The EPIC2020 website posited that Google Epic – an imagined personalized learning management system – would eventually take over as one of two primary learning platforms, and would eventually lead to the end of education as we know it. While Google’s recent release of Course Builder is a far cry from the all-encompassing, adaptive learning system imagined by the folks at EPIC2020, it does nevertheless represent the first foray into online learning from the innovative Internet giant. What is Course Builder? Is it the harbinger of an oncoming education war between Apple and Google as some have predicted? Is it even something that the average instructor could use for their teaching?
A Hard Core Option
While the hype for Course Builder would imply that it is easy to use, if you don’t consider yourself tech-savvy, you should stop reading right here. Google Course Builder contains a similar warning on their "getting started" page that also contains the following list of user requirements:
- Experience creating course material either for a traditional live classroom or for a more traditional online class.
- HTML familiarity.
- App Engine familiarity is a plus, but it’s not necessary.
(Course Builder Checklist, Google.com)
I consider myself to be a pretty hard core tekkie. My doctorate is in educational technology, I teach for a computer science program on occasion, and I have worked as a multimedia producer and Web designer. But even with those qualifications, I was concerned about not being able to actually make this program work or that it would have too steep of a learning curve to make it worth my time. If the curve was too steep for me, it would almost certainly be too much for most educators with even less free time to experiment spend learning the technology.
Free – To a Certain Point – Maybe?
The cryptic paragraph on the cost of using Google Course Builder was also not inviting. The paragraph stated, "each App Engine application can consume a certain level of computing resources for free, controlled by a set of limits. If you need resources above these free limits, you can switch to a paid app to set a daily resource budget" (Course Builder Checklist, Google.com).
Looking more closely at the pricing structure for the App Engine was no less confusing. The information basically said that you would spend a minimum of $2.10 per week, but that the actual costs are difficult to predict. As examples, they cite their 150,000 member course which cost $20 per day to support, but speculate that a course of up to 300 students might be free. No guarantees though.
Building Your Course
The Course Builder site does contain some materials to help with the non-technical end of course development, such as the section, "Develop the Content without Technology," which takes prospective users through basic course design. It is disconcerting, however, that there is so much instructional design information about how to structure a course when the actual technical process implies a far greater level of sophistication. This discrepancy would seem to be the root of a question that haunts Course Builder – who is it for?
The Ideal User
Google seems to have developed this application for people with a great deal of technical expertise, but little or no educational or teaching background. It almost appears to be aimed at programmers (it is open source) who want to teach, but have no actual experience doing so. It is not a program for the casual person who wants to create some instruction to share in a format similar to MentorMob U or YouTube Education. It is clearly not intended for practicing educators, who are unlikely to possess the technical skills to make it work. It really seems to be targeting computer programmers who want to do the tech work, but don’t know how to teach. It is unclear who those people would be though or why they would want to use Course Builder at all.
Overall, this is a very strange concept. It is possible that the intended audience is technically proficient instructional designers who could mold the application to suit their needs? Then why do they include all of the detail about how to create basic instruction? Ultimately, my exploration of Google Course Builder left me feeling incompetent and confused about why I felt incompetent. There was nothing in this program for me. It was too complicated for the average user or educator to just pick up and work with. In the final assessment, if this is the best that Google has to offer in the way of online education, there should be no real fear of impending world domination, and no competition for Apple’s much more user friendly iTunesU.