What Do Schools Risk By Going ‘Full Google’?

| August 28, 2014
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LA Johnson/ NPR

LA Johnson/ NPR

Kaitlin Morgan says, this year, her school district is going “full Google.”

Morgan teaches U.S. and world history and advises the yearbook at Woodlake Union High School in California’s Central Valley. At Woodlake, “full Google” means a plan to have one Google Chromebook for every two students by the spring, running Google Apps.

The Chromebook is a relatively cheap, stripped-down laptop. It’s become popular in the education world, with 85 percent of its U.S. sales last year going to the ed market.

And the Chromebook is just the beginning. Already, Google Apps for Education claims 30 million active users around the world. The free, Web-based software works on any device and allows teachers and students to use Gmail with their own .edu address.

It’s the beginning of what Google calls the “paperless classroom” — moving assignments, class discussions, feedback, tests and quizzes online.

Now comes Google’s latest education offering, launched last week: Google Classroom.

Classroom enables a teacher to create a “class” at the touch of a button. She or he can upload syllabus materials, whether text, audio or video, and send out assignments on the class news feed.

Teachers see instantly who has turned in their homework. They can start a class discussion and provide feedback and grades; students can see what’s due and what’s late. The whole package integrates with the rest of Google’s apps, like Google Docs.

Zach Yeskel, product manager for Google Apps for Education, says Google “worked with innovative teachers to build their best practices and workarounds into the product. We really see Classroom as a tool that should be usable in any class setting to streamline universal workflows.”

While it’s too soon to tell how Classroom will be received, Google Apps for Education is already changing how early adopters teach — and raising some important questions about the transition to tech-enabled classrooms.

Heidi Berlusconi teaches biology at Clarkstown Central High School in New City, New York. She was a Google Apps for Education user and provided feedback on Google Classroom while it was being developed.

“One of the issues I had with students was their not citing correctly,” Berlusconi says. “There was a lot of plagiarism.” With Google Docs, she can figuratively look over a student’s shoulder and flag improper citation even before they turn in an assignment. Plus, she says, when students are collaborating, a glance at the revision history “allows you to see who really is doing the work” by who contributed what edits.

The most important impact, she says, is that Google extends her teaching time. Students hold discussions online and offer each other homework help in the wee hours after she’s gone to sleep.

History teacher Kaitlin Morgan, meanwhile, got professional development in Google and went all in with her summer school economics course.

“We used Docs for notes, Draw for projects like collages. They created their own websites through Sites for a budget project, and I built quizzes and tests on Google Forms.” Morgan also used Pear Deck, an app written to work with Google Drive, to quickly check students’ understanding during class.

“The kids love it,” she says. “They’re really engaged.”

Still, not everyone is ready to embrace Google’s free education applications.

A familiar charge is that the paperless classroom creates a digital divide. At schools like Woodlake, Morgan says, “we’re not at the point where every student has a device and Wi-Fi at home.” She had to print out some assignments for students, or else cut back on homework — not exactly what was promised.

Another big concern is commercialization and student privacy. As Yeskel has mentioned in other interviews, Google’s business motive here is to expose young users to the Google brand. To hook them early.

Khaliah Barnes, director of the Student Privacy Project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), warns, “When you’re using free services, if you don’t know what the product is, you are the product.”

In March, as part of a federal lawsuit, Google admitted it had been data-mining student email messages to potentially improve its targeted advertising, among other reasons. As of late April, says Yeskel, “We no longer show any ads to students or use any information in any other Google products. We take ownership of any user data extremely seriously.”

Still, users of Google Apps for Education are subject to Google’s terms of service, which is subject to change.

The need to decipher service agreements to protect student privacy is a big responsibility for teachers. And that’s part of a larger dilemma as schools go digital — teachers and districts are being asked to make significant decisions about, and investments in, technology use without much help.

“The thing about Google is they’re a technology company, not really a solution company,” says Phil Hill, an educational technology consultant and market analyst. “Rather than understand needs and build a holistic solution, Google has the ability to throw stuff out and see what happens.”

