Sam Thompson

Classroom tech that's really useful

A look at Google Classroom and the Microsoft Surface

I've worked in several classroom environments using a variety of technology, but I'll be honest: in my [not so] humble opinion, most tech implementations end up being little more than gimmicks, or worse, distractions.

I've found this to be true regardless of age and culture, although I will grant that social media does offer particular distractions to university-age and below. I'm far from one to judge; especially in a boring meeting, I'm the first to try to force myself NOT to "play" on Twitter. Thanks, Thailand.

"Incredibly useful"

That being said, I have found two tools that I've found incredibly useful over the last year or so. The first is offered as a free software suite: Google Classroom and its associated Microsoft Office impersonations. I'm not an IT administrator, but my understanding is that this suit is low-or-no cost in terms of email domains and access to Google apps (as stated on their website). My current school uses this "Google Suite for Education," and while I'm not the world's biggest fan of Google rip-offs of MS Office, I fully stand behind Google's strategy: make it free, and "hook" people from a young age.

If you think about it, that's exactly where Microsoft's Office suite dominance came from (minus the free bit), and although I feel Office is far superior in many ways... it certainly isn't free and [currently] available in a mainstream online-class format (although I'm aware Microsoft is testing this very thing). Case in point: my former school (a Thai government school) has just signed on with Google for Education and sent teachers to a training workshop. How that will play out I'm not sure (logic: no, we don't have internet or computers in most classrooms, but hey, why not), but it's certainly getting the Google brand out there.

Work simplified

Anyway, back to task: Classroom has far simplified my document distribution, grading, and assigning for all classes. Whereas in the past I would use paper-based... well, everything, now I simply upload documents to share as PDFs or other documents (in my case, MS Word documents), and all students can access them simultaneously in class, and there's no such thing as "I lost that paper" anymore. I'll agree that there's a lot to be said for a hard-copy, and Wi-Fi connectivity issues will always necessitate the good ‘ole fashioned USB flash drive from time to time. Still, in my opinion, if for no other reason than school budgets, printed items are going the way of the dinosaur.

Assignment submissions are done this way now too; using Google Docs (as I'm a language/literature teacher), students are able to use "suggestion mode" to perform peer reviews, and I can do the same when marking their final drafts. Once students (and perhaps their teacher) get over the learning curve, everything is automatically tracked, saved, and stored (unlimited!).

It has FAR simplified my grading process in terms of keeping up with assignments due, marking, and not losing papers (don't judge), but I will grant that I'm at a school with a "laptop/tablet is required" policy and Wi-Fi in all rooms. Still, I can see this being useful even at my former school, considering most students have access to this in some fashion too, although you then couldn't force all of your submissions to be digital as a rule-it's in my syllabus!

Hybrid PC

Software aside, another tool I've found to be ridiculously useful is my newest "hybrid" PC: the Microsoft Surface (nee iPad Pro for Apple fans). I bought a Surface Pro 4 for myself last year (I'll grant that it ain't cheap...), and it has totally changed the way I teach. Because I don't have access to a "smart board" (interactive white board), and the transparency projector of my day and time has long disappeared, it has previously been quite difficult to do class annotations of texts, standardized test prep, and other activities with the class writing as a whole; granted, a good teacher can do without this option, but I've found that up to half of my students are visual learners, and simply won't remember if they don't see it for themselves. For that matter, I'm one of them.

With this type of tablet (note I'm not specifically loving on the Surface here; it's the highly precise stylus support that's winning) paired with a classroom computer projector, my students can lead class discussions (as can I) with everyone taking notes in real-time. If my school will ever upgrade to projectors that support Wi-Di or other wireless video streaming, we'd even be able to do this without cords!

Cutting down the paperwork

Furthermore, as a teacher that does a LOT of marking of writing, I now can mark everything digitally via submitted Google/Word docs and/or PDFs. Gone are the days of me lugging home stacks and stacks of papers... to which I say good riddance! As long as I have the tablet and internet access (although I frequently just download the whole class's submissions as PDFs and edit locally), I have student/work access. Whether or not that's a particular GOOD thing is a whole different discussion.

Still, if you're a teacher of language (or math) especially, I can't understate the change in teaching/marking methodology you'll experience if you invest in something like the Surface or the iPad Pro (which I didn't choose simply because I wanted a full OS rather than just iOS).

Through my years of being both a student and a teacher, I've seen several trends come and go... remote-controlled quiz systems (remember those?), the "SMART" board (tied to specific software and a single computer, plus required projector/board alignment), and even computers/iPads in every classroom (hellooooo Facebook). To me, though, none of those have held a candle to the combination of the hybrid classroom environment you can create with tools such as Google Classroom and stylus-input devices such as the Surface.

Three cheers for nerds!

I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.


Great blog Sam, some very helpful advice here. Google Docs is extremely helpful for collaborating, editing and marking. I agree, it's far better to have a Surface with a full OS instead of a tablet. If your projectors have USB and HDMI inputs you can buy a Microsoft wireless display adapter and go fully wireless. No need to wait for your school to upgrade!

By John, Bangkok (18th November 2016)

great post Sam, I've also grown to appreciate useful Google is for collaborating with teachers.
Another resource which schools can buy, but is pretty cheap (less than 200 baht per year per student) is especially for English Programme schools teaching Maths & Science

By Daniel, Chiang Mai (11th November 2016)

About time we had good article like this. There is so much stuff for educators that we do not need to spend huge amounts of money on.

I have been using Linux operating system for 6 years now. it is amazing how Office is starting to mimic Libre Office and Open office.

i am using Windows 10 on a Lenovo ideapad so I have both systems running.

For 20 000 baht i have bought 4 ex Thai government HP Probooks. These all run Linux and the students create on them using Libre Office. These are grade 2 students in a government school a long way out of Bangkok.

The freeware and Open source material available allows companies like Microsoft to use material others have created. They than improve that software and sell it.

Computing is not a status symbol. Expensive computing is so passe. it is becoming like gungja. People do it just to fit in. So they can get more likes.

I went paperless 3 years ago in a school where we obtained cheap second hand computers for the students.

I know of an International school that has been running Ubuntu for more years than me and the students adapted very quickly.

Teaching does not need to be expensive. It is the hegemony that takes it away from everyone.

Have fun

By T Mark, Chantaburi (9th November 2016)

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