Because You Asked: Free Ways to Organize and Share Assignments with Students

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Our version of “Dear Abby,” otherwise known as “Because You Asked,” offers you a space for you to ask those questions weighing you down, the ones you don't even want to ask your friends. Confused about PD? Stressed about products that cost major $$$? Not sure how to sway your faculty in the edtech direction? We’re here for you. Send us a note, and it might just show up on our site. This week, we help one stressed teacher identify the best in free LMS’s and operations tools...


Q: I'm a high school physics teacher and I have a great set of materials that I use to teach my class. What I need is an easy way to share these materials with my students, give them assignments and have them turn the work in. What's a low-cost, lightweight way to do this?--Baffled in Boston

A: Fantastic question--and one that I hear quite often. I feel your pain. Back when I was a 6th grade science teacher, the amount of materials I had to keep in check felt like an avalanche. And literally, it sometimes was. (Somehow, I always managed to drop papers everywhere. There was no “paperless classroom” for this girl back in 2009.) But luckily, give me a computer now, and there’s a whole world of free tools to support me in my endeavors.

I reached out to my own professional learning networks and we've come up with a couple of approaches for you. I’m going to point you to three tools--all free and able to handle what you've described. Some kind of LMS (learning management system) should do the trick, so let's get started.  

The "Everything Bagel": Google Classroom

Let’s start with the mack daddy of all tools--Google Classroom. This platform has only been on the market since August, but it's a biggie. Why? It leverages all of the already-free Google products in one free, convenient platform.

For sharing those resources with students, Google Classroom lets you take documents, videos, or links and push the materials out to students in what you have designated as your “class.”

In fact, you can assign students a blank Google Doc, or provide a template that your students in turn will fill out.

And to help students remember deadlines or clear up confusion, you can make classroom announcements n a spot where students can chime in with questions. No more one-way communication! (Cue a sigh of relief.)

Lastly, the turn-in process. Google Classroom gives students a turn-in button for when they are done with the assignments you’ve given them. Since each student is technically given his or her own document, no worries about cheating--there’s no class shared “turn in” folder.

Google Classroom has a ton of other uses. To get started, check out this handy tutorial from Google-certified teacher Amy Mayer, and/or Alice Keeler’s “20 Things You Can Do With Google Classroom” list.

One caveat: you have to be a Google Apps for Education user to access Google Classroom. But that’s free, too. Don’t you just love the sound of that? Free?

The “Oldie + Newbie”: Schoology

Alternatively, you can take a look at Schoology, founded in 2009 and (again) free for educators. I’m calling this a mix of an “oldie” and a “newbie.” It’s reminiscent of a social networking site like Edmodo, but includes common LMS features.

Like Google Classroom, you can send assignments from the homepage directly to students, and they can share assignments with each other if they're working on group projects. You can also have students turn in their work directly via their Schoology accounts. Once students have sent you their work, you can view the uploaded materials, comment on and grade the work, and record grades on assignments in a Schoology gradebook.

Schoology has a Facebook-like feel, with a “feed” that might be more familiar to your students than the interface of other LMS sites. The site also offers teachers a way to connect with one another (much like Edmodo), which might be useful when you’re planning a lesson late on a Sunday and need some advice from another physics teacher.

One caveat: For the teacher, Schoology is free. But to link Schoology data and information with other systems within a school or district requires purchasing a license from the company. 

The “Standby”: Moodle

I’ve been hearing about Moodle for a long time, and while some educators consider it to be a bit “old school,” Moodle has a solid fan base. With a wealth of features (reports, assignments, chat, forums, lessons, quizzes, and more), Moodle provides you with the opportunity to make a webpage completely dedicated to your classes, and your classes alone, with exactly what your kids need. You will, however, have to spend some time really deciding just how you want your Moodle page to appear. If you enjoy that kind of versatility, then you may find Moodle very compelling. 

Word to the wise: Moodle isn’t a tool that you just instantly access through a web browser like Classroom and Schoology. Users download and install Moodle on a Web server. There are some free Moodle hosting providers that will allow you to create Moodle-based online classes without installation or server knowledge, like freeMoodle.org.

And then again...

There are also more free-form products--not quite an LMS but still handy--such as Wikispaces, which lets teachers and students create a writing space (in the form of a wiki) that they can share or a Wikispaces "Classroom" for sharing more resources and tools. 

Finally, there are LMS products that aren't free (and frequently not lightweight) but they are crammed with features. Hapara offers an organized dashboard that sits on top of Google apps and so can make your life easier. Instructure's Canvas is a full blown LMS, and of course, there is Blackboard

Now, I turn it over to my fellow educator brethren. Brothers and sisters--what tools do you recommend for this physics teacher? Share it out!

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