A tech-savvy professor shares how to use this digital tool to increase student engagement, collaboration, and communication—and save a few trees, too.
Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Student Development, Austin Community College
PhD in Instructional Technology, MEd in Curriculum and Instruction/Psychology, BS in Radio/TV and Psychology
Since the dawn of paper handouts, students have used “the dog ate my homework” to excuse a missed deadline. That tactic does not work anymore—at least not in the classes of Herb Coleman, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at Austin Community College. That is because Coleman and his students use Google Classroom, an online web app from Google’s G Suite for Education that serves as a learning management system, weaving together the functionality of Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Docs in order to facilitate communication between educators and students. In fact, it is almost impossible for an assignment to go missing when it has been created with Google Docs, since this tool allows students to type directly into a shared digital document that automatically saves all revisions.
In 2009, Austin Community College became one of the first community colleges in America to begin using Gmail as its email server, so it was only natural that ACC would help beta test Google Classroom in 2014. Coleman jumped at the chance to evaluate it and was immediately blown away by its capabilities.
“Of all the technological achievements in the past few years, this one ranks high on my list,” he says. “It’s a godsend.”
Challenge: The perils of the paper trail
Like many professors, Coleman felt challenged by the limits imposed by the use of paper documents and in-class-only communications with students. “When I think of all the materials—assignments, journal entry documents, research questions—I had to lug around for absent students until I saw them in person again, it’s extraordinary how much effort it took,” he says.
Communications, too, were a challenge: Imparting information about assignments, for instance, generally required the use of precious class time. Responding to student queries happened only during class or in the minutes before or afterward. This meant that students sometimes had to wait hours or days for important answers, which equated to lost time to complete an assignment.
Innovation: Shifting to a paperless platform
Google Classroom is designed to help educators create paperless assignments quickly and to communicate easily with students. Furthermore, this tool helps students organize their work in Google Drive, work on group projects on a Google Doc, communicate via Gmail and within documents (using a comments feature), then “turn in” assignments and receive feedback on the digital document.
One of the most important features of Google Classroom is its ability to improve communications among peers and between teachers and students. Teachers can make announcements, ask questions, and comment to students within the margins of a Google Doc in real time.
Google Classroom also helps both parties stay organized by automatically creating Drive folders for each student and each assignment. Students can easily see what is due, simply by visiting their Assignments page. Educators can quickly see who began or completed an online assignment at any point in time.
“[Google Classroom is] a great communication tool for students and repository for documents,” says Coleman. “I think about how much time this saves me and how few documents I have to copy at the Xerox machine. I used to spend hours there, and if you factor in collecting and returning papers, too, Google Classroom has saved me hundreds of hours. And think of it for students: all the class time that’s not lost on passing out and collecting papers. I can focus instead on pure learning, answering questions and facilitating class discussion.”
Coleman uses Google Classroom in all three of his classes: Introduction to Psychology, Human Growth and Development, and Human Sexuality. In the summer of 2018, Coleman is investigating the use of Google Classroom for competency-based classes, too.
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Lesson: Getting up to speed with Google Classroom
Coleman presents trainings on Google Classroom to other educators at his college as well as at conferences. Here is how he suggests instructors begin to integrate this tool into their educational toolkit:
Start with the basics
When lecturing to educators, Coleman shows this Google Classroom video so his audience can follow the instructions and learn how to set up Google Classroom for themselves. He thinks that watching the video, which includes helpful screen shots, is far better than simply listening to or reading an explanation of the tool. In fact, educators do not need to attend one of his in-person presentations to gain this understanding.
Next, adapt one of your assignments
In his workshops, Coleman has teachers get their feet wet by creating an assignment in Google Classroom. He asks the educators to choose one specific assignment that they need students to complete. Next, he helps them analyze the assignment and adapt it to work as a Google Doc. For 99% of the documents, he says, nothing more is needed than some tweaks to the wording and spacing of the written instructions, allowing space for students to type their responses directly into that document.
Coleman’s Guide to Google Classroom
An educator with almost 30 years of experience in classroom instruction and the implementation of educational technology, Coleman teaches and researches the use of edtech tools and trains colleagues in its use. He has recently presented at national conventions on clickers, team-based learning, digital signage, virtual reality in the classroom, and Google Classroom.
Coleman created these two videos exclusively for Course Hero to help explain how the tool can benefit both teachers and students:
How Google Classroom Works for Teachers
How Google Classroom Works for Students
Do a test run with a friend or colleague
Coleman makes sure that educators test the Google Classroom platform with a trusted friend or colleague. The friend plays the role of a student, trying out all of the features, from sending and receiving emails to posting comments in a Google Doc to submitting a document and receiving teacher feedback. Coleman advises that educators do this whenever they add a new feature or app, such as those mentioned in the next tip.