A school that takes the trouble to train its teachers and switch up their workflow is taking a risk that Google might not keep supporting a product, as with Orkut, Wave and Buzz, to name a few.

Andrew Jensen, a colleague of Kaitlin Morgan’s, is excited about the possibilities of Google Classroom. But, he says, “sometimes the amount of time it takes to set these things up ends up being more than it’s worth. A few years back our districts spent many thousands of dollars on interactive whiteboards, and it was a waste of money.”

Unlike the enthusiastic early adopters, teachers like Jensen are more skeptical about being asked to adapt to a constantly changing set of tech tools.

Morgan agrees. “Some have just now got the hang of Google Apps,” says Morgan, who has been involved in training her colleagues with the transition to Google Classroom. “Now we’re saying, Everything we just taught you? Just kidding, now there’s something new.’ ”

Copyright 2014 NPR.
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  • Steve Wick

    I think this post does a nice job focusing on both sides of going Google. I’ve been using GAFE for about two years and there is one thing I’d like to add to this story. Too often as teachers we start with the shiny tool and lose site of the bigger picture. It is important to remember that regardless of the tools, it is really the skills that matter. For example, Google offers my classroom a great set of resources to build digital collaboration and communication skills. We can use these skills in the future regardless of the tool we choose. I can always find another tool to facilitate what I am doing. There are many nice digital tools to build the 4 Cs, but nothing matches Googles innovation and breadth of resources today. Yes I drank the Google Koolaid.

    • http://eghsprincipalri.blogspot.com/ Michael Podraza

      Totally agree Steve. Even as tech Koolaid drinker, it is always important to start with the skills and essential questions, then find the tools that empower regardless of whether it is a computer, an app, or a pencil.

  • Joe Sisco

    Good discussion, but it seems as though you listed many advantages of GAfE and only a few caveats. I wanted to contribute that Classroom has a “zero” learning curve and is really just a better was of communicating using the tools of GAfE (docs, slides, forms, etc.).

  • http://technology.smithfield-ps.org Paul Barrette

    I agree with the points already made by Steve and Michael. I would also add that it is extremely important for all schools or districts that are adopting ANY technology tool to really take a close look at the company’s security and privacy polices. It’s crucial that we are diligent and transparent with this information when discussing these tools with parents, teachers and the community at large.

    I’m a strong proponent of Google Apps for Education and I think that Google has really improved in this area, compared to when they first made the tools available. My conversations with representatives on the Google Education have also demonstrated to me that they understand how important student privacy is and that they are taking it seriously. However, we all need to be well informed when it comes to these issues and we need to consistently hold our educational vendors to high standards when it comes to student privacy. We also need to be willing to walk away from any tools and companies that do not meet our standards.

  • Jody

    Interactive whiteboards a waste of money??? Seriously? I don’t know how we ever taught without them.

  • James Wilding

    I’d go with Jody on IWB. As for GAFE, we are starting our third year with GAFE in a community of 1000 children and 150 educators. As GAFE is platform independent we don’t mind what kit the kids have at home. At school the learners prefer Chromebooks above any other device and we have over 700 deployed. No going back… Yet we know we must use paper and pen about 70% of the time. Going google, going paper and pen, Reading, sport , art etc all have their place.

  • Chris Rogers

    Thanks for taking an in-depth look at both sides of the GAFE “debate”. While many smaller and medium-sized districts are adopting Google tools enthusiastically, most large school districts in the United States (especially in the Southeast) are still trying to implement their own top-down technology solutions using a mix of contracted 3rd party vendors for web hosting, LMS, collaborative tools, and the like. In essence, they are paying large sums of money each year to do what Google could do for free. Why? Because they are used to being in complete control of student data privacy, hosting on their own LAN, and having a signed agreement from each company they do business with. What will it take to “turn the tide” for many of these districts? I hope that thoughtful examinations of the issues in more mainstream forums will be a start. Less fear-mongering. More factual, unbiased information from all parties would help as well.

