Google is a technology powerhouse, noted for its ongoing commitment to innovation in online platforms and programming. Now it has turned its hand to the online education market. In September, the company released the code for its Course Builder, which will enable colleges and universities to create their own courses within this free platform for online delivery, for everything from small seminars to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
This is potentially big news, as many colleges require all of their courses to be administered through Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard or Moodle. For example, Lasell College recently included in its 5-year plan a mandate that all faculty use Moodle to administer their courses, even if they only use it for basic tasks such as attendance and grade posting.
Given the now de rigueur use of LMS in college courses, Google’s new product can change the economic parameters of higher education technology, because unlike Blackboard, Course Builder is a free open source product. And anything free, in an era of shrinking higher education budgets and soaring tuition, is always attractive, despite the lack of technical support that usually comes with free software. Moodle is also a free open source product, but though educators appreciate it, it doesn’t have the same cachet and market familiarity as Google.
What is Google Course Builder?
Google describes its new product this way:
“Course Builder is our experimental first step in the world of online education. It packages the software and technology we used to build our Power Searching with Google online course. We hope you will use it to create your own online courses, whether they’re for 10 students or 100,000 students. You might want to create anything from an entire high school or university offering to a short how-to course on your favorite topic. Course Builder contains software and instructions for presenting your course material, which can include lessons, student activities, and assessments. It also contains instructions for using other Google products to create a course community and to evaluate the effectiveness of your course.”
The company tested its admitted “experimental early step …in the world of online education” over the summer, through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) of 155,000 enrolled students. They concluded that the experiment was a success, and showed that “Google technologies can help bring education to a global audience… We want to make this technology available so that others can experiment with online learning.”
What Does This Mean for Google?
Google has already achieved market dominance for its search engines, which push billions of dollars of advertising revenue, but now it has achieved something once thought impossible: Google is now worth more than Microsoft, according to figures released today on Technorati.com. As Technorati explains, this development “marks the growth of the web as a delivery channel for software and computing products that were once the preserve of Microsoft via their desktop dominance.”
It may also signify some other big changes but, at least for the time being, it will not be a direct threat to already existing LMS. As explained by Michael Fieldstein, Senior Program Manager of MindTap at Cengage Learning,
In fact, Google has stated that it is pleased to be working with such MOOC pioneers as the founders of Coursera and Udacity to develop Course Builder. On Google’s Research Blog, the company stated,
“We hope to continue development along these lines, but we wanted to make this limited code base available now, to see what early adopters will do with it, and to explore the future of learning technology. We will be hosting a community building event in the upcoming months to help more people get started using this software. edX shares in the open source vision for online learning platforms, and Google and the edX team are in discussions about open standards and technology sharing for course platforms.”
Fieldstein believes that Course Builder is really Google’s attempt at capturing not the LMS market, but Amazon’s turf. He writes, “this release of Course Builder open source code base is most likely a strategy to entice online learning initiatives, current and future, to develop a DIY platforms on top of Google App Engine – and take the business from Amazon where possible.”
What Does This Mean for Higher Ed?
It’s hard to say, at this point, what impact Course Builder will have on higher education. My own reaction was an interested and cautiously enthusiastic one. I know Google: I use Google Drive, Google Plus, Gmail, and many other Google products. I like the idea of all my work taking place in the same framework, and being able to easily transition between different tasks without encountering problems sharing documents, etc. I don’t know for sure that this is the case, but in my mind’s need to keep things organized, just one category of technology (“Google”) will work better for me than what I currently have to do, which is navigate through multiple platforms for different tasks.
Also, as a professor I have to wonder about how much technological knowledge it requires on my part to use Course Builder. I know history, pedagogical theory, and a few other things, but there’s no way I can add expertise in different computer languages to my workload without cheating my students, who should get the best content knowledge and instructional technique I can offer. I also question how Course Builder may affect consistency across the college. If I use Google Course Builder to create a website for my course, it may be too individualized, and students will have to figure out how each different manifestation of Course Builder works for each course.
These may all be issues that Google is hoping will emerge through crowd-sourcing, so that they can address them and improve their product. At this time, though, it seems as if Course Builder isn’t quite ready to take on Moodle, Blackboard, or any other LMS.