Google Apps for Education: When Will It Replace the LMS?

History professor Jonathan Rees called it an “uncharacteristically subtle post.” When he posted an excerpt from his university’s report on its Blackboard usage, he didn’t have to say much: “I think all I want to do here is point out that all the things professors use Blackboard for here most (as well as a few of the things that not many people use Blackboard for) can be done for a lot less money than whatever our Blackboard license costs. Sometimes they can be done for no money at all.”

Rees asks a really important question: why would a school opt to spend so much money on an LMS when many of its features go unused? Why pay when you can find cheap or free alternatives elsewhere?

I’m not sure how much the usage patterns of Rees’ university match those at other institutions. But if, indeed, people are primarily – heck, overwhelmingly – using the LMS to share documents and send announcements, then wow, we need to really look closely at what Google Apps for Education is providing campuses – a cloud-based document creation, editing, sharing, and storage tool, plus email, calendaring, and social networking – as well as what it’s positioned to provide in the future thanks to APIs and app stores.

I say this, of course, in light of the news this week that the long-awaited Google Drive is finally here.

The new Google product offers users 5 GB of file storage and syncing and effectively replaces Google Docs (which has offered file storage for a couple of years). Google Drive also replaces the editing, file-creation and file-sharing features of Google Docs. (It’s a new label for a new product, arguably.)

Old Google product. New Google product. Whatever.  But new opportunities in education?  Perhaps.

Unlike some features that take weeks (months?) to arrive for Apps users, Google Drive is available already at launch for Google Apps for Education.  I wrote a post earlier this week with some of the details I got “on background” from Google about how the roll-out was “nuanced” in certain ways for Apps for Edu users. The most obvious thing that’s different – other than the name-change from Docs to Drive – is the addition of an SDK that allows third-party developers to build applications that integrate with Google Drive. At launch, there’s just one specifically edu-oriented app, the graphing calculator Desmos. But with some 14 million teachers and students using the platform, I wager there are lots more apps to come.

And what then?

If, as Rees’ image suggests, the usage of the LMS on campus really just involves document sharing, announcements, gradebooks, and discussion boards, then isn’t a platform like Google Apps for Education a completely viable (and free) replacement? What do you need that Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Chat, Google Docs, Blogger, Google+. and Sites don’t provide?  With the extension of the Google Apps for EDU platform to third-party developers (some of which charge, some of which are free), why are schools paying for an LMS again?

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About Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a writer and rabble-rouser. Her work appears in O'Reilly Radar, KQED's MindShift, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as on her own blog Hack Education. For more information, see her profile page.
This entry was posted in Ed Tech, LMS & Learning Platforms. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Google Apps for Education: When Will It Replace the LMS?

  1. I’ve studied the issue of tool adoption depth as part of my work to develop Boackboard CourseSites. My key findings were that student satisfaction and success in hybrid learning programs is increased by the use of interactive and reflective tools such as blogs, wikis, journals and discussion boards. The barrier to adoption is one of instructor training and awareness of best practices. To address this issue we created and piloted a new capability called “Course Structures” this creates a template for a LMS course space with content, sequencing and tools organized based on the type of learning experience the teacher is trying to create. The template guides the instructor through hybrid course development and provides a sort of meta course for the instructor to help them learn and use best practices within their course. The result was a significant rise in tool usage. The feature was so successful that we have put it into Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP8 for all Bb Learn instructors.

  2. Kim Flintoff says:

    SLA – what guarantees for service levels? Uptime, performance, and lifespan? What about marking, records keeping, archival requirements?

    Can Google address legislative requirements that many schools and universities must adhere to?

    Google is terrific for many things and in small learning environments can provide many valuable tools – what they fail to do is take responsiblity should their service fail for any reason. They do not offer much assistance when administrative intervention is required.

    Absolutely brilliant for informal, small scale, open learning approaches – fraught with issues for organisations that have strict accreditation, governance and accountability to contend with.

  3. Hello, all,

    John – the feature you describe sounds wonderful for people who want a traditional course structure, or who don’t know how to design a course. With that said, I can imagine a lot of folks who are experienced educators that would find the structure unnecessary and potentially stifling.

    Kim, re your suggestions that google fails to take responsibility should their services fail for any reason: that’s just not accurate – from

    “During the Term of the applicable Google Apps Agreement (the “Agreement”), the Google Apps Covered Services web interface will be operational and available to Customer at least 99.9% of the time in any calendar month”

    Google has also provisioned services for many colleges and universities, and for K12 at the state and district level. In these arrangements, they would have needed to address the privacy concerns you mention.

    There are lots of reasons not to use Google Apps, but SLA’s and legislative requirements aren’t among them.

  4. Heather Ayers says:

    One word: moodle. It’s free and very powerful.
    I see a lot of value in Google Apps, but there are things it can’t do that moodle can. I think the two of them together, however, are pretty much the perfect combination.

  5. Dorothy says:

    I think Google Drive should go someway to allaying fears about ‘if Google fails’. Our teachers and students have already backed up all their Docs using it, and they can manage this by themselves.
    The addition of Teacher Dashboard, a 3rd part add-on by Hapara, has made Google Apps a complete LMS experience for our school District.

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  7. Zach says:

    Google Apps is almost there. In our district we see teachers gravitating towards GAFE instead of our LMS.

    We’re a mid-sized district that requires teachers to post minimum course components online (ie syllabus, lesson plans, electronic resources, FAQs,). We use Moodle as our LMS, WordPress for district sites, and GAFE for everything. It costs very little. And teachers prefer to place most of these course components on a Google Sites (due to its simplicity) or WordPress (due to its aesthetics and simplicity).

