Seven things you need to know about Google Classroom
A white paper from Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State

Please note that Penn State does not currently have a license for Google Classroom.

At a glance

Google Classroom, a feature of Google Apps for Education, provides collaborative course space with a more simple approach than many learning management systems.

  • Streamlined interactions
  • Paperless workflow
  • Simplified communication

Who to contact

BJ Kitchin, University of Maine or Megan Kohler, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State

Usage scenarios

At institutions currently signed on with Google, there are several ways in which Google Classroom could be beneficial to both students and faculty.

  • Google Classroom has the potential to streamline communication and workflow for students by providing a single access point to discussion threads and assigned work.
  • Google Classroom can help students to keep their files more organized because all their work can be stored paperlessly in a single program.
  • Faculty can more quickly identify which students may be struggling with their assignments due to the tracking mechanisms associated with assigned tasks.
  • Grading processes can be simplified because of the grading features associated with student submissions.


Research team

BJ Kitchin, University College, University of Maine System
Megan Kohler, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State
Julie Lang, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State
Jackie Ritzko, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State
Kasey Ryen, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Penn State

1. What is it?

Google Classroom is a feature that has recently been added to the suite of Google Apps for Education. It provides a collaborative course space with a series of features that are similar to what one would find in a typical learning management system (LMS), but with a more simplistic approach. By streamlining the interactions and communication processes students and instructors engage in, the focus can be placed where it really belongs—on learning.

One important note about Google Classroom: Currently, you must be a Google Institution in order to access and use the tool.

2. Who is using it?

Given the fact that Google Classroom is restricted to Google Institutions and that it is just one app in an entire series, it is basically impossible to determine which institutions are using it and which ones are not. One institution that the investigative team does know is currently piloting the tool is the University of Maine, which the team partnered with for this investigation.

3. How does it work?

The simplicity of Google Classroom resides in the fact that all available features are integrated. Once a new course space is created, two tabs are made available to the instructor, one labeled “Stream” and the other “Students.”

The Stream tab functions as a communication channel that allows the instructor to post announcements and create assignments. If an instructor creates an assignment in Google Classroom, students can seamlessly transition to Google Docs in order to complete the assignment. From the instructor side, they can see when a student has created an assignment and can easily transition back and forth from reviewing to grading. A key function of Google Classroom is that instructors can see at a glance who has submitted their assignments and which ones have already been graded.

From the Student tab, an instructor can either manually add students to the course roster or have the enrollment process automated by sending the students a course code, which they would then use to log in to the site.

A detailed tutorial on how to create and use a Classroom Space is available on YouTube.

4. Why is it significant?

Students and teachers in a Google Classroom have access to a paperless workflow process. A paperless workflow can improve classroom efficiency and reduce costs associated with printing. As more research is being conducted, some teachers are finding that students are becoming more organized, connected, and engaged in paperless classrooms.

Google Classroom is able to provide an environment built on free, easy, and familiar tools. The same toolset that is already used in informal and home environments is now extended to a structured classroom environment. The collaborative functionality of Google applications also adds to the attractiveness of being part of a Google institution.

5. What are the downsides?

Currently, there is no provision for an individual to have multiple roles (student in one class, teacher in another) or for multiple teachers per class. This can be cumbersome and prohibit those who co-teach from using the tool. This also applies to the ownership of a course. If two teachers would want to be owners of a course, it is not possible.

There are also limitations in terms of integration of an outside product. For example, if a teacher wanted to use Google Classroom and include publisher-provided modules or plug-ins such as question pools for tests and quizzes or integrated LMS content, there is not a way to incorporate them at this time.

Grade book functionality is also an issue. Currently there is not a consistent grade book available for all instructors within an institution to use and for students to see.

From an administrative perspective, it is difficult to provision by role who has access to create a Google Classroom. In other words, Apps domain administrators can either require each Google Classroom instance to manually verify the teacher role, or allow any user to create a Google Classroom, much like Google Sites. Changes have been made to automate student enrollment per registration data since Google Classroom was released in September 2014; however; the process requires custom coding by an IT administrator and integration with Google Groups.

Finally, there are concerns that Google Classroom could contribute to the digital divide.

According to an August 2014 NPR article, not every student has a device and Wi-Fi at home. One teacher ended up having to print out assignments for those who did not have the ability to complete the assignments at home in her “paperless classroom.”

6. What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Easy to use: Google Classroom’s design purposefully simplifies the instructional interface and options used for delivering and tracking assignments; communication with the entire course or individuals is also simplified through announcements, email, and push notifications.

Saves time: Because Classroom integrates and automates the use of other Google apps, including docs, slides, and spreadsheets, the process of administering document distribution, grading, formative assessment, and feedback is simplified and streamlined.

Cloud-based: Google apps represent a significant portion of cloud-based enterprise communications tools used throughout the professional workforce. Integrating cloud-based productivity and communication tools as a core element of the instructional and learning infrastructure provides for more professionally authentic technology use in learning environments.

Flexible: The Google Classroom app is easily accessible and useable to instructors and learners in both face-to-face learning environments and fully online environments (assuming they have Google Apps for Education). This enables educators to explore and leverage flipped instructional methods more easily as well as automate and organize the distribution and collection of assignments and communications in multiple instructional milieus (fully face-to-face to fully online).

Accessible: Accessibility has been addressed from the outset for keyboard-only users and screen readers. For more information see the Google support topic Get started in Classroom with a screen reader.

Free: Though Google Classroom itself is not necessarily available to learners without access to an educational institution, access to all the other apps, such as Drive, Docs, Spreadsheets, Slides, etc. are available simply by signing up for a Google account.

Mobile-friendly: Google Classroom is designed to be responsive and easy to use on any mobile device. Mobile access to learning materials that are attractive and easy to interact with is critical in today’s web connected learning environments.

7. Where is it going?

Since Google Classroom was released in September 2014, there have already been a significant number of improvements.

Over the past several months, Google has developed extensive help documentation and it continues to grow the capability of Classroom since the release of the application. This signals that Google plans ongoing investments in developing the application and users can expect more changes and improvements to come.

Adoption of Google Apps for Education in the K-12 domain is well known and continues to grow. The investigative team also sees more institutions of higher education adopting Google Apps for Education into their suite of instructional tech tools. See:

Google just launched Drive for Education, which is available to all Google Apps for Education customers at no charge and includes:

  • Unlimited storage: No more worrying about how much space you have left or about which user needs more gigabytes. Drive for Education supports individual files up to 5 TB in size and will be available in coming weeks.
  • Vault: Google Apps Vault, a solution for search and discovery for compliance needs, will be coming free to all Apps for Education users by the end of the year.
  • Enhanced Auditing: Reporting and auditing tools and an Audit API that easily let a user see the activity of a file are also on the way.

Though it is difficult to confirm exactly how many users by types of users are actively using Google Apps for Education, for work and person use, we know the total number of educational users and work users is in the tens of millions and when we add personal users, Google apps users climb well into the hundreds of millions of users.

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