Google Classroom Update Opens Platform to Education Developers, Publishers

Google adds a new API so that third-party education developers and publishers can add content into its education platform.

by / July 2, 2015
Google showcases its Google Classroom platform for teachers and educators at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in Philadelphia on June 28 to July 1. Jason Shueh

PHILADELPHIA — In its drive to be the all-in-one cloud provider, Google has released a major upgrade to its Google Classroom platform, offering educators and developers the ability to connect to its cloud services with third-party apps.

On June 29, Jonathan Rochelle, Google’s director of product for education, debuted the update at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, from June 28-July 1, in Philadelphia where he showcased Google’s new application programing interface (API) that connects developers with Google Classroom, a platform for teachers to manage assignments and send feedback to students.

Rochelle said Classroom — launched in 2014 as part of its Google for Education suite — was refreshed to leverage richer content and turn learning into a more shareable experience. Alongside the API, Classroom updates include a new share button that educational sites can use to let students and teachers share links to articles, videos, images and and other rich content. Likewise, smaller tweaks consist of notifications for its Classroom iOS and Androids apps, an API to create easy Google student accounts, and whitelisted “domains” that let different user groups collaborate across Google Apps for Education.

At launch, more than 20 educational content and tool providers — including PBS channel, the American Museum of Natural History, Discovery Education, TIME for Kids and learning apps Quizlet and DuoLingo — have signed on for the share button.

Looking at the big picture, the strategy is to further Google’s cloud offerings into education (Classroom is driven by Google’s Docs, Drive, Gmail and other staple products), while supporting the Chromebook, Google’s cloud-driven laptop.

Speaking to Government Technology magazine on July 1, Rochelle outlined the impetus behind and ambitions for the Google Classroom update.

Government Technology: Since launching Classroom last year, what were the motivations to create the new API and share button?

Jonathan Rochelle, director of product for education, Google: The most important motivation was that teachers use so many things in the classroom, but [Google] Classroom is how they’re managing the assignment flow. And so they basically want other products to work within that assignment flow.

Let’s say they’re using something like [the interactive presentation app] Pear Deck or they find something on Discovery Education or National Geographic; they’re basically looking to have that content as an assignment in class. That was probably the most important thing, and like everything else we’re working on, we get feedback from teachers on how they’re using the product — or how they want to use the product — and that’s usually what we prioritize. Not to mention, we have a lot of partners with other apps, other areas, and as soon as we launched Classroom that was their first question: How are we going to make this work together and how does our current app work with your apps? Specifically, if they were already working with Drive, which is pretty much a platform for other apps, that was their first question. On the API side, the other motivation is administration, to be able to sync class rosters and get data from one system to another without manual entry is pretty important.

GT: I know Google is a big fan of user-centric design. How was input collected for the new Google Classroom API?

It’s funny, because it’s a lot harder than something that’s front end, something that’s a screen-based thing that users interact with directly. This is much more indirect. So while we got some feedback on what tools — and what specific tools — they’d want integrated, we got more feedback this time from developers. We would ask them things like, how easy technically is the API to use, or is it robust enough? We’re always looking to simplify things, but also to get things out there, to start with feature sets that are livable, a minimum viable product. So we got with the developers to say, is this going to work, is it super simple, and is it enough? This is why we ended up launching when we did, we found that it was incredibly easy to integrate. On the share button, I watched as one of our vendors — it was Pear Deck in this case — did our roster API integration. We said, "Wow, this would be a great place for a share button," and they were like, “Oh, right we didn’t even think of that,” and we said, "Do you think you can get it done in time for the demo?" And this was literally days before the show — and they said they could get it done in 20 minutes. It was super simple. I mean it was like two lines of code at the simplest. If anything, the developers were sort of our “users.”

GT: Are there any considerations underway for iterations down road?

Rochelle: Oh yeah, definitely. But one of the things about APIs that is really unique is that iteration is not really your friend if you iterate too much. You can add to it, but changing the initial structure forces other people to change code, and that’s bad — really bad. So what we tried to do was provide a lot of upfront structure on the API, and then the iteration comes more in additive [adjustments], and we hope we don’t have to go back to rearchitect it or restructure it because that’s painful for our partners. We want to make it as consistent as possible and long lived.
GT: How do the API and share button enrich educational content?

