Google updates its online learning tools so teachers can start planning early

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Google LLC today announced dozens of new features in its Google for Education suite of tools that it says will help educators prepare for the coming school year.

Google for Education is a customized package of Google tools, including Google Workspace, which bundles apps such as Gmail, Docs and Sheets, Google Meet for video calls and presentations, and Google Classroom, which is a portal for teachers that allows them to share assignments with their students and grade submissions.

The tools are designed to be used with Google Chromebooks that run the ChromeOS operating system and have dozens of outside applications that are useful for online learning.

Today’s updates, announced at an online event called The Anywhere School, include some interesting new capabilities for Google Classroom focused on giving education leaders greater visibility and control over their online learning resources. The updates are designed to help educators use Classroom at any size of educational system, whether that’s a district or state school system or even an entire country, Google Classroom Product Manager Akshat Sharma said in a blog post.

One of the most useful new features in Classroom is sure to be the new add-ons that will arrive in beta test mode later this year for school districts with the Teaching and Learning Upgrade or Education Plus editions of Google for Education. The add-ons will give teachers access to dozens of new edtech tools from within classroom, with launch partners including Adobe Spark for Education, CK-12 Foundation, Edpuzzle, BookWidgets, Nearpod and Kahoot!

Other capabilities launching soon include a roster import function that will enable information technology administrators to set up classes automatically and keep rosters in sync with school’s student information systems.

Teachers should also appreciate the new ability to schedule assignments across multiple classes — the most requested feature, Sharma said. Meanwhile, the new offline capabilities for the Classroom app on Android will allow students to work without an internet connection.

Google Meet
Google Meet’s video calling capabilities are a key ingredient for online learning and they haven’t been neglected in today’s updates. Sharma explained that teachers will soon be able to access Meet from within Classroom, in a move that will make the service easier to use, safer and more secure.

“First, students will have to sit in a “waiting room” until a teacher has joined the meeting link,” he explained. “Next, guests outside the class roster will have to ‘ask to join’ so no unwanted participants get into meetings. And finally, all co-teachers in a class will also automatically be co-hosts in the meeting, and only students listed in the Classroom roster will be able to join the Meet.”

In a second blog post, Google Meet Product Manager Maryam Sanglaji said more settings will be added to the Google for Education Admin console so that school leaders can set policies on who is able to join their school’s video calls. Sanglaji said that will help educators to create the right boundaries for students of different ages, facilitate external speakers and give admins the ability to immediately end any meeting directly from the console’s investigation tool.

There will be more improvements on the experience side in Meet too. In the coming weeks, Sanglaji said Google will make improvements to the hand-raise icon and notification sound so students can participate with confidence, while teachers will be able to see and hear more easily who has raised their hands.

“People who raise their hands will show up in the grid and there will be a persistent notification so you can see how many people raised their hands and in what order,” he explained. “Once a student with a raised hand is done talking, their hand will automatically lower.”

Other new features in Meet include support for closed captions in five languages, available now, and live translated captions, coming later this year.

Workspace for Education
Improved collaboration and security is the main aim behind the improvements in Google’s suite of productivity apps that were announced today.

Google Workspace for Education Product Manager Brain Hendricks explained that the company has enhanced its grammar suggestions in Docs for Education Plus customers with the “next phase of writing tips.” In Docs, users will receive warnings about offensive language and stylistic suggestions, he said, while in Sheets, a new assisted analysis feature will suggest formulas to use that make it easier to get insights from spreadsheets.

Google’s productivity apps also gain better integration with Google Meet. So now, it’s possible for teachers to present content in Meet directly from Docs, Sheets or Slides with the click of a button. Later this year, Google will embed Meet video calls within all three apps to make it easier for people to see each other while they collaborate.

On the security side, Hendricks promised that Google will enhance its protections in Google Drive that help block phishing and malware content from external users and organizations. Those protections will be extended to users within the school organization to guard against insider threats and accidental sharing of malware.

Google Drive admins are going to get more advanced controls on how files can be shared within and outside of their organizations in the coming months. “For example, an admin can allow a subset of faculty to share documents with anyone in their district, but only allow students to share files with people in their specific school,” Hendricks explained.

Finally, the new Drive labels feature coming soon will allow admins to classify files automatically at an appropriate sensitivity level. “This can help admins be more proactive about protecting some of your communities’ most sensitive data, like personally identifiable information or proprietary research,” Hendricks said.

Updates to the ChromeOS operating system will give schools more tools that can help them manage fleets of Chromebook devices.

Google already provides tools that enable Zero Touch Enrollment, allowing school IT admins to remotely set up and drop ship devices to students’ homes. And each Chromebook will receive automatic security updates for up to eight years to keep them safe and secure.

Now, Google is updating the Devices page within the Google Admin Console so admins can easily see which devices are nearing their Automatic Update Expiration date. There will also be a new page in the console that enables admins to view Chrome Insights Reports. That will provide a view of the AUE dates for each device fleet, helping prepare schools for when they should starting thinking about purchasing new devices, Google said.

Another new feature rolling out soon is PIN logins for education users as part of the device set-up process. Students, educators and admins that receive an assigned device will be able to log in with a simple six-digit PIN. The first time they log into a new device, they’ll be asked to set up a PIN, and then they’ll be able to use that each time going forward.

Analyst Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. said Google’s education-focused updates are very timely as most schools in the northern hemisphere have just begun their summer vacations. “This gives administrators, school systems and teachers time to evaluate and get up to speed with the new offerings,” he said. “That’s important because teachers need to master them before the new school year kicks off.”

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