My First Online Course with Google Classroom

Earlier this week, I submitted the grades for my first online, winter-session class. As I wrote earlier on this site, this was my first experience with a fully online course, either as a student or as a teacher. Aside from speaking with a couple of students who have taken online classes and colleague who has taught a language class over the Internet, I developed this course in a vacuum. This was both liberating and challenging. I felt free to use whatever tools I wanted, but I was also plagued with the uncertainty of whether I was doing things The Right Way, or what technologists refer to as “best practices.”

Since I have taught this class face-to-face for several semesters, I adopted the course into twelve media technologies. Each media technology constitutes a learning unit. The structure is basically as follows:

  1. Manual to Mechanical Media
    1. Writing
    2. Early Print
    3. Mass Print
    4. Photography
  2. Electromechanical Media
    1. Telegraph
    2. Telephone
    3. Motion Pictures
    4. Sound Recording
  3. Electromagnetic and Digital Media
    1. Radio
    2. Television
    3. Computers
    4. Internet

My colleague, who I’ll refer to as Claudine, suggested that I divide the class into a series learning units, each consisting of objectives, assignments, and assessments. I took her advice and, for each media technology, I assigned students to…

  1. audition a short introductory lecture that explains the media technology and emphasizes impacts of that technology on the society that adopted it,
  2. read a chapter from Irving Fang’s textbook Alphabet to Internet and a condensed version of an article from the fifth edition of the anthology Communication in History,
  3. take a quiz on the material.

After studying four media technologies, I assigned students a midterm exam consisting of essays.

The course was mostly asynchronous. Because the course was online, I wanted to provide students with some flexibility. Nothing about the course was live. They did not have to “tune in” to a lecture. Everything was designed to be completed at his or her own pace. However, because the winter session schedule was so compressed and had to “squeeze in” an entire semester’s work in three weeks, I did require students to complete four learning units per week to keep apace.

Here’s how I set up each learning unit of the course:

Setting Up Google Classroom

Despite some pretty bad experiences with Google Classroom, it is by far the easiest LMS out there. Because it does so little, it takes very little effort to do anything. Whereas it takes about a dozen mouse clicks and several minutes to add an assignment to a Blackboard course, adding an assignment to Google Classroom takes only a few moments.

Each learning unit became an assignment in Google Classroom. Currently, Assignments in Google Classroom allow you to add a YouTube video, a Google Drive file, and a link to a website. I took advantage of the first two for each learning unit.

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Another bonus of Google Classroom is that, unlike Blackboard Learn, its mobile app actually works. If students have the mobile app installed and have allowed notifications, I can message students with an announcement, and they will receive it immediately. Similarly, when I add a new assignment or return a graded one, Google Classroom will notify them to that effect.

There is one bothersome feature that I absolutely hate on Google Classroom. Students posting and commenting on assignments is really annoying. Some of my students have used that as a private messaging platform, which is poorly executed because I cannot easily reply to their messages. At the risk of sounding like an old man, email is a superior private, point-to-point messaging platform than Google Classroom. With each new course I add to Google Classroom, I immediately turn-off the posting/commenting feature.

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Recording Lectures

Each lecture included a Keynote slideshow. I usually build my slideshows with only images to illustrate my points, instead of a series of bullet points, because in a face-to-face lecture, I prefer to have the students focus on my words than on a screen. However, I might reconsider that approach for an online, narrated lecture and build slides with some bullets to emphasize my words.

MEDST100 04 Mass Print.001

Instead of recording video of myself lecturing, I used Keynote’s Record a Slideshow feature. I attached a portable USB microphone to my MacBook Pro and ran through my presentation. The video consisted of the slides, and the audio was my own narration. Because it was going to be on a screen, where students can rewind and slowdown the playback speed, I opted to run through my presentation at a much quicker speed than I do face-to-face, in a lecture hall.

Each presentation ran for about 15-20 minutes, although the third and fourth lectures began creeping longer to almost 30 minutes. For subsequent lectures, I worked to maintain a brisk pace and keep the running time to about 20 minutes. I considered editing, but since the class schedule was so compressed I opted to leave the recordings as close to live-to-tape as possible.

After recording the slideshow, I exported it as a 1080p H.264 movie file on my computer and then uploaded it to YouTube. I used my QC Google Apps account for the YouTube account and had to verify my account in order to upload movies longer than fifteen minutes. I added some metadata to the video, unlisted it, and copied the link that I would add to the Google Classroom assignment and to my course website.

