Tagged: learning management system

Google Classroom Ate My Students’ Homework

Google Classroom labels this teacher a "hero" because it will take a superuser to restore these students' deleted work.

Google Classroom labels this teacher a “hero,” presumably because it will take a superuser to restore students’ deleted work.

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.

Rolling-Your-Own Gradebook

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

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 jmonroy@qc.cuny.edu but not my more official email address of juan.monroy@qc.cuny.edu. That’s because QC doesn’t use Google Mail, and Google Apps doesn’t know that jmonroy@qc.cuny.edu is the same user as juan.monroy@qc.cuny.edu.

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.”

Yuck, indeed!

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.

I see that Allison attached a "Drive File."

I see that Allison attached a “Drive File.”

But following the "Drive File" link yields this 404-error page.

But following the “Drive File” link yields this 404-error page.

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.

  1. 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. 

Dropping the Lowest Grade

In past semesters, I have assigned students weekly quizzes. As a sign of weakness, I customarily dropped the two lowest quiz grades for each student so that missing or bombing those two quizzes didn’t negatively impact their final grade. The integrated grade book in Blackboard allows you to set up a category of assignments (such as “Quiz”) and drop the n lowest (or highest) grades for the entries in that category, but I dropped Blackboard this semester so I can’t use this feature anymore. However, that won’t require dropping grades by hand. Writing a formula in a spreadsheet can automate this process.

Enter Your Data

Arrange the quiz grades in a single row, one row per student. In this example, I’ve listed the seven totally fake quiz grades for three totally fake students. The possible points for each quiz is 10.

Name B C D E F G H
1 Carolyn D. Larabee 5 5 7 8 5 1 10
2 Rosemarie D. Cooper 8 10 2 7 10 7 4
3 Max J. Cervantes 1 6 4 8 8 1 10

Finding the Low Grades

The SMALL function in any spreadsheet software allows you to find the nth smallest value in an array. If you arrange all those quiz grades in a single row for each student, you can have your spreadsheet find the lowest value.

SMALL (Array, Ranking)

In our case above, use the following code to get the lowest value for Carolyn D. Larabee, an underachieving student who, you’ll note, doesn’t actually exist:

SMALL (B1:H1,1)

This returns the lowest grade, a pathetic “1” in this case. You now have to subtract this value from the calculation since you don’t want to count it in the student’s grade. You just simply add up all the quiz attempts and then subtract the offensively low grade:

SUM(B1:H1) - SMALL (B1:H1,1)

If you want to omit the two lowest grades, as was my usual practice, then add a second SMALL function and have it subtract the smallest and the second smallest value.

SUM(B1:H1) - SMALL (B1:H1,1) - SMALL (B1:H1,2)

You’ll notice that the first SMALL function finds the first smallest value, and the second SMALL function finds the second smallest value. You’ll also notice that explaining spreadsheet functions results in really bad grammar.

Keeping the High Grades

You can get an average of the five remaining quizzes by adding all the quiz attempts, subtracting the two lowest quizzes, and then dividing all of that by the number of quizzes (5) remaining:

( SUM(B1:H1) - SMALL (B1:H1,1) - SMALL (B1:H1,2) ) / 5

If you don’t want an average, you can project the score by adding all the attempts, subtracting the two lowest scores, multiplying all that by 7 and finally dividing everything by 5.

( SUM(B1:H1) - SMALL (B1:H1,1) - SMALL (B1:H1,2) ) * 7 / 5

This would be useful if, for instance, you based the total quiz score on 70 points (7 quizzes x 10 points each) and wanted to boost the student’s score by nullifying the two lowest scores and still get a meaningful score relative to those 70 points.

Your grading policy likely differs from mine, but you can adapt these formulas to conform to your policies. Good luck.

LMS No More

This semester I swore off all learning management systems (LMS) for my classes. The biggest reason was out of self-interest because I am teaching four classes at three colleges and mastering a different LMS for each is a huge pain. Don’t believe me. Let’s take a look:

College Learning Management System Version
CUNY Queens College Blackboard 9.1.70081.25
Fordham Blackboard 9.1.110082.0
Pratt Institute Moodle 2.5.2, I think

Each also has a very idiosyncratic way of logging in. With Fordham, I just use my single sign-on, and I’m usually in. However, with CUNY, I have to login twice using the same credentials and then select Blackboard, after I tried to login to Blackboard.

It’s also hard to brush up with each individual platform because you often don’t even know if you’re going even to teach the class as colleges cancel classes at the last minute. This is one of the cruel realities of part-time teaching: it really discourages advance preparation, and many of us don’t bother with it until just before the start of the semester.

Another reason for abandoning the learning management systems is that each one was recently updated. Let’s face it, none of these learning management systems were going to be easier to use than the previous version. In fact, you can bet that each iteration adds a number of new complex features for the IT department purchasing the upgrade, at the expense of usability for the teacher and students. No, thank you.

Can you tell me where to stick my syllabus?

Can you tell me where to stick my syllabus?

How is an overworked teacher supposed to function without an LMS? Am I helpless like those teachers at Springfield Elementary when the students stole the Teachers’ Editions? No, I just roll things back to the days of web 1.0.

Static HTML syllabus

After a year of testing, I’m bringing back the static HTML syllabus. For example, my Media Technologies class has one with a pretty easy-to-remember web address: http://juanmonroy.com/mediatechnologies. I wrote the whole thing in Markdown and then exported it to HTML using Byword or Marked, depending on my mood at the time, which I then uploaded with the help of BBEdit. On the syllabus, there’s links to resources, such as:

  • textbooks
  • reserve readings, available as PDF.[1]
  • screenings
  • lecture outlines
  • slides

If you want to print the syllabus, there’s a print.css stylesheet that will render a printer-friendly version. (I told you this was really old stuff.)

Spreadsheet Gradebook

On my own computer I keep a gradebook in Numbers. You can do the same with Excel, Google Docs, and Open Office. Blackboard never had a good way of taking attendance so I’ve had to do this anyway. Moodle offers its own attendance module, but sheesh, it’s way easier to use an old paper attendance sheet than to decipher one of ten “attendance codes.”

In any case, calculating scores by spreadsheet is not the easiest thing in the world. I know most people use spreadsheets like a database to store lists and such, or to add and subtract simple values. However, a long time ago, a former boss of mine taught me Excel functions with weird names like VLOOKUP, LEFT, LEN, MIN, and SUMIF. Things really get fun when you nest functions inside others, and with those lessons from 1996, I calculate student’s grades in 2013.

Weening yourself off an LMS might not be the easiest thing. I am really pushing the limits of what I know about HTML, CSS, and spreadsheet functions. But I know that fighting bloatware is a cause I’m prepared to support.

  1. To avoid the ire of publishers, I use HTTPD Auth with a single username and password for everyone in the course.  ↩