  • http://brilliant-insane.com/ Mark Barnes

    It’s interesting how Google claims it’s created the paperless classroom. Many educators have been paperless for a very long time. I’ve been teaching Paperless Classroom courses for many years. Although I like to think I’m one of the pioneers in this area, I would never suggest that I created the Paperless Classroom.

  • Retired Prof.

    The Total Curriculum

    It’s not the teachers; they teach as they were taught. It’s not the schools of education; they teach the way they are told to teach by politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not the parents; they’re kept ignorant of the
    alternatives. It’s not the students; they pretty much are products of the
    methodology brought about by the flawed model under which all the above labor.

    The problem is the system. It’s based on a narrow and antiquated notion of how people learn. It stems from outmoded processes that are steeped in an agricultural/industrial model. The most visible evidence of this model is spring break when planting takes place, summer break when all the hard farm work must be done, and fall break when the harvests are made and reseeded. The most insidious evidence of this is the overarching idea of this model wherein the schools are training workers instead of educating citizens. The most destructive educational process coming out of this model is the one-size-fits-all rote memorization way of educating.

    What’s not needed is finding more efficient ways to work an outdated,
    failed system, continually fiddling around the edges of this current system. What’s not needed is throwing money at the fiddlers. What is needed is to throw unconditional money at studies to find out more clearly how people learn. In short, we need to develop an alternative to the outmoded Agricultural/Industrial model and develop a model more appropriate to our High Tech/Communication age. Some work towards this end has occurred, but is not generally embraced. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences is a step in the right direction.

    Here is a brief (in perspective) run-down of some of the ways people learn. Currently, the Agricultural/Industrial methodology is based on and promotes the following: Analytical skills (esp. quantitative analysis), fact accumulation (things to think about), rote learning processes, “imposed” learning, compartmentalized teaching/learning, linear thinking, convergent thinking, methodical processes, skills based on empirical, scientific methodology, teacher-centered learning processes.

    The outcomes of this model promote product-oriented learning; knowledge acquired through cognition and mostly solitary classroom study and homework; skills for these outcomes are acquired through studies in math, history, geography, chemistry, biology, physics and other mainly objective fields of study.

    Here is a brief run-down of the methodology of the proposed High Tech/Communication model. As you can see, some of these are
    mirror the older Agricultural/Industrial model: Synthesis skills, esp.
    qualitative analysis, fact manipulation (ways to think), experiential learning processes, authentic learning, integrated teaching/learning, random thinking, divergent thinking, inventive processes, skills based on creativity and imagination, student-centered learning processes.

    The outcomes of this model promote process-oriented learning, comprehension acquired through meta-cognition and interpersonal communication; skills for these outcomes are acquired through studies in theater, dance, music, art, language, some social sciences and other subjective-leaning fields of study.

    Both models are valuable and both need to be taught in tandem at all levels. Regardless of the dominant process an individual uses to learn, all processes are active within the individual and necessary to his/her learning to one degree or another.

    © Paul J. Lundrigan, PhD.
    Nov. 1990

    I made a chart comparing these principles, but the chart format wouldn’t work here.

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  • Anne Harter

    As a teacher and as a mother, I have mixed feelings about Google in the classroom. As a teacher, I love the “good feels” I get from Google with their free classroom applications and the democratization of access to learning. As a mother, I am frightened that my sons’ words and thoughts are out on the web. I, and especially they, have no control over their digital footprint.

  • Nathan Rouse

    I think that there is some beneficial parts to using google as a source for education but that it is only one resource in a variety of tools that we as educators are responsible for getting to know in order to best prepare our students for the work environment that they will be facing in the future -Nathan Rouse

  • Sheree Rhodes

    Google Apps allows for collaboration by sharing their presentations with each other and with you as the teacher. I like the ease at which images and quotes are cited when using the reference feature. I agree that it is an inexpensive way to incorporate technology into the classroom.

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