Google Apps: Not Your Mom-and-Pop LMS

Google Apps: Not Your Mom-and-Pop LMS

Organizations are funny. By their very nature, they live by words such as standardize, centralize, organize, manage, and control.

And this is at the heart of why organizations no doubt still believe in a learning management system in the traditional sense.

Moodle, the most popular LMS, defines the core of what it does this way:

“The heart of Moodle is courses that contain activities and resources. There are about 20 different types of activities available (forums, glossaries, wikis, assignments, quizzes, choices (polls), scorm players, databases etc) and each can be customised quite a lot. The main power of this activity-based model comes in combining the activities into sequences and groups, which can help you guide participants through learning paths. Thus, each activity can build on the outcomes of previous ones.There are a number of other tools that make it easier to build communities of learners, including blogs, messaging, participant lists etc, as well as useful tools like grading, reports, integration with other systems and so on.”

And most LMS have these types of approaches and characteristics:

  • centralized administration and setup of system including courses
  • content centralization and delivery mechanisms
  • user analytics and progress tracking
  • organizational groupings
  • online assessment and reporting
  • standardized user experience
  • diverse selection of learning blocks: discussion forums, blogs, polls, chats, announcements, and 3rd Party add-ons
  • diverse selection of additional organizational tools: calendars, folders, groups, etc

In other words, a belief in One Managed System that has Learning functionality.

Why Not Just Use Google Apps? 

So here is the thing…

In comparing learning objects, Google Apps is much stronger than anything offered in a packaged LMS.  The tools in Google simply blow the tools in an LMS out of the water. This isn’t just my experience or bias – sit down with teachers and compare. They quickly ask, “why do we even need an LMS?” and this is the question.

As I’ve said before, the full suite of Google Apps including Google+ makes an LMS like Moodle one dimensional at a best.

And that one dimension takes us back to the key word: management.

Google Apps is a digital space for all where control and management is shared and shifted to everyone. This scares people because they think…

  • chaos
  • lack of structure
  • setup issues
  • lack of standardized uniformity
  • lack of streamlined cleanliness
  • loss of tracking

And let’s be honest, it all comes down to loss of control and the loss of that standardized package given to teachers. With Google, it is giving the learner and teacher an open suite that they build and structure as needed. It is malleable. It is fluid. It is non-linear. In other words, it is learning at its finest.

Google Apps isn’t your mom-and-pop LMS. It is a learning suite of highly interactive suite of tools that empower learners and teachers to connect, customize, and progress. It is what I’d hope we’d want for a learning community.


1. For some, these words raise the hair on the neck and reek of negativity. For others, these words give goosebumps and shine with efficiency. The truth lies somewhere in the middle I imagine.

2. This includes something like OpenClass if a classroom desires a more organized look.


  1. Hi Ryan,

    We used OpenClass when it first came out because Pearson touted it as a free system that tied well with Google Apps. After that extensive but frustrating trial, we chose to abandon OpenClass because it was simply too buggy and proved to be more work than it was worth. Nothing in this life, I suppose, is truly free.

    Since then, we’ve gratefully transitioned to Canvas – to the extent that we’re using it for our Ed Tech Endorsement program, other formal teacher PD experiences, and in many classrooms across the district. We really like using Canvas WITH Google Apps because it provides a comfortable organization/framework that matches well with the organization with which teachers and students are already accustomed. Furthermore, two features teachers seem to love in Canvas are the ability to require students to post a discussion response before they can see other student responses, and the speedgrader (which allows teachers to quickly score and comment on submitted assignments – all from the same window).

    I appreciate seeing how you guys continue to think outside of the box. Good luck in all your efforts.

    • @Darren:

      It really is not about OpenClass. This is why I put it as a footnote. If a teacher still wants that organized feel in a familiar format, there are items to achieve this from something like Open Class or any number of other items: Sites, Edmodo, Schoology, etc.

      I’m surely not going to judge your rationale as I know there is much more to it than this comment. I liked to understand your “accustom” to rationale as I disagree on the surface with that as a rationale.

      But I think that is the point of the footnote – for those that want it, there are options. I simply dislike forcing that structure. As far as I know, there is little flexibility in structure within LMSs.

      Those two features you mentioned are interesting and I know the latter we utilize with Google Forms and Flubaroo for the bulk of those types of assessments.

      For the former, Google Groups has greatly expanded its feature set that makes it a robust discussion forum and Google+ serves as a nice ad hoc forum. I don’t believe it has the stall feature like most LMS such as Canvas so this would be a different workflow.

