Is there a place for joy in education, and education technology today?
Khoi Vinh gave a swift, if localized answer to this question. The Principal Designer of Adobe —the design tech giant whose involvement in the space include Captivate and LMS-aspiring Captivate Prime— declared Google Classroom “joyless,” in a highly popular post that no longer exist, but that unleashed a series of conversations about the design or elearning products.
- “Go read this Adobe designer’s take on why Google Classroom is so joyless” by Jon Porter over at The Verge.
From a feature and architecture perspective, Google Classroom falls short of falling into the Learning Management System bucket. Which has not prevented the classroom and homework manager to dominate the K-12 space across U.S. schools. It helps to be a free product that plays well with Google’s own G Suite and Chromebooks —Did I hear anyone say antitrust?— and it might be indicative of the limited concern and budgets for comprehensive digital learning implementations worthy of an LMS proper.
Vinh’s ideas, by no means unique, touch on critical issues of education and learning. At the same time, they are necessarily limited to Vinh’s field of expertise, which itself is an indictment on the potentially disjointed process of serving students online.
Note that despite his seniority, there is no clearly established relationship between Vinh and the Captivate product line.
Google (optimizes the) Classroom
Let me take a step back.
After 2 years of college math —in fairness, only enough to understand the most obscure economic literature—, I learned to appreciate the beauty in the curved paths nonlinear equations describe, as they collide with the more circumspect availability conditions. Apt barriers working as a metaphor for our material reality. Finding a mathematical solution was the application of procedures and theorems that allowed me to find a numerical common ground between beauty and reality. A value or set thereof where unbounded productivity functions could be possible in this given universe. I learned that mathematics supersedes reality in ways I still cannot fathom, and in a way I am free from the absurd limitations of life.
I am reminded of this whenever I’m in front of another elearning interface. Is elearning “real”? Looking at whatever is on the screen, should I think of the windows and the content as constraints to which I —student, teacher, user, citizen— am to comply?
What should your elearning system optimize for?
I cannot help but think of the digital world as endlessly malleable surfaces, more fitting of the nonlinear, imaginary —in the general, at times in the mathematical sense as well— part of the problem. Vinh’s core criticism, and curiously enough main counter argument by Classroom defenders, is its optimization, in this case towards tasks and assignments.
Do the criticism apply to LMS and other elearning systems?
- It is an under-funded product.
- It ranks low among the company’s list of priorities.
- It’s slow, inelegant and unappealing.
- It lacks nearly every modern user experience affordance commonly found in most contemporary productivity software.
- It “lacks humanity.”
- Students are an afterthought.
Vinh’s educated guess appears to miss the mark. From an optimization perspective, Classroom doesn’t actually look limited in funding. It is true that Classroom is available for free, but then again so do the G Suite and many LMS as well. It could be similarly argued that as a product, Classroom is one of the most successful of its kind, thanks among other things to the resources the team behind it has to optimize an experience.
Whether Classroom is a low-priority product is also a deceptive claim. Through free and enterprise (paid for) customers, Google leads the U.S. K-12 classroom management market. There are clear synergies, among other things with Chromebooks, the low-cost hardware product that is equally dominant in the K-12 space. If one thing Google is known for —and often detested for— is killing off products that don’t meet their goals, no matter how vocal its user base it. Given the resources put into place, including vast promotional, engagement and educational pushes, nothing of the sort seems to be happening here.
Finally, there are the aesthetic arguments, which to a large extent are subjective. It is fair to see how Classroom interfaces are squarely in line with the current design standards of the Google ecosystem, as well as the modern Semantic Web we inhabit. It’s no coincidence: Most interfaces today rely heavily on “front end” frameworks, offering them an acceptably modern look. The most popular ones out there are Bootstrap, originally built at Twitter; and Google’s own Material Design that becomes more inescapable with every new version of Android.
As a wealthy company, Google has plenty of resources to optimize user experiences. It is in fact a provider of experience optimization products. Given the diversity of devices, systems and configurations, even big tech has a hard time ensuring smooth running for all its users. The majority of the user experience seems to be smooth enough.
Too much Management, not enough Learning?
Taking aside issues of funding and ugliness, it bears wondering what the ultimate goal of Classroom is; and by extension, that of the elearning ecosystem as a whole. What are we optimizing for?
A flashback scene in The Last Of Us 2 takes protagonist Ellie with beloved character from part one Joel into an abandoned museum in Wyoming. It is Joel's treat for her birthday, as it's Ellie's favorite place. The players, who by now has spent hours killing hoards of zombies, collecting survival items and figuring out codes and puzzles; now find themselves learning facts about dinosaurs while watching realistic bone structures, making mechanical models of the solar system whirl, and comparing the surprising scales of the Soviet and American rockets during the Cold War.
A lot of modern games propose complex learning plans, made of challenges that imply the acquisition of a skill and increasing level of difficulty whose solution require said previous acquisitions. Compared that to the most elevated elearning dashboard, which often feels either clunky, or vague, as if its learning element was defeated by economic or "educational" optimization prerogatives. For Vinh, "educational" is not a complementary adjective. Google Classroom reminds him of his academic experiences:
"When you walk into most schools, you immediately get the sense that the machinery of educational administration takes precedence over the students."
What I find most interesting when looking at videogames and "gamer" behavior, is that regardless of the setup, there is a natural tendency towards optimization. It can take a simple form: If your character loses or dies, you want to try again harder. If you're down on a leaderboard, few things will get in the way of your drive to rank higher. It's also worth nothing that learning, while essential, is not the ultimate goal, and yet the level of skill acquisition is demonstrably high.
Could it be that the success in videogame engagement is due to how they optimize for joy?
Statements on privacy
If not in beauty, where are Classroom's priorities? A good guess is compliance. Anticipating one of its commons concerns, the Google for Education Product Manager, Zach Yeskel, set out to set the record straight. From a release, they state that:
- Data from Classroom and G Suite for Education is kept "safe and secure" on some of the world's "most secure" data centers and under "the same multi-layer safeguards that Google uses for our own operations."
- For enterprise customers, admin have "extensive security capabilities to protect sensitive information."
- Customers have the choice to take out their data our of the system at any time. Whenever they decide to close and delete their accounts, "all their user accounts and G Suite customer data will be deleted."
- Parents or legal guardians can make choices such as accepting G Suite's policies on behalf of the student. They have the choice to restrict their children's access to features or services.
- All data related to students is not used for Google's ad services. Core G Suite and Education services do not show ads to students. Ads may show up in "additional" services such as Maps and YouTube, but ads are contextual rather than targeted.
- G Suite for Education complies with COPPA, GDPR and FEPRA.
- "Our team works closely with school leaders and educators to continuously improve our tools and empower them with more engaging and effective ways to teach and learn—anytime, anywhere, on any device."
Google Classroom cannot be considered a Learning Management System, in fact it's more appropriate to think of it as a Classroom Management System. Using Google Classroom arguably increases productivity, not a bad thing in itself. Interfaces play an active role in the delivery of learning experiences, whether deliberate or not, they can affect the relationship of a student with the subject matter, as well as the educational outcomes, positively or negatively. It is possible to enrich the learning experience by "aligning" the interface with subject matter, or at least with a cohesive narrative; although there is merit in exploring interfaces where learning is only a tangential goal. In any case, as a "management" system, the LMS should be an optimizing system. But perhaps the question on what to optimize for should not be done on behalf of the user.