Keep exploring new add-ons …
Since its launch, Google Classroom has continued to innovate and expand its offerings. Coleman advises keeping an eye out for additional education apps, which Google has started seamlessly integrating into the Google Classroom experience. He particularly likes these three:
- Edulastic, which allows teachers to create a wide range of assessments and assignments
- EdPuzzle, which allows teachers to enhance videos by adding questions (and preventing fast-forwarding), so they can gather data from students as they watch the videos
- Pear Deck, which allows teachers to present information to student desktops or mobile devices as well as poll or quiz them in a variety of formats
All of these use Gmail as the point of log-in, making it easier for the students.
… But do not overload yourself or your class
Once you and your students get the hang of Google Classroom, you will see how easy it is to provide documents, podcasts, videos, and other information. Uploading does not take long, and you are not limited by how much material you can provide on the platform. But Coleman advises that you resist the temptation to post too much. Remember that students must respond to everything you put out there—and you will need to respond to and assess their input, too. You want your students to be enthusiastic about what you are sharing but not overwhelmed by the amount of content or the number of tools they need to master. More is not necessarily better.
Allow for a learning curve among students
“There is a myth that students are digital natives and teachers are digital immigrants, but this isn’t true,” Coleman says. “I find that students know the technology they have used, but if technology is new to them, there’s still a learning curve to get them out of old habits and into new ones.” That is why it is vital that you understand how to use the tools yourself—and spend some time helping them get over that initial hurdle.
The weekend before classes start, Coleman sends out an email from Google Classroom inviting students to join his class. Then, on the first day of the course, he hands out a paper syllabus in which he introduces Google Classroom as the tool that the class will use for assignments and interaction with him. Last, he provides additional emails and links to help them learn how to use the tools.
“Most of them learn by doing it,” he says. “Once they do the first assignment, it’s off to the races.”
Most students quickly adapt to the use of Google Classroom. However, Coleman says that there are always a few who do not accept his email invitation. After the second class, he addresses them in person in class to let them know they are missing assignments and need to activate and engage in Google Classroom.
Regarding Google Docs, Coleman says that some students begin by going into Google Classroom, downloading the assignment to Word, completing it there, saving it on their hard drive, and then uploading it to Classroom. This, says Coleman, wastes their time and does not make use of the tool’s perks. To help them adjust, Coleman created an instructional email to reinforce the basics of how to use the tool, and he explains that everything they want to do in Word—from checking spelling to saving and revising—they can do in Google Docs.
Another potential challenge could be the cost: While Google Classroom is not truly free (like Gmail), it is relatively inexpensive for the school and is free to the students who use it. Classroom (through the Google console) does require some setup fees, and the school needs to select one administrator to help manage it on an ongoing basis.
A Few of Coleman’s Favorite Things About Google Classroom
Coleman loves the way the tool saves time, encourages student engagement, and allows for better collaboration. Here are some of his favorite features:
- It makes grading and communicating with students easier for the educator.
- It is free for students; all they need is access to a computer and the Internet, which is available on most if not all campuses.
- Educators control who has permission to view and edit student documents; they get to decide when students will be able to see each other’s work, if at all.
- All elements of Google infrastructure work with it (for example, YouTube videos are a part of Google).
- Students can work together on team projects by accessing the same Google Doc. Input is saved automatically, and a revision history is retained in case anyone wants to recall a previous version.
- In addition to Google Docs, Classroom offers educators the ability to create forms, quizzes, research surveys, videos, and podcasts or other audio. “You are coming to students in 3-D,” says Coleman.
What is most innovative about his Best Lesson is how it has revolutionized document transfer, assessment, and communications between teacher and student.
Coleman feels that the best outcome is the time both he and his students save: Using Google Classroom allows him more opportunities for positive, meaningful interactions since there is less old-fashioned busywork, such as copying and handling documents.
But that is not the only beneficial outcome.
Google Docs allows for collaboration in real time. “I add something to the student’s assignment in a Google Doc, the student receives an automatic notification email that the document is ready for review, they get and review my feedback. [They] incorporate that feedback and, if they need to revise, they make changes and upload; and then I receive an automatic notification that the student’s changes are ready for my review,” says Coleman. “It’s seamless. And the fact that students can work together on a team project is a positive outcome, too.”
Since Coleman tends to see things in terms of psychology, he appreciates the powerful reinforcement paradigm both student and teacher experience. “Any time you do a behavior and get a positive response, you’re more likely to repeat that behavior,” says Coleman. “The speed of interaction and getting that fast learner feedback is important. It builds confidence and makes it easier for students to learn.”
Student evaluations have been unanimously in favor of Google Classroom, and since the school has committed to using the tool, there is buy-in from many departments.
In addition to all the other benefits Google Classroom offers, students seem to really like the fact that it interacts with Google Calendar, and they automatically get reminders the day before an assignment is due.
One thing is for sure: Students can no longer claim that the dog ate their homework. Now the only excuse for missing an assignment is the occasional storm or electrical problem.
“Not too long ago, I lost my electricity and my Internet went out, so I couldn’t post the audio lesson I’d promised my class,” says Coleman. “So the delay was on me. I told the students that the storm ate my podcast.”