So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic, adapting as teachers do. In the last six months, everything around us has changed, and we must now redefine what it means to be a teacher. We’re overwhelmed. We’re stressed. A million questions are running through our heads. Where do you even start? Well, my gut says we should start by picking an LMS. You’re going to have to choose some kind of learning management system before you move forward, and most of your decisions from there are going to depend on the choice you make regarding your LMS, anyhow. So, why not start there?
In this article, I’ve done my best to layout for you the two main choices for secondary LMS, since I myself am a secondary teacher. We’ll talk about some of my favorite features of Canvas and Google Classroom, and the benefits that they bring to the table. Moreover, we’ll discuss the learning management system that I prefer, and the benefits of it that help me to be a more effective and unique teacher, even when teaching remotely.
Pros and Cons of Google Classroom
Google Classroom has been around since August of 2014 and has been well-loved by educators throughout its lifetime – as it should be. There are a lot of really great reasons to choose Google classroom, especially for teachers who are not experienced with technology. The LMS comes with an extremely simple set up, requiring only a course name and then you can easily select a premade theme that “customizes” your course to be different from other courses. There are also some things that make Google Classroom incredible, like the class-shared resources in Google Drive and a shared Google Calendar for all members of the course to mark due dates and important upcoming events. The LMS is also rather easy for students to navigate and understand, and when used across the board by all of their teachers it becomes even easier, as all google classrooms look the same and operate in the same way. The mandatory course home is a stream of activity where the teacher can reference work, post announcements, or even allow students to ask questions. When you switch to the classwork tab, you find that work can be very easily separated into modules and ordered exactly the way you want it to look. Google Classroom also sort-of interacts with popular LTIs (learning tool interoperability) like EdPuzzle, Kami, and Quizizz. Finally, there is also an app that both teachers and students can download on iOS or Google Play that allows the students to access the Google Classroom and turn in work, and allows the teacher to assign and grade work.
Like all things, Google Classroom has its downsides and limitations, primarily in the customization of the classroom itself. All Google Classrooms look exactly the same, and teachers aren’t able to do much other than add a picture and change the color settings to make it their own. The inability to customize is like the inability to decorate your room and express yourself as a teacher, and I find that to be a huge drawback, especially as this new school year starts and I will not have the ability to meet some of my students in person first. One complaint you may frequently see about Google Classroom too is that the assignments NEVER CLOSE. I had experience first hand with this over this summer as I was teaching online summer school, where a student didn’t realize that I was using a different LMS (because he didn’t check his email) and he completed two weeks worth of massively late work in his previous teacher’s classroom rather than completing the appropriate assignments for summer school. This can be frustrating because no one wants to get work 3 weeks late, let alone in the middle of summer. Also, many school districts have policies about late work and not letting students turn things in after a certain amount of time. My final downside was never really a problem before the pandemic, but now that we are where we are, it’s important to note that Google Classroom doesn’t log student activity or interactions within the course, something that is about to be incredibly important for attendance purposes.
Honestly, in short, I would say that Google Classroom could work for any subject, grade level, or student group. Most importantly: Google Classroom is extremely user friendly, making it ideal for young kids, basic clubs/groups/courses, or the not-so-technologically-advanced students and teachers as it doesn’t require much maintenance, upkeep, or training to get started. Personally – I use Google Classroom for clubs that I host or academic groups on campus because the stream is incredible for student officers to communicate with their peers, and I can assign permission slips, different things I’d like to give to the whole group before the next meeting, etc via the classwork tab. Google Classroom is also perfect for a blended learning environment, as a supplement to an in person classroom, where you have all the students in a single room and can teach them and communicate with them directly in person, and have students submit work online.
Pros and Cons for Canvas
I would wager to say that Canvas is like the older brother of Google Classroom. First launched in 2011, Canvas has grown and become one of the most widely used Learning Management Systems in the US. Since Canvas was used by my campus when I was working on my master’s program, I have had experience with both sides of the Canvas Classroom (Student and Teacher) and I still adore the program.