Rochelle: Support from traditional publishers of learning content is one fantastic way to enrich content because it makes it really easy for a teacher who’s already using that content, or who discovers the content, to say, “Oh, I want this to be a classroom assignment," or — even if it’s not an assignment — just to give it to the class as something to do.

And the other method is apps, so where you’re functionally doing something, you can send a class or student off to learn in another app. Here it’s more about that connection ... You’re just trying to use Classroom as the mechanism to assign and return work. You don’t need it to do everything, so we expect the “everything” to come from other apps. That’s where people will do the work and that's how we’re hoping it all plays out.

GT: After its first year, what level of education is taking advantage of Google Classroom most?

Rochelle: We don’t really have a histogram of levels, but I would say in the U.S., K-12 has been a little stronger than higher education. We do have more momentum happening now in higher ed, but K-12 momentum in the U.S. is unbeatable. Internationally, it’s a little more evened out where it’s both K-12 and higher ed. And between K and 12, it more mimics general technology use for students. So, as an example, I would say usage at the kindergarten levels is harder to see because you don’t necessarily give a kid in kindergarten or first grade their own Chromebook or even their own Google account. I would say Classroom works really wonderfully wherever children are taught digitally and have some degree of control within their learning.

GT: How does Google ensure data privacy for students related to third-party developers?

Rochelle: It’s one of our most important concerns with third-party developers being added. There’s basically a switch a school has. One of the things we added to Google Apps when we initially launched it to companies, educators and government institutions is the administration panel. So there is basically ownership of that data at the “domain” level. And that domain is the organization that owns it — it’s not the individual. And that organization basically has all the switches and levers to control it. And so we added a digital lever for the API that lets the administrator turn [third-party apps] on or off. At the next level of control, if [an outside app] is allowed, it is at the individual user lever where teachers get to decide if they want apps on or off…So it’s user controlled, and we’re planning on continually adding to that control level. In fact, I would say it’s the most important gate we have to get through when we’re launching something. It’s so clearly on top of everybody’s mind. If you want to know more about this, is where all of that information is listed.

GT: How does the platform leverage analytics and data for learning and classroom management?

Rochelle: We don’t really do much in analytics yet. And I would say there are two levels of analytics. One would be a basic level of analytics that you could do regardless of what tools are used. We do the same thing at the apps level, which is just usage data of our tools. We report back to the administrator so the administrator can log in and see their data. But analytics about learning will only come when there are some standards across schools, and that’s not there yet. And while there are standards being proposed and standards that have been proposed for years, they are not used in a consistent way across all of the innovative tools that are being launched. So we would love to kind of add to that capability and get our agenda aligned with everyone else’s, and say let’s at least provide schools using the tools that comply with some standards that ability to see those [analytic] outcomes. We feel very strongly that it would help people see the value of not just digital learning, but using our tools in particular.

GT: So it’s more of a policy issue than a technical issue?

Rochelle: Yeah, that’s how I feel. It’s almost a policy and collaboration issue. It’s really about cultivating collaboration across the many vendors that are involved in the space. Another challenge is that standards bodies don’t work really fast because of this difficulty working across vendors. Yet we’re involved. We’re members of IMS Global Learning Consortium, which is a big standards body, and trying — so, we’ll see.

GT: How do the new additions support Google’s overall vision for its education platform?

Rochelle: Our overall vision fits into three categories, three strategic pillars.

One is simple and powerful infrastructure; we feel like we are incredibly positioned in that space because our infrastructure is super powerful, it scales, it’s reliable, it’s something that’s well proven. We don’t even think about scalability. For example, if we go to a school district that has a 100,000 kids, it’s not even a thought, it doesn’t matter. It fits so well into our strength and ease of deployment. It’s definitely much simpler than having the servers in the school, that’s like a no-brainer these days. This hits administrators and the school district and school boards as something really powerful.

The next pillar is where Classroom fits in really well, which is trying to fuel teachers and get them more time for teaching, you know, to give them the ability to use their superpower — which is when they’re in front of a child and when they’re teaching kids directly — not when they have to mess around with technology. We feel like what Classroom was targeted at mostly was giving them back this time. It makes technology just fade away into the background and make teacher workflows easy.

The third pillar is engaging students. We want to make sure the learning can be fun and that the tools we have can really get in front of the child in a consistent way that fits into learning plans… Engagement of students also hits at why we created the API. There are just so many great learning tools out there, and now developers can use the API to create absolutely fantastic tools.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.