First-year Education Students Get Chromebooks and Learn Google Classroom

UML education majors open Chromebooks they were given as part of a pilot project Image by K. Webster
First-year education students unpack Chromebooks the university gave them to use for all of their coursework.

By Katharine Webster

A brand-new, required course in classroom technology for education majors couldn’t be more timely.

First-year education major Emily Clemente was midway through spring semester and the class, Technology and Digital Literacy, when she learned that UMass Lowell was moving all classes online for the rest of the semester to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Being on both sides of the virtual classroom, crafting tech-based lessons as an aspiring teacher and completing her own assignments as a college student, has given her a new appreciation for technology’s potential and its limitations.

“I learn better when I’m taking face-to-face classes, but given the circumstances, so many teachers have been really good about conveying information,” she says. “And this class has helped me realize how important it is to incorporate tech in the classroom. Tech has the potential to enhance students’ learning experience, especially when it’s interactive and fun.”

All undergraduate education majors are required to earn Google Educator Level 1 certification because all of the school systems in the Lowell area, where education students get their practical teaching experience, use Google Classroom and related tools, says Clinical Prof. Michelle Scribner-MacLean, who teaches the class. Education students also use Google education tools for their own coursework, and they build their professional teaching portfolios using Google Sites.

This year, the university even gave all first-year education majors a Chromebook as a pilot project to see whether undergraduates can complete all of their coursework by taking advantage of the university’s free, web-based software and virtual labs – and without having to buy an expensive personal laptop. So far, it’s been successful.

Clinical Prof. of Education Michelle Scribner-MacLean teaches a new course in educational technology at UML Image by Adrien Bisson
Clinical Prof. Michelle Scribner-MacLean teaches a new first-year course in educational technology.

After a semester of familiarizing themselves with the laptops, Scribner-MacLean’s class encouraged the first-year students to delve deeper into Google Classroom and explore other educational apps. Scribner-MacLean isn’t just teaching technology: She’s teaching her students to become comfortable experimenting with technology.

“Technology is always going to change, and you can’t learn everything,” she says. “I want them to develop the mindset of, ‘I can try it, I can try it with my students, and we can make mistakes and learn together.’”

For Clemente, the highlight of the semester was using the university’s 360-degree cameras and Google Tour Creator to develop a virtual field trip of Lowell historical sites that are mentioned in “Lyddie,” by Katherine Paterson, a novel about a mill girl.

The resulting tours will be combined into a single virtual tour and used by the Tsongas Industrial History Center, an educational partnership between the UML College of Education and Lowell National Historical Park.

“I always think seeing something in person is better, but Google Tours is the next best thing,” Clemente says. “It also helped me realize how cool this type of project would be for students to do. It allows them to interact with a landmark and information and make their own thing with it, instead of just reading about it.”

The first two cohorts of undergraduate education majors, now finishing their sophomore and junior years, didn’t take a dedicated technology class. But since the first day of freshman year, they have been immersed in Google Classroom and related tools like Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets and Google Forms that teachers can use to create assignments, give quizzes and share group work.

Junior Sydney Fagundes says that in a class on teaching English language learners (ELLs), she recently learned how to translate assignments on Google Slides into other languages while giving each student ways to practice their English within the assignments.

That ability to let each child practice fundamental skills at their own pace is the chief benefit of educational technology, says Fagundes.

“I see it as a great way to reinforce already learned skills. You can’t constantly provide that one-on-one support that they need, but maybe a game can help them – and they can do that on their own,” she says.

The biggest drawback, especially now when students are learning from home instead of in classrooms, is that not all of them have access to the technology they need to learn online: a computer and reliable internet service, Fagundes says.

Sophomore Michael Aloisi says he’s never been especially tech-savvy, but he used Google Classroom as a high school student – and learning it from the teacher’s point of view has been “really cool.” It has also helped him to complete his own classes online, since all education majors are using Google Classroom and related apps to work together on projects, hand in assignments and more. (Other academic departments use Blackboard.)

Aloisi is also observing how his mother, a paraprofessional in the North Middlesex Regional School District, is using technology to work with her students from home, now that Massachusetts schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year.

Still, Aloisi can’t wait to return to on-campus classes, his student teaching experiences and his work in the university’s Jumpstart program for preschoolers, where he’s a team leader.

“I learn best when I can apply what I learn in person,” he says. “You can Zoom and Facetime and Google Hangout as much as you want, but having that face-to-face interaction – you just can’t recreate it. Not being able to see the kids that I work with, I miss that so much.”