In perks, Canvas can do JUST ABOUT anything that Google can. You can create assignments, organize modules, have a class calendar, even create “Google Cloud assignments” which is just like creating an assignment on Google Classroom. Canvas, however, takes everything a step further. One of the things that I love about Canvas is the PAGES. You (and your students, if you let them) have the ability to create pages with content or information and can add these pages into individual modules. So if I wanted to tell a bunch of students about myself, I could create an “About the Instructor” page, referencing my biography and some interesting facts about me with my picture, contact information, and office hours for students. Essentially, a content page is whatever you want it to be, and I love that. Canvas also allows teachers to have their courses be completely unique. Other than some of the links being the same, teachers can edit the entire structure of the course, choosing if students can see only modules and announcements, or allowing the students to see and interact with other parts of the online system. A teacher can combine these two wonderful features to create their own homepage for their ‘website’, and tag it as the first thing students see when they enter the course. Canvas also has the ability to cross-list sections into one giant ‘shell’, so that you have all of your “Algebra 2” students in one course, and can have a separate course ‘shell’ for your “Algebra 2 Honors” students. Canvas also gives interaction and access reports to teachers, allowing you to see when students were last online and what they accessed while they were there – essential data as we are to move forward with online learning. If that wasn’t exciting enough, Canvas allows users to directly embed LTIs like EdPuzzle, FlipGrid, and countless other learning tools. Also, via either iOS or Google Play, there are different apps performing three different functions for canvas – Student, Parent, and Teacher allowing anyone to submit assignments, message, or view course content with their mobile device. The different apps allow the experience to be unique to the obviously completely different roles in the course, which is nice. I could go on and on and on about all of the amazon features of canvas, and WILL in future posts – I promise!
Unfortunately, I must reference the Peter Parker Principle (yep, Spiderman), and state that with great power comes great responsibility. Canvas takes a lot of effort to set up to be exactly what you want, and a high level of understanding of technology to be able to operate it at its fullest potential. You have to be patient with yourself as you move forward, and understand that you’re probably going to be tweaking things frequently as you move forward and updates for new features come out. Students also sometimes need an overview and explanation of the course structure, as it can vary so much from course to course. I usually do this with a quick screencast & EdPuzzles combo (more to come on that SOON!) to show students how to navigate the course, submit assignments, and check their grades. Canvas also lacks attention in the physical drive and storage capabilities. I really enjoy the fact that Google Classroom has a classroom Google Drive, where all students’ assignments are submitted and updated live, providing options for the use of other tools like Slip-N-Slide, which require other solutions if operated solely with Canvas.
Canvas is hard to set up, and it can be difficult to learn the ins-and-outs, but with the right support, Canvas is an appropriate tool for any grade level and any subject. I would say however, that I would not choose to use a Canvas course for a small group of students like a club or organization because of the high levels of maintenance and setup that the LMS requires. When used across the board by all teachers and students with the appropriate comprehensive training, Canvas can change the way that we all perceive remote learning.
I’ve gotten to choose, and I’ve had the decision made for me by my district. Both times – the decision for my classroom was Canvas. I understand technology enough to be able to develop and maintain a pretty extravagant Canvas course, and I like the extra tools and settings that it provides me. For instance – I can message students directly to talk about their missing assignments or anything else I might need to chat with them about, without the need for a secondary app or email. Students and Parent observers can also message me directly about assignments, and I get the notification on my phone through the Canvas App so I can reply quickly and easily, almost like a text message! I also love to embed different activities and provide a wide variety of assignment options, and Canvas, with all its LTIs, allows me to do that. Going forward, my district has mandated that all courses will use Canvas as their structural LMS and as a supplement to in-person courses because of the settings and features that it provides.
All-in-all, your choice for LMS will likely depend on your district, what you need as a teacher, and what you want your course to look like. Both options are incredible, and either way, you are doing the very best you can to put forth an engaging and interesting learning experience for your students. You’ve gone above and beyond just by reading this article, and I respect you for that.
Keep your eyes open and blog notifications on as I can hardly wait for the next post in our Survival Toolkit Series, breaking down how to set up your courses to be effective, efficient, and to help you express yourself regardless of your LMS! In the meantime – Take that first step! What LMS are you going to use in the upcoming school year?