In a year marred by chaos, uncertainty, and the daily struggle of getting to class online, Google Classroom remained unwaveringly steadfast. My classes have used Google Classrooms since 7th grade, but this year especially classroom.google.com became my home base, the first site I visited once I’d gotten my laptop powered on in the predawn light. My classes would greet me every day in an even grid of colorful illustrations on understated, pleasingly simple white cards, complete with teacher profile pictures and a heads up display of upcoming assignments. Even in the most intense weeks of the DP program, the Google Classroom to-do page kept me from feeling overwhelmed with a similarly Scandinavian view of everything that came next.
While there were other struggles that came with online school, I honestly felt relieved to no longer be juggling a mess of planners, notes, Google Calendars, and my own fallible memory. With everything run through Google Classroom, it all just worked. I didn’t have to worry about doing my assignments in the right format, or whether I’d put them in the right tray, or whether I’d managed to write down everything I needed to remember from class. Anytime I needed to get back on track, classroom.google.com was bookmarked with a bird’s eye view of everything I was learning and everything I was expected to do, down to the day, hour, and minute it was due.
When it came to actually doing assignments, the “add or create” button was there for me. I could create the document for my next essay right there next to the prompt, or feed in any file format I liked from Google Drive without fighting with file converters.
It all just worked.
So I was surprised, and dismayed, to hear at the GRPS Board of Education meeting on Monday that Google Classroom has apparently lost its status in GRPS in favor of Schoology. To be clear, my fellow Google Classroom fans, it’s not time to panic yet. As part of the Academic Achievement Committee Update, (watch the Schoology section around 10:30 below) board trustee Ms. Davis announced that Schoology has now completed its trial period at two GRPS schools, Burton Westwood Middle and Museum Middle High. According to Public School Review, the two schools combined have a total student body size of 493 students.
Based on data from this test, Schoology has now begun a roll out to all GRPS classrooms in grades 6-12. Ms. Davis said that as of now Schoology was in a professional development and “sandbox” state, and that a full roll out would be a “gradual process” that would likely take the next 4-6 years to complete. She also said that “hopefully” grades 6-12 could implement some of Schoology by this fall.
As someone who has long used, and come to value, Google Classroom, I was immediately curious as to what Schoology offered that would differ from the systems I’m used to. I attempted to find a way to demo Schoology for myself so I could write a balanced review of the two, but unfortunately on August 19th, 2020, Schoology suspended the ability for any new teachers or students to register for the previously offered free tier of their software. Here’s their statement:
“Registrations for Basic Instructor Accounts
With an increasing number of schools and districts relying on Schoology Learning to support their organization-wide blended, hybrid, and distance learning programs, PowerSchool is committed to ensuring that all users have our full support to deliver a smooth back-to-school experience during this critical time.
Therefore, starting on August 19, 2020, we are temporarily suspending the ability for new teachers to register for Schoology Basic, the free classroom edition of Schoology Learning.
For existing Basic account users, you can still add new students and parents accounts using the access codes you provide them. These new students and parents can create accounts by going to www.schoology.com.”
I attempted to contact Schoology and request a demo session (https://www.schoology.com/request-a-demo), explaining that I was a student journalist who wanted to write about their product, but have received no response. I will update this if I hear back.
Since I was unable to try the product for myself, I interviewed a parent in the Rockford school district, which has been using Schoology in their schools for some time. They told me that, in Rockford schools, Schoology has been used very differently by different teachers in different classrooms. In some classrooms it was used primarily during in-person classes, so students didn’t have to use it on their own, while in others students tended to use it as “Facebook at home”.
In at least one class, students used it as a social channel to post “all kinds of things that weren’t related to school”, which, over time, became a concern for the parent I spoke to, especially as the students involved had never had courses in digital citizenship offered to them. For example, at one point a male student apparently posted a shirtless picture of himself to the classroom feed.
In function, this parent thought that Schoology had a lot of capabilities that teachers hadn’t tapped into yet, but that it is not at all effective for communicating with parents, as most parents in Rockford were not willing to download the Schoology app. They also noted that the parent version of Schoology is not the same as the student version of Schoology, which gives students some privacy. Parents can see Schoology assignments, but not the social conversations their students have access to. This parent also found it frustrating that each teacher would use different functions of Schoology, such as the news feed, notifications, and folders, to communicate with students and parents, which made it difficult to keep track of communications. This made it a frequent occurrence that teachers would assume they had successfully communicated something to parents when most people didn’t get the memo.
