Google for Education recently released mobile apps for its Classroom product. The announcement details their features, including the ability to attach pictures to assignments and attach features from other apps (such as paint, drawing, audio, or mind-mapping apps) and the offline caching of assignments and other classroom content. Also released was a workflow tool for assignments to help teachers stay organized, allowing them to see all open and active assignments on one page, as well as the number of students who have yet to complete assigned work. Finally, Classroom is now allowing for archived classes. Once a class is finished and closed to new submissions, students and teachers can revisit its old content indefinitely.
This announcement puts Classroom squarely into learning management system (LMS) turf; Google for Education can no longer brush off its parallels to other big, for-profit LMSs as “just some apps to help students.” We’re well beyond Google Docs and Hangouts now.
The field of for-profit, online classroom management providers is smaller than it once was. A decade ago, WebCT jostled with Blackboard for dominant positions within colleges’ and universities’ online ventures. Over time, Blackboard has been the big winner—it bought WebCT in 2006 and is now a standard feature in both solely virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms around the world.
But in a strange way, the last few years have seen the rapid rise of a new kind of competitor to Blackboard. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their variants have in some senses opened education to anyone with a data plan and a web browser, and professors have long since adopted Web 2.0 tools to share knowledge, challenge students, and build a stronger sense of in-classroom community—whether the classroom is face-to-face or all online.
Blackboard itself has evolved and has become “appy” to fit the increasing demand for mobile compatibility for tablet-centric learning. After CEO Michael Chasen left the company in 2012, an era of “feature creep” began, wherein Blackboard was seen by some observers as trying to add too many new apps and features, not all of which were appropriate, according to Rip Empson’s article in TechCrunch. This was at a time, over the last half-decade or so, that MOOC-ware platforms were popping up all over the place. Many were free, and many were (and continue to be) affiliated with respected institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT OpenCourseWare now offers more than 2,100 self-paced courses for free, and it has supported 2,000-plus courses since 2010.
Moodle, unlike MIT OpenCourseWare, is content-neutral; it doesn’t offer specific courses or develop content for courses, but instead gives educational institutions a free, open source software package for developing their own online course content. Moodle offers a structure that institutions can tinker with and use to create learning environments independently.
Udemy is one of many companies taking a different approach. It’s a sort of Craigslist for linking learners to teachers, tutors, and tutees. Want to prepare for your CompTIA A+ certification exam? Udemy offers a 92-part preparation course for $99—you watch the videos, read the material, and do the exercises on your own schedule, asynchronously from the other students. ProProfs, Ruzuku, Educadium, and many others work on this model. The teacher prepares a course, the students subscribe to it, and the company takes a percentage of the transaction.
Private Versus Free
Google’s Classroom has been offering a virtual learning environment, a fully loaded LMS, for free, since August 2014. Classroom builds on Google for Education’s suite of related apps—ones we all know and use for a variety of other purposes, such as Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms. But these apps, along with Classroom, lack something that Blackboard has long built into its LMS: privacy.
As reported in Motherboard on Aug. 15, 2014, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has voiced concern that Classroom’s integration with Google Drive leads to an intolerable predicament for student privacy. Drive and Gmail are data mined by Google to support its AdSense and AdWords advertising ecosystem. According to Google’s Terms of Service:
Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.
If you have a Google Account, we may display your Profile name, Profile photo, and actions you take on Google or on third-party applications connected to your Google Account (such as +1’s, reviews you write and comments you post) in our Services, including displaying in ads and other commercial contexts. We will respect the choices you make to limit sharing or visibility settings in your Google Account. For example, you can choose your settings so your name and photo do not appear in an ad.
How this works out with educational privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the U.S., has yet to be fully tested. As schools, colleges, and universities gravitate toward Classroom for its price, ease of use, and great apps, legal challenges over the protection of privacy (or the outsourcing of data to third parties) is likely to increase.
Blackboard utilizes other companies to provide limited services on its behalf, including but not limited to customer support, web analytics, coordination of mailings and event management. These companies are permitted to access only the information they require to perform those services. Blackboard requires these companies to maintain the confidentiality of any personal information and prohibits them from using the information for any other purpose than the purpose for which it was collected. (emphasis added)
Eduhacker’s Timothy A. Lepczyk reminds us that Google’s official position is to protect student privacy and not to use data gathered through Education apps for advertising purposes. But Google’s general Terms of Service make no effort to exclude its Classroom tools.
Blackboard has the strong reputation for taking privacy seriously, at least for now. But as Classroom grows, how will Blackboard compete with “free”?