Google Classroom as an LMS: The company ups the ante in education

In June, 2014 I wrote a post at e-Literate, arguing that Classroom was not designed to be an LMS. In particular:

For years the ed tech community has speculated about Google entering the LMS market, including Wave (discontinued, but some key features embedded in other tools), Apps for Education, and even incorrectly with Pearson OpenClass. Each time there are some possibilities, but Google has not shown interest in fully replacing LMS functionality.

Google Classroom, announced in May and with new details coming out this week, is the closest that Google has come to fully providing an LMS. The focus is much more on K-12 than on higher education.

In a follow up post titled “Why Google Classroom won’t affect institutional LMS market … yet”, I argued that there were missing features that prevented Google Classroom from being a legitimate LMS at the institutional level.

But these features are targeted at innovators and early adopter instructors who are willing to fill in the gaps themselves.

* The course creation, including setting up of rosters, is easy for an instructor to do manually, but it is manual. There has been no discussion that I can find showing that the system can automatically create a course, including roster, and update over the add / drop period.

* There is no provision for multiple roles (student in one class, teacher in another) or for multiple teachers per class.

* The integration with Google Drive, especially with Google Docs and Sheets, is quite intuitive. But there is no provision for PDF or MS Word docs or even publisher-provided courseware.

* There does not appear to be a gradebook – just grading of individual assignments. There is a button to export grades, and I assume that you can combine all the grades into a custom Google Sheets spreadsheet or even pick a GAE gradebook app. But there is no consistent gradebook available for all instructors within an institution to use and for students to see consistently.

Google Classroom Roadmap

Nearly seven years later, with massive adoption at the K-12 level and a history of adding features, Google has made it official that Classroom is indeed an LMS and that the company is planning to roll out some of the key features needed by institutions. From a company post describing Classroom’s roadmap:

We first built Classroom to simplify and improve teaching and learning. We wanted to help teachers build stronger connections with students and give them back time to focus on the things that made them want to teach in the first place. As more teachers use Classroom as their “hub” of learning during the pandemic, many schools are treating it as their learning management system (LMS).

While we didn’t set out to create an LMS, Classroom is committed to meeting the evolving needs of schools. We’ll continue to put the people who use our products first and listen to your feedback to address your top priorities. And we’ll always make sure Classroom retains the simplicity and ease-of-use that’s made it so helpful to teachers, students, and school leaders around the world.

Google Classroom already added the capability to add different document types, include PDF and MS Word files (see this 2019 video). The much bigger changes announced in the new roadmap are centered on Google finally getting serious about the difficult but necessary need to automate class rosters through student information system (SIS) integration and to streamline grade book reporting back to the SIS.

Set up classes in advance with SIS roster syncing (coming later this year)

Provisioning classes for an entire school system can be time consuming. Later this year, admins using Education Plus will be able to create classes and populate and sync rosters directly to Classroom from their Student Information System (SIS).

Streamline grade entry (coming later this year)

Grade Export, which is available to eligible Skyward and Infinite Campus customers, is coming to Aspen SIS. This will allow teachers to track grades and push them from Classroom’s Gradebook to their SIS, eliminating the need to put grades in two places.

Classroom is also getting more of the third-party app and content religion, even if it is a private religion (more on that later).

Use your favorite EdTech tools and content with Classroom (coming later this year)

School leaders, teachers and students often use multiple educational tools each day and need them to work together. Soon, for teachers using Google Workspace for Education Plus or Teaching and Learning Upgrade, Classroom add-ons will let them choose their favorite EdTech tools and content from a marketplace and assign it to students directly inside Classroom — all without extra log-ins. Admins will also be able to install add-ons for teachers in their domains.

There is a significant list of new functionality listed in the roadmap that is either coming soon or coming later this year. What is different than in past years is the focus on serving admins – meaning schools or school districts – and not just doing the minimum necessary to keep the focus on teachers.

Learning With Google 2021

Meanwhile, this Google Classroom roadmap is coordinated with Google’s Learning With Google 2021 virtual event this week, where CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off the discussions. There are a lot of signals that the pandemic is pushing Google to focus much more on education.

I do not believe that this increased emphasis on education from Google changes everything, or that Google Classroom as true LMS will completely alter the K-12 LMS market. But it is important to understand that this time is very different than Google Wave or even early Google Classroom years.

We have already shared how much the K-12 LMS market has expanded due to the pandemic. In this view from North America, Google Classroom is one of the top four solutions, alongside Canvas, Schoology, and Moodle. The picture outside of North America is different, however, with a much greater relative adoption of Classroom.

While Classroom is significant in this market, it is not dominant. Melanie Lazare’s session described that Classroom has increased from 40 million users one year ago to 150 million today. That is huge from a user perspective, but now there seems to be a focus more on institutional adoption.

If you watch Melanie’s talk, it seems that Google is not intending to fit into the LMS market in terms of the Classroom add-ons marketplace, nor does it appear that they intend to follow industry standards such as LTI. Google plans are more around redefining the product category using their own ecosystem. We’ll have to see how this plays out in reality, but it feels like a ‘we are the standards’ approach. Think partner integration as opposed to open standards.

Update 2/19: I edited this paragraph to be more precise about the marketplace and ingesting apps and content into Classroom. As noted in this comment below, Classroom does use IMS OneRoster and LTI standards for roster and LMS integration.

What is not clear yet is whether Google plans to keep different approaches to different markets. Previously they were happy to have Classroom compete as an LMS, even without many critical features, in the K-12 market, yet in higher ed they deliberately avoided competing with established LMS players. It appears that K-12 is still the focus for Classroom, but I would not rule out a different strategy in higher ed soon. It will be interesting to see how the market changes over the next year or two.

Disclosure: Several LMS and other EdTech companies are subscribers to our EdTech Market Analysis service.