  2. Ryan, good insights on Google Apps. With the advent of Drive, we have a system from which a teacher can easily run a class, with assignment distribution, easy sharing of classwork, and even great projects like group writing. While it seems to me to be most useful for Language Arts teachers, I think just about any class could benefit.
    The power of Drive lies in the shared folder option, since the teacher can either create or just drag any kind of assignments or resources, class helps, etc. and share them with the whole class in one click. My students love this and find it very easy to access everything they need for the class from anywhere they are and on just about any device.

    • @David:

      Right on! We’ve seen just this style you mentioned used in conjunction with Google Calendars to organize. The other tools come in and out for learning as needed.

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights Ryan. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this piece. With tools as powerful and flexible as those provided by Google Apps for Education (GAFE), you don’t need an LMS. It’s true that there’s a little danger in all that freedom and flexibility, but the risks are well worth the rewards. I’m confident that open systems like GAFE will empower students, teachers, parents and school communities to explore, communicate and collaborate in ways that we haven’t even imagined yet.

  4. Using GAFE as an LMS is a great entry point into edtech for many schools, as it was for ours because of the flexibility (and the price!). The ease of use made it accesible for teachers to create an online presence (each teacher had a site, some were grade-level sites) and to create the “need” for more, however the lack of structure proved difficult. We “outgrew” GAFE as an LMS, and we added HaikuLMS into the mix this year K-12. Our school families were having to go out in search of too much information on various teacher sites, we needed that student/parent customized portal to meet our needs. We still use a network of Google Sites for our internal pages and all the extracurriculars (Athletics, CampusRec, the Arts, etc).

    • @Allison

      That is a great perspective and quite intriguing – GAFE as an entry point where we saw Moodle on our end as an entry point that we outgrew. However, I do recognize the parent portal piece as one of the complexity of a suite of tools vs. a singular location.

  5. Thank you for having this discussion. Our district is looking for an entrypoint, and it is very helpful to read about what others have grappled with.

  6. Ryan, thanks for writing something I’ve been reflecting on as well. When this popped up in my RSS reader last night, I added it to my curated content and immediately wanted to write a blog entry about it. I explore my reflections here and I’m grateful for your expression of these ideas:

    I hope we can continue to the conversation.

    With appreciation,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  7. This stretches the way we look at teaching and learning. I’ll try not to lose my way through the metaphor, but I started looking at Google Apps as an LMS like a jig-saw puzzle without borders. While in the midst of it there is no way to tell which direction the puzzle is building because we can’t identify a boundary. Only when it is done can we see the edges and even then an edge might be a place onto which a new experience can be attached. What an incredible way to learn and to teach. The problem is that this can be a very uncomfortable way to teach and to learn. We have all been trained to expect clearly defined objectives, activities, etc… Perhaps especially in our professional development programs, learners need LMS’s, like Moodle, to help stay focused and directed. I need it too, though I understand the importance of more open-ended systems. Great post; thinking about this might keep me awake tonight.

  8. Eric,
    Well, my students are seniors and are pretty sharp kids, but I can tell you that they have taken to Google Drive & Apps like ducks to water. Once they realize that Docs will do everything they need for writing assignments, it’s not hard to wean them off of Word. The first time they participated in a group writing project using the sharing options with Docs, they wanted to know if they could do that again–so we did. I used to use a server with shared files for students to receive and submit assignments, but I’ve abandoned that for Drive and it’s MUCH better, since they can both see assignments and submit their work from anywhere. And all of the assignments I had built within the shared folders on the server moved easily into Drive with a modicum of work on my part.
    I can tell you that the auto save feature of online apps like Docs and Evernote is such a life-saver after all the years I’ve spent trying to help students find where they saved their work when they forgot to select a folder to save it to. As long as we have an internet connection, Drive has worked pretty much flawlessly and I love getting a Gmail alert when a student submits a project.
    In all, much better on all counts. Just wish I could get other teachers at my school to try it.

  9. I came to know more about Google apps integration which is worked with Moodle for art integration and this is very amazing. one thing I like most is that it automatic log in to Google Apps when a user logs in to Moodle.

  10. I’m a huge Google+ fan. But without tracking capabilities such as others have mentioned above where they use free LMSes like Moodle IN CONJUNCTION with Google+, the latter is simply a slick-looking content management system. They need tracking of student data as well as curriculum mapping abilities.



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