Updated 9.17.2021 at 11:18 AM with response from GRPS tech department.
For prior coverage, see In Defense of Google Classroom.
When I was in 10th grade, I decided to design a video game for my IB Personal Project. I downloaded the latest version of the software, launched the engine on my computer, and then I started adding stuff. I downloaded free content I didn’t want, installed code plugins I didn’t need, and filled the project’s content folders with anything and everything I could get my hands on. When I actually started designing I enabled every setting, turned on every heads up display, and covered the screen with unnecessary junk, because I thought the best game would have the most stuff. My first draft of that project was an unplayable mess, filled with so many mismatched assets that they out-crowded anything resembling actual gameplay.
That’s how I learned what I believe to be the most important principle of design: simple works. All designs, no matter what they are, should do exactly what they promise to do and do it well, because the quest for every feature inevitably means that every single one will have only a fraction of designers’ focus.
Schoology does not seem to have learned this lesson yet.
For example, Schoology’s student homepage comes with a built-in “Upcoming” widget which takes the place of Google Classroom’s “To-do” feature. On the surface Upcoming seems to have all the necessary features, with assignments broken down by date and time that link to their individual assignment pages. Very helpful.
Unfortunately, in pursuing these additional features, Upcoming neglects the most basic function of a to-do list: the ability to check off tasks when you’re done with them. Schoology’s to-do is simply a list of all assignments with due dates that are in the future, so when students finish an assignment early it stays on the to-do list alongside undone assignments. This not only renders the entire feature essentially useless, it’s actively misleading, and makes the already stressful work of the DP program even harder to manage.
More broadly, Schoology is a controlling, top-down piece of software. For example, like Google Classroom, Schoology classes have “Members” lists. However, unlike Google Classroom, which assumes that discussion and collaboration between students taking the same classes might aid learning, Schoology does not allow students to contact one another, not even through protected GRPS email. Even older students, like my senior class, cannot interact with each other through Schoology, only with the teacher.
One might think that the links attached to every student’s name on the student-facing portal would bring up an email address, but instead when I made the mistake of clicking on one I got the following error message, which is both vague and unhelpful. If students aren’t permitted to look at such pages, why link to them in the student portal in the first place?
Similarly, where Google Classroom gave students access to teacher-created materials, but also allowed them to upload their own submissions, trusting students to do their own best work, Schoology assignments that come with a pre-set Google Doc will only allow students to submit that document and no other. You can’t, for example, upload additional pictures of supplementary work for a math assignment or an essay written in a different document for an English assignment.
Design features like these could charitably be interpreted as an attempt to make teachers’ jobs easier, but the teachers our team surveyed did not find them helpful. While they did not read our draft article and some were hesitant to say anything negative about the new platform, one of the common threads that emerged was that Schoology is not as streamlined as Google Classroom and makes it more difficult for teachers to create and issue student assignments. Teachers also noted that Schoology does not integrate with Google Drive nearly as well as Google Classroom does, which is frustrating given that, by district policy, both students and staff must use Google Drive to actually do assignments.
Most importantly, teachers explained that Schoology is just time consuming, requiring already busy staff to dedicate even more time and effort to learning the platform’s ineffable intricacies as well as performing rote tasks, like issuing similar assignments to multiple hours, which Schoology apparently makes far more difficult than Google Classroom ever did. One teacher even wrote that, far from helping, Schoology actually hinders teachers, which is the exact opposite of what a learning management system should do. Because of this, several asked specifically for the option to keep Google Classroom.
We also researched student perspectives. Margaret Strand, while not a City Voice reporter, felt so strongly about Schoology that she wrote in with this open letter.
“There are two main problems with the software switch to Schoology: the experience of using the platform, and the timing at which it was implemented.
The first time I opened grps.schoology.com, I was underwhelmed with the look of the site. It looked like I should be opening it on one of those big, boxy Macs we used in elementary school. Compared with the streamlined, if simple, design of Google Classroom, it looked like we were set back a decade. But as we began to use Schoology more, the design quickly became the least of its problems. The process of submitting assignments through Google Drive, which we’re automatically given with our GRPS email, is annoyingly complex, causing you to click through multiple pages to finally reach the ‘submit’ button. To open gradebook, you have to go to a certain tab and then click through all eight to ten classes individually, which aren’t even arranged by class period. The idea that gradebook and assignment submissions are integrated is a good one, but Schoology’s execution is underwhelming. … The gradebook categories are also weighted differently from district guidelines, causing a discrepancy between what’s visible in Schoology and what appears on your transcript.
