The Times’ Reporting on Google in Education: A False Choice for a Straw Man
Guest Blog Post by Andrew Stillman
Maybe because of their universality and power in shaping our lives, K-12 schooling and large tech providers like Google have at least one thing in common: they are both a honey pot for poorly-informed and strongly held public opinion.
In this light, I was disappointed that the NYTimes recently missed an opportunity to offer its readers the factually-informed and nuanced discussion we need around how privacy norms, schools, tools, and student learning models are co-evolving as ubiquitous, “free” web and mobile technologies like Search, Gmail, Docs and “the cloud” gain a permanent foothold in our lives and our classrooms.
Natasha Singer’s May 13th article How Google Took Over the Classroom leads with an ill-defined and false choice in framing the public debate around the purpose of schools and the role of technology in learning:
“…Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.”
Does this framing make any sense? Why are these posed as either / questions for education? Is Singer implying that teamwork and problem-solving are being supported by Google because it has the goal of creating knowledgeable citizens or because they care more about schools producing skilled workers? Is Google’s considerable support of computer science education and its annual science fair part of de-emphasizing academic knowledge? I’m totally confused.
Singer then presents her straw man, taken out of context from a speech made at an edtech conference by Google’s EDU product lead, Jonathan Rochelