Starting a year ago this month, Google offered its Apps for Education clients Google Classroom, a free-to-use, stripped-down learning management system. I became intrigued with the offering, especially after both Queens College and Fordham adopted it and began offering workshops to train faculty on how to use it. I adopted it in the middle of this current spring semester, and it did what I wanted…except when it deleted all of my Fordham students’ work.
LMS No More
After teaching university-level classes for more than a decade, I’ve had it with bloated Learning Management Systems. A couple of years ago, I swore off Blackboard and Moodle because, as an adjunct professor, it was too much work to manage three or four courses on multiple learning management platforms. It was much easier to launch a static, public-facing website that all my students could find with an easy-to-remember URL or a web search. They could get a particular week’s readings, for example, in as little as two clicks and usually without ever entering a password.
However, going with a static web site instead of an LMS meant I would lose two key features: a gradebook and a platform to collect assignments electronically.
The gradebooks on Moodle and Blackboard both suck. Even when I used an LMS, I resorted to recording and calculating my grades on a spreadsheet: first Excel, then Numbers, and now Google Sheets. The added benefit of using a spreadsheet program is that I can upload grades with a tab-delimited or comma-separated values (CSV) file. It not only cuts down on the tedium of inputting grades using slow-responding pull-down menus, it also cuts down on errors.1
Collecting assignments, on the other hand, remained tricky and offered no perfect solution. Having students email me resulted in an alphabet soup of attachments—PDF, RTF, DOCX, ODT, you name it—that I would have to convert, organize, and maybe even print to grade. Google Drive seemed to offer a better solution: students could compose or upload their assignment and then share the document with me. But then I would end up with a ton of files in my own Drive that I would have to organize, too. I also would get annoying email notifications for each student alerting me that I have been invited to view, comment, or edit someone’s document. And, at Queens College, students would have to share their document with email@example.com but not my more official email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s because QC doesn’t use Google Mail, and Google Apps doesn’t know that email@example.com is the same user as firstname.lastname@example.org.
The most basic solution appeared to be having students bring paper copies to class. But as Steve Jobs said about using a stylus for smartphones, nobody wants that: “You have to get them and put them away, and then you lose them.”
The same goes for hard copies. Students inevitably have printer issues, forget or neglect to staple their pages, or simply don’t bring their assignment to class and then ask, “can I bring it to your mailbox?” For an adjunct who comes to campus only once a week, that’s not practical. I’ve also had it with shuttling student papers from one place to another and organizing them into piles across the floor of my home office. There has to be a better way!
Google Does Homework
Because they each use Google Apps for Education, Google Classroom is available at Queens College and at Fordham University. The platform offers two compelling features. First, it allows you to post announcements to your students, and second, it allows you collect assignments—nicely organized into a Classroom folder in my Google Drive—and respond to each student’s work. I could care less for the announcements feature, but the assignments function seemed to address my quibbles over using Google Drive. Students submit their assignments and they go to a folder in my Google Drive. I can grade an assignment for each student, comment on their document, and “return” it with feedback.
When I went to grade an assignment, I noticed that a particular student, let’s call her Allison, had attached a file from her Drive. When I followed the link, labelled “Drive File,” I got a Not Found: 404 Error message.
That was odd. I wrote Allison and explained that she must have done something wrong to improperly submit her assignment. I proceeded to grade the next student’s assignment. Brandon also had a “Drive File” link and following it took me to the same 404-error page. The same thing happened for Charlene, for Dmitri, for Evelyn, and for Federico.
Dammit! All the work was gone.
A few panicked web searches led me to a Google Classroom support forum. Having not found a topic relevant to my problem, I started a new one. A tech support forum moderator promptly responded and suggested a puzzling course of action: that we check our Trash. It was basically a case of Classroom moving our files to my Trash, and I should expect to find them there.
I reflexively like to keep my Trash empty because I’m old and remember when hard drive storage was a scarce resource. Keeping the trash empty ensured you had liberated some drive sectors for more important files.
Apparently, because the student’s work ended up mysteriously in my Trash, all the student files were now gone because I emptied the Trash on my Google Drive. Moreover, when I asked a few students to resubmit their assignments, they told me that they couldn’t find their documents. Not only did Classroom delete the files from my Drive, it also deleted it from their Drives too.
I reported that this “new information had come to light,” and the same support forum moderator suggested that we do some workaround to recover our work. Despite suspecting that this workaround didn’t apply to our situation, I had the students try it anyway: unsubmitting and resubmitting their assignments didn’t work. The files were still gone!
And That’s Why We Back Up Our Work
After realizing that the Google support staff could not help us, I called the support staff at Fordham. The Google Apps administrators there were able to restore the Classroom files from a backup and bring back my students’ work.
Compared to other learning management systems, Google Classroom is really limited, but it touts one worthwhile feature that I liked: collecting and grading student work. But after deleting my students’ assignments, it looks like I will have to revert to collecting papers in class. I simply can’t trust Google Classroom to do the one thing it was supposed to do.
It was also a wake up to my students: the cloud is not a backup.
- My colleagues at CUNY have warned me to submit my grades on time, otherwise I would have to fill out grade changes for each student on multiple slips of paper. I joked that I would rather do that, using a mail merge or something similar, than deal with those slow-responding pull-down menus on CUNY First. ↩