Go read this Adobe designer’s take on why Google Classroom is so joyless

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As students around the world continue to study from home as a result of the pandemic, Google’s Classroom software has fast become an invaluable remote learning tool. But as many are discovering, Google’s software is far from perfect. Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh has used his blog to weigh in on where he thinks Google’s software goes wrong. It’s fascinating and well worth a read.

As you’d expect from someone who works at Adobe, a lot of Vinh’s arguments are about the software itself. Vinh describes obvious design missteps in Classroom like its lack of customizability, its poor integration with Google’s other services, and its general sluggishness.

When I saw Google Classroom for the first time, my immediate thought was, “This is clearly an under-funded product that ranks fairly low on the list of Google’s priorities.” Our kids use the iPad version and, setting aside the inconvenient fact that it’s at least a few steps behind Google Classroom in the browser, the product as a whole is slow, inelegant and unappealing. It works but just barely, and it lacks nearly every modern user experience affordance commonly found in most contemporary productivity software.

However, Vinh’s core argument is that the service’s biggest problems reflect how broader society undervalues education. While modern offices are designed to be “a kind of work-resort, where play is interleaved with productivity,” Vinh argues that schools have a more old-fashioned approach.

When you walk into most schools, you immediately get the sense that the machinery of educational administration takes precedence over the students, despite the often valiant effort of teachers and staff to counter that bias. All of this speaks volumes about how we value students and children.

These differences, Vinh says, can now be seen in the world of software and apps. The workplace productivity app Slack is incredibly feature rich, and filled with small features that let people express themselves. Gifs, polls, and quizzes make Slack “a hub for each company’s culture, a repository for workplace sentiment, and a place for employees to hang out, even when they’re not on the clock.” But Google Classroom is a different story.

The bigger context of this poverty of common user experience affordances, though, is Google Classroom’s utter lack of humanity. The app isn’t just spare, it’s barren; it’s task-oriented and optimized for assignments, not learning-oriented and optimized for people.

In Google Classroom, students are an afterthought and their experience of using the app amounts to little more than a formality.

I don’t think Vinh’s argument is without its flaws. It’s telling that he compares Google Classroom to Slack, rather than a workplace productivity app made by Google itself (probably because the company’s haphazard approach to messaging means that one doesn’t exist). But it’s still absolutely worth a read, and we can’t help but hope Google takes his constructive criticism on board.

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