    Moodle is mostly loved by our power users. Actually, for our teachers who like to give tests online. GAFE just doesn’t (quite) have an suitable option for this yet.

    The problem with most LMSs is their complexity. I may love it as an instructional developer, but most teachers and students want to understand applications intuitively and quickly. The programs that excel at this will be the ones (at that least in the k-12 arena) that gain inroads in online learning.

  8. DT says:

    Great post Audrey and the link to your post seems to be one of the most re-tweeted EdTech links. The reason I love your article is it matches my opinion exactly, and I believe it to the extent we have built our entire business of developing CourseDirector around it.

    Now iId like to start by giving my answer to your question ‘When will Google Apps replace the LMS?’….My opinion? ‘Never.’ Now before you think I need to make up my mind I’d like to qualify this. I believe that Google Apps will provide the PLATFORM for the LMS going forward but it will still need some third party Apps to provide the functionality of an LMS. If you try to use standard Google Apps as an LMS you will quickly run into some admin issues. For example if you take the post you linked to by Jonathan Rees and take the top four most used aspects of Blackboard at his college: ‘Documents posted’, ‘Announcements’, ‘Grade Centre’ and ‘Discussion Board’ and then try to look practically how you would replicate them in Google Apps: ‘Documents posted’ and ‘Announcements’ is easy; you would take the approach we took in CourseDirector and create a Google Site for each course, then add sections for ‘attached files’ and ‘Announcements’. You would then share this Site with a Google Group containing all the students in your course. For tracking attendance as a makeshift solution the lecturer could use a Google spreadsheet with rows created for each student.

    Now think of the practicalities. Every time a student moves to a different course (the first two week of most semesters see many such transfers) the admin has to go in and remove the student from the group created to correspond to the class and add them to a new group. Someone has to go to the attendance spreadsheet and remove the moved students from one class and add them manually to another. The process would be time consuming and prone to a lack of admin oversight.

    This is exactly the problem that led us to the initial concept of CourseDirector…Google Apps needs an ‘admin layer’ sitting over it to allow admins to easily have oversight of which students and lecturers are added to which course (and taking it a step further when you set-up online testing, grading, report cards etc in Google Apps the administration becomes a lot harder for a large school.)

    With CourseDIrector very early we on we decided on our fundamental guiding principle: ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel’. If something can be down in Google Apps don’t try to recreate in in our App. Now to make something that looks simple is still complex (CourseDirector has 40,000 lines of code and counting) but I think many applications in the Google Apps marketplace miss the point by going for an approach of setting up ‘single sign-on’ with Google then setting up (for example) their own online testing module (our solution: use Google Forms), or setting up a system for teachers to add feedback to students work (our solution: use the commenting functionality in Google Docs).

    The way LMS design is going it seems to me (apart from the obvious move to the cloud) is towards a fundamentally simpler design, as you can see from the article by Jonathan Rees, only docs, announcements and grades have anything like 50% of adoption by faculty and if you look closer at many schools you will see many faculties and departments independently setting up their own LMS systems. In this case I think your hypotheses that ‘Google Apps will replace the LMS’ could be correct, in that if a college adopts Google Apps across the whole enterprise, then this provides the basis for an LMS. Individual faculties can then add their own Apps form the Google Apps Marketplace (for example one department might use CourseDirector, one might use OpenClass, a smaller department might just get by with core Google Apps), but Google Apps will provide the ‘backbone’ for the LMS.

    Now of course many people will think ‘Why don’t Google just release their own LMS that will sit on top of Google Apps and then they can take the entire market themselves’. I don’t believe they will do this for the simple reason that Google has a massive interest in building up the Google Apps Marketplace as a viable ecosystem for third party apps for schools and colleges, and they know that if they decided to write a full LMS (or for that matter an SIS, ePortfolio or any other standard EdTech system they would discourage people from building applications around Google Apps for Education.


  9. Billy Meinke says:

    I appreciate the contrast drawn here between the capabilities of a LMS like Blackboard and the functions/features of it that most professors actually use. At this point in time, many instructors in higher education are not aware of, not capable of using, or not willing to incorporate many features of a full LMS. I’ll add that many instructors do use their campus’s LMS well and even supplement it with other tools (social media, for one).

    Two issues I see with this are 1) Not all features of Google Apps for Education are supported at some campuses. I’m not sure if it’s just a local issue, but it seems that campus IT departments have the option to roll out specific Google Apps to the faculty and students when they wish, not just a “here’s everything Google Apps has to offer” situation. As far as I know, our IT department only just recently began to support Google+, and some of our Gmail features don’t work quite right. And 2) Integration with the student information system (SIS) would be a massively important feature, which I don’t believe we could trust Google to handle. Privacy concerns exist.

    As is, many instructors could get by using Google Apps for 95% of course management, and only use the local LMS for registration and grading. Will it get to the point that Google Apps for Education rolls out the last few necessary features and can act as an SIS? Who knows.

    Great post Ms. Watters, will be passing this along!

  10. DT says:

    Billy just a couple of follow up ponts from about your comment.

    Firstly your exactly right about Google Apps admin. Your administrator can create sub-organisations on your Google Apps system and activate difference services at the sub organisation level. I would recommend just contact your admin and ask them to have the service you need, e.g. Google+ activated.

    Regarding your second point about integration of Google Apps with an SIS this is extremely unlikely to be done by Google as every SIS has a different set of API’s and Google would have to write a separate interface. With CourseDirector we are just starting to write interfaces with individual SIS systems, and it’s challenging to stay the least but necessary as many of our partner schools need this link between SIS and Google Apps.


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