Using Technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 2 – using a VLE 4

In the previous post about managing the summer school, I talked about how we used a WordPress site to manage information flow on our pre-sessional summer school. Let’s look a little more closely how we handle the classes themselves and specifically the day to day communication between the teachers and students using Google Classroom.

I’ve talked about Google Classroom before in a previous post and explained why we shifted away from Blackboard to using a more mobile-focussed VLE with our students, so I won’t bore you again with that. But this summer was a real chance to see how it worked under the strain of a busy summer school with teachers and students. Would they use it regularly or would they ignore it as they did with Blackboard in the past?

We’re able to get a pretty good take on this as we create all the Google Classrooms in the summer – in total there was just over a hundred – and we receive notifications and emails every time a teacher or student posts something or responds to something. This doesn’t go into our personal email (we’re not insane) but instead goes into a generic account we set up specifically for the summer school. Every so often we can look through this to get an idea of the amount and types of interaction taking place. Now, obviously we’re still in the middle of the course, but looking at the account, we have nearly 7000 notifications since the beginning of the summer school at the start of July. These notifications are a mixture of announcements, comments and also feedback on Google Docs writing, but it does give us an idea of the level of interaction we’re beginning to see using Classroom. It’s very encouraging.

ISS email account

Our generic summer school account is full of email notifications from Google Classroom!

In terms of the types of interaction, the main function of Google Classroom is making announcements. For teachers it seems to be the quickest and easiest way to remind students about their homework or to bring their laptops for the next day. The second main function seems to be sharing documents after class. So, teachers would typically share a powerpoint they’d used during the lesson or a pdf of a reading they’d used in an activity.

teacher announcement

here are some examples of teacher announcements through Google Classroom, the top is a homework task, the bottom some useful links.

Teachers aren’t really using it to set assignments, but that’s not surprising as all the key assignments have already been set up for them through a special portfolio system we’ve put in place – more about that in a separate post – so there’s very little reason for them to do this.

It’s also a useful way for us to make centre-wide announcements about social events and optional lessons that are going on. It’s simple to select all the groups or the groups from a particular programme and send out messages to them. Because Google Classroom has an excellent mobile app and most students seem to have downloaded it, there’s a greater chance they’ll see these announcements through mobile notifications.

centre wide announcements

Google Classroom is an excellent tool for centre-wide announcement, especially about their studies or optional workshops/events they can attend

We know this to be true because we sent out information about an optional technology session on mobile apps via Google Classroom. We had 52 students attend..and this was on a Friday afternoon! In previous years we’d announced the same session via Blackboard and at most got 7 or 8 coming along, so it’s clear that students are getting and responding to the notifications on their phone.

One additional use we’ve found for it is for giving out tasks after the students attend weekly lectures on a Wednesday afternoon. The purpose of this is to get them used to the kind of lectures they will experience once they go into their departments, but we’ve never really found a suitable way to follow them up. We tried forum discussions in Blackboard but that never worked. However, this summer we’ve been trying out a post lecture quiz using Google Forms. They recently introduced a new quiz feature, you can embed multiple choice questions of various kinds and it will be marked automatically at the end when students submit.

At the moment we’re trialling this with only a portion of the students and we’ve made it completely optional to complete, but it’s encouraging how many have actually responded. Of the 200 who attended the lecture, around 50-70 regularly complete the quiz. We’ve sweetened the deal a little by offering some small prizes such as sweets or school souvenirs, but we think (hope!) they would have taken part anyhow. Again, because Classroom has an excellent mobile app, it’s very easy for students to receive and fill the quiz out directly on their phone.

In terms of issues with Google Classroom, there is still a real need for some kind of folder structure for sharing docs with students. The way Google want you to do it is by sharing to the stream, but for students and teachers it would make sense if there was a dedicated folder with view-only permissions where documents could be added and students could easily access them. There are workarounds for this – which we’ve had to use during the summer school – such as putting a link to a Google Drive folder on the About page of each Classroom (this section does allow static documents), but it’s less than ideal.

It would also be helpful if there were finer-grained permissions when students do assignments. At the moment, if you set an assignment on Google Classroom and students submit it via a Google Doc, they can still see any in-text comments you make on the document before you return it. It’s only if you make margin comments that they can’t see them. Basically, when students submit the document, the sharing permission shifts from edit to view only. View only means they can’t see any comments down the side, but can see anything added to the document itself. As teachers we often make specific comments down the side but our overall comments at the end of the document. However, we’d prefer our students not to see these first! It’s a complex issue I appreciate, but certainly something Google have to address if they wish it to get wider adoption in Higher Education.

It would be useful as well if Classroom had plug-ins that could link out to things such as Turnitin. It would be really useful if students could submit their written assignments directly to such services rather than us having to create a separate course in Blackboard just for that purpose.

But these are minor issues, we’ve been very impressed by how frequently Classroom is being used by teachers and students and in the mid-course feedback, students responded very well to it as a VLE with over 60% rating it excellent and the rest as either good or ok. We’ve noticed how often students use the mobile app to check announcements and this is something that the more monolithic VLEs struggle to do well.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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