Reading Assignments

Each reading assignment came from textbooks that the students had to buy from the bookstore or from an online retailer, such as Amazon.

Google Classroom does not allow for linking to assignments that are not on the web or on Google Drive. I couldn’t just list the readings as bibliographic entries. Instead, the course website had to have all the assigned readings. Perhaps in the future, Google Classroom will allow for some short text entries aside from an assignment description.

Quizzes

Each quiz was a Google Form with ten objective questions: five true-false and five multiple-choice questions.

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The responses for each quiz would go to a Google Sheet that collected each student’s QC Google Apps username and his/her answers.

To grade each quiz and report each student’s performance, I used a Google Sheets add-on called Flurbaroo. Despite sounding like something invented by an Absent Minded Professor, it was an invaluable tool. You add a row with the correct responses, perhaps using your own email address as the username, and grade the quizhttp://www.flubaroo.com/flubaroo-user-guide. After reviewing the results, you can share the results with your students by email.

Google usernames are almost always email addresses, but at Queens College, a student’s username and email address are different. For example, mine would be something like…

QC Google Apps username
jmonroy100@qc.cuny.edu
QC email address
juan.monroy02@qmail.cuny.edu

Confusing, isn’t it?

Collecting the username was fine for identifying students who took the quiz, but emailing the results required a couple of workarounds.

  1. I could look up each student’s email address and enter it for each student in a new column called “Email address,” or…
  2. I could add a short answer question in the quiz that asked students to enter their own email address to receive the grading report.

The second option allowed me to activate Flubaroo’s auto-grade feature, but I didn’t use it fearing that some students would incorrectly enter their email addresses. (It did happen multiple times.)

Once Flubaroo graded the quizzes and shared the results, I copied the Grades sheet to my main gradebook Google Sheet so I could later calculate each student’s grade. I also manually entered each student’s score into the Google Classroom Assignment for each learning unit. In effect, the quiz score was the performance metric for each learning unit. Lastly, I “returned” each learning unit assignment to the student. Each student would ultimately receive his or her score twice: once from Flubaroo and once more from Google Classroom.

Midterm Exam

The three, weekly midterm exams were pretty easy to set up, although grading required a “hacky” use of the Google Docs commenting feature.

First, I wrote a Google Doc with the test questions and some basic instructions. I enlarged and colored my text questions blue, by creating a “Question” style, and asked that the students enter their responses in black. That helped visually identify their answers when I went to grade the exams later.

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Second, I created a new assignment on Google Classroom for the midterm exam. I then linked the Google Doc with the text questions and selected “Make a copy for each student.” This allowed students to take the exam right on document I provided them.

Third, I graded the exam using Google Classroom’s grading feature. That would open each student’s Google Doc, which was a user-specific copy of the exam questions I wrote, and allow me to edit the document. To grade the exam question, I would highlight the exam question and enter a numerical score followed by a brief comment pointing out any deficiencies in his or her response.

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Finally, I manually added the scores and recorded that score in Google Classroom, and then “returned” the midterm exam to the student. Presumably, those with the Google Classroom app would receive a notification of their performance.

Conclusion

My solution for running an online-only class required only two tools: a course site on the open web and Google Classroom. The two worked together very closely. The website allowed just about anyone to take the class by watching the lectures and reading the assigned chapters, but only enrolled students could run the assessments. I really liked this compromise for an open course without cannibalizing enrollments.

I cannot see everyone adopting this combination solutions like this because it requires a lot of technical experience. I relied on my knowledge of Markdown, HTML and CSS, basic Apache functions, and Bootstrap to build the website; my experience with Keynote and slideshow recording to record the lectures; and my newly acquired skills with the Google “Office” suite (specifically, Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Forms), and also Google Classroom and even YouTube. And, most importantly, I was experienced with the course material from several semester of teaching it face-to-face.

Speaking of face-to-face teaching, now that the lectures exist online, I fear that I’ve opened Pandora’s Box for this course. We cannot go back to only teaching this course face-to-face. It might be time to “flip” the course or at least migrate it to a hybrid/blended format. Instead of spending class time lecturing, for example, I can offer a more interactive discussion format.

The days of the three-hour course lecture appear to be numbered.


  1. I sacrificed some fidelity for portability because I was traveling at the time. ↩
  2. Some students took the class far from Queens College and New York City so I presume they bought the book online. For a short session, it might be wise to adopt a title that offers an electronic version, but not an atrocious-looking solution like Coursemart Vitalsmart. ↩

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