They also struggled with Schoology’s handling of files. Unlike in Google Docs, they said, where saving is automatic and you can leave and come back, Schoology sometimes requires that you enter your whole submission through the Schoology portal. They also noted that the struggle of submitting certain file formats, such as an image of an at home activity, could often lead to half an hour of technical difficulties, and those parts of the software were so much more complicated than they needed to be. Meanwhile, they said that grades offered through Schoology are often inconsistent with Rockford’s main grading platform, Family Access.
They concluded by saying that, if you already know how to use it, Schoology can be very useful for students who tend to forget things or leave materials at school, and they liked that Schoology has a place where you can find the files that teachers are distributing to their classes. They thought that it was useful in Rockford schools because students and teachers had five years of practice with it, but that training for teachers and staff would be essential to assist with the steep learning curve of the software.
I reached out to GRPS to learn more about the advantages of Schoology and the benefits they discovered during the pilot program, and their answers were so clear and concise I got permission to quote them in full. Here’s what I learned:
Question: My school currently uses Google Classroom for most online school functions, will Schoology be implemented as an addition to Google Classroom or as a substitute? Essentially, should students expect to continue using Google Classrooms or prepare to switch to a new system?
“Schoology will eventually replace the use of Google Classroom. Teachers and students will have access to Google Classroom during [the] first semester of the 2021-22 school year. This will allow for students, families, and teachers to learn the Schoology platform and transition from Google Classroom to Schoology. GRPS will no longer have account access with Google Classroom starting [in the] second semester of 2021-22. Use of all other Google tools will remain in place and are fully compatible with Schoology (i.e. Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, etc.)”
Question: Approximately when should students expect to begin using Schoology? I know that the full rollout is expected to take 4-6 years, but can City High Middle students reasonably expect to start using it at least partially in the next year or will it be a longer wait?
“Grade 6-12 students (7-12 Montessori) will be using the basic functions of Schoology starting on August 24, 2021, which is the first day of the school year. Teachers will be:
- setting up their grade books in Schoology to input all daily classroom graded assignments
- making course resources associated with learning tasks accessible via Schoology
- posting a syllabus each for their 2021-2022 courses, and
- creating a consistent folder structure to make expectations clear for students”
Question: What were some of the benefits your team found during the pilot program? What worked particularly well at the Westwood and Museum schools where Schoology was implemented?
“Teachers will assist students with initially accessing Schoology. There are easily accessible activities and tutorials [within] Schoology to help student[s] become familiar and confident in using the platform. Active examples include a Schoology Scavenger Hunt, as well as a variety of “How To” videos and articles. Once teachers introduce students to Schoology, these support resources will be available for reference and review at any time. Below are some of the feedback statements from the pilot school focus groups.
- Monitoring student learning and streamlined access to all classrooms is better than Google Classroom
- Robust gradebook in comparison to Google Classroom
- Gradebook is very useful allowing immediate feedback between teacher and students, and the ability to for students to redo and resubmit their work
- Assessments are very flexible [and] allow teachers to meet the various needs and learning styles of students
- Generally the Schoology framework is easy for students and staff to use and navigate. It is similar to social media platforms”
Those are all useful features, but, so far as I know, all of them are also offered by Google Classroom, and, personally, I would prefer to keep social media and school separate. Applications like Facebook have a place, but in my opinion that place does not include middle and high school classrooms.
I reached out to the GRPS tech department to learn what systems we currently use, and they confirmed that the district uses the Google Workspace for Education suite for our accounts. According to Google, Google Workspace for Education includes Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Classroom, and many other Google products as part of one unified plan. I was unable to find any online evidence of a plan that would allow GRPS to continue to provide access to Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms, without also paying for Google Classroom as part of that same price.
So my plea to GRPS is this: please, let us keep Google Classroom. While Schoology may well have advantages, I can’t know for certain without paying in, I do know for certain that Google Classroom has made my online school year bearable, and it seems it would cost GRPS nothing to keep access open. So please give teachers and students the option to keep their Google Classrooms if they want to. I know Classroom isn’t perfect, but it just works, and even with the hope offered by COVID-19 vaccines the coming year is still uncertain. Let us keep the one thing about school this year that’s always been reliable.