These problems may seem insignificant individually, but since we’ve begun spending more time on learning management systems like Google Classroom and Schoology, every complication adds up. After the stress and inconsistency of the 2020-2021 school year, it would have been far simpler to stay on Google Classroom. Though Classroom may be flawed in some areas, such as not having an integrated gradebook, its simplicity and ease of use helped to serve its purpose well over the most challenging school year yet.
Changes and improvements to the way we learn and the software we use can be good. However, this change is poorly timed. I’m not averse to trying new ideas, but a longer period of testing and more input from the student body would help ensure that the students using the new system aren’t frustrated and disappointed with it.”
Like Margaret, I won’t deny that Schoology has features that Google Classroom doesn’t, but so far most of those features boil down to limiting student interaction and cracking down on deviation. It is, in essence, an LMS perfectly suited to a school environment where the workload is minimal, communication between students unnecessary, and teacher control over less mature students paramount.
It is, therefore, perfectly suited to elementary schools.
While, as a senior, I have found that Schoology makes education needlessly difficult, I suspect that in 1st through 5th grades it would work perfectly. At that age students don’t have much homework to worry about it, at least not much that has to be managed by an LMS, due dates are less of a concern, students don’t really need to email each other, and kids that young genuinely don’t need or want the ability to change the file type of an assignment upload.
The problem with the Schoology implementation lies in the one-size-fits-all attempt to make an elementary school LMS work in a high school environment. First graders and 12th graders are very different, they’re educated differently and they behave differently, and that means that the learning management software that’s best for one isn’t what’s best for the other. GRPS owes it to middle and high schools to let teachers continue using Google Classroom if they wish to, a request the district can easily grant.
As confirmed by an official account communication from Google on August 31st, GRPS currently subscribes to Google Workspace for education for all students. Google Workspace for education is a suite of Google tools that includes Gmail, Calendar, Meet, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Assignments, Sites, Groups, Drive, Admin, Tasks, and Google Classroom under one bundle price. It is also worth noting that, as far as we could discover, Google does not offer any way for organizations to buy these tools individually.
Therefore, unless GRPS intends to revoke student and staff access to all Google tools, which they have previously confirmed they do not intend to, Google will not revoke GRPS’ access to Google Classroom at any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, GRPS will likely continue paying for Google Classroom as part of the bundle price of G-Suite for Education as long as they want students to retain access to Gmail. It is therefore my belief that the only way GRPS staff will “lose access” to Google Classroom is if the district chooses to manually block users from visiting classroom.google.com, while still paying for it, in an attempt to force Schoology adoption.
We reached out to GRPS to learn more, and Instructional Technology expert Mike Hastings confirmed that GRPS will continue subscribing to Google Workspace for the foreseeable future. He also confirmed that Google Classroom is not ending, and compared it to other free features of Google Workspace like YouTube, Maps, and Gmail. He further clarified that access to Classroom will not be lost, it is simply becoming “obsolete.”
This push to adopt Schoology, when Google Classroom will apparently still be available for the forseeable future, is not only a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s also a waste of money. Mr. Hastings confirmed that Google Classroom is a free feature of the Google Workspace basic tier, which GRPS currently subscribes to. While we are not sure if this refers to the free Workspace Fundamentals or the paid Workspace Standard, and Mr. Hastings has not yet clarified, Workspace Standard costs $3 per student per year, and according to GRPS’ own site the district serves approximately 15,000 students, which means GRPS pays at minimum nothing and at maximum $45,000 for all Google tools.
By contrast, Schoology ended the previously offered free version of their software in early August 2020. (https://support.schoology.com/hc/en-us/articles/360052825373) While I attempted to find an official record of Schoology pricing, Schoology only provides such information to those with an official school district email address, and did not respond to either of my two requests signed as a student journalist. I also asked Mr. Hastings, but he let me know that he is not able to share the costs associated with Schoology at present. However, crowd-sourced information posted on eLearning Industry suggests that Schoology costs $10 per student per year, raising the likely annual cost for GRPS to approximately $150,000.
Either option would be expensive, but paying for Google Classroom only to throw it away and then pay an additional annual license for a comparable product is inefficient.
As mentioned above, Schoology is a fine product for elementary schools, but it’s simply not suitable for a high school environment where creativity, discussion, and collaboration are encouraged and both students and staff are expected to manage a heavy homework load. It would cost GRPS nothing to leave Google Classroom open, and in doing so they would show teachers the respect of trusting them to pick the software that’s best for their students.