way Google Classroom functions. One of the big changes that really freaked me out at first was that the join code for Google Classroom was no longer in the left hand side bar. I couldn't find it at first, and it took me a few minutes of searching and clicking around to discover that it is now located under the "students" tab. Discovering this change the morning of my first day of classes caused me a mini panic attack!

The other change that I noticed is that Google Classroom no longer gives you the ability to create an assignment for multiple classes in one step. Yes, you can create an assignment, and then reuse the assignment in another class, but in the past, you could create one assignment and simultaneously publish it to multiple classes. Since I teach two sections of the same class at each grade level, this was a really helpful feature for me. I guess I'm not sure why Google Classroom would remove a feature. Even if some teachers weren't using it, I don't know what the harm would be in retaining that functionality.

The other big update to Google Classroom this fall was the ability to have parents elect to receive email summaries and notifications. This is a feature that sounded really promising to me. The biggest hangup I'm having is that after I enable parent access, I seem to have to manually enter each parent email address individually?

What would really be optimal is the ability to give parents a join code like the students have, or a link where parents could sign up if desired. Because I'm a teacher that only teaches six-week long classes, it's not really worth the effort for me to enter parent emails. I would have to re-enter a whole new slew of parent emails every month and half!

I can see this new parent access feature being very helpful for a semester-long, year-long, or an elementary classroom teacher, because they only have to do the work one time. For me, it would just be an endless cycle of work, so I'm going to hold off until Google enables a better way for parents to sign up. That makes me kind of sad because I really like the idea.

I did, however, sign up for parent email notifications under my own "student" account, just to see how it worked. I have a student account so that I can test out Google Classroom (and assignments in general) from the student view, which, - side note - would actually be a really good feature for Google Classroom to have for teachers. I'd love to be able to toggle a tab or a switch and change the view from "teacher view" to "student view." The only way I found a workaround for that is to actually create my own student account.

I signed up as the parent (using my personal email) for my "student" account so that I would get the email summaries, to see what they look like and how they function. I was pleasantly surprised when I got my parent summary email this week and saw that it lists assignments that are posted even if they don't have a due date. I was very worried that the email summaries would only give alerts if there was an assignment coming due.

My assignments in Google Classroom typically have no due date because my turn-in times are kind of flexible - even if a student turns in the work on the last of class, I will still accept the work. Since my entire class is only a month and half long, I have to prioritize whether or not I want worry about keeping track of and taking points off for lateness, or if I would rather just rather have the work in the end. I'd rather just have the work!

So, I was happy to see that my parent email summary listed assignments that were newly posted in classroom for that week. As a teacher, this is something that I definitely would want to show up! I also liked that Google Classroom showed a summary for all of the classes that the student was enrolled in, which in my case, was all six of my computer classes.

The possible advantage/potential here is that if parents signed up for alerts in another class, their email would already be entered into the "system" and I wouldn't need to enter them - parents could just elect to get updates from my class, too. Therefore, if parents were signed up/enrolled school-wide to Google Classroom alerts, I wouldn't have to enter any parent emails at all! My school hasn't really adopted Google Classroom as a whole just yet, but if this happens in the future, this would be really nice.

... but in the end, this kind of puts me back at square one, which is a waiting game: either having Google create a join code/link for parents to use to sign up, or waiting until a majority of my building has adopted Google Classroom and parents are enrolled school-wide.

I do wish that Google seemed just a little bit more receptive to requests or suggestions. Here is my ultimate wish list of Google Classroom features at present:
  • The ability to tag assignments with multiple topics/tags, for easier searching and sorting, kind of like Gmail labels. 
  • The ability for parents to sign up for email summaries via a join code or link, rather than the teacher having to enter each parent email. 
  • Bring back the ability to publish an assignment to multiple classes at once. 
  • The ability to switch between "teacher" and "student" views in Google Classroom. If I'm projecting my machine up on a screen for the class to see, my view differs from what they see unless I'm logged into a student account. 
  • The ability to customize the left hand side bar - particularly, I would like the ability to post links to some outside sources, like PowerSchool, so that students could check their grades, or a link to the school website. 
  • The ability to customize your class colors, because although you can put your own image as a header at the top of your class, Google Classroom chooses the "main" color scheme for you. Being able to self-select the color scheme would allow me to better organize my classes visually. For example, my two sixth-grade classes might be purple, my two eighth-grade classes could be green, and my two seventh-grade classes could be blue. I find that having things organized visually helps me to be more productive.

Wouldn't color coding make this so much nicer? Maybe it's just the art teacher in me, but...

All in all, I am very happy with Google Classroom overall. I like Google classroom as my main hub for information and assignments. I will continue to use Google Classroom, regardless of whether or not all of these new features are 100% viable for me personally.

-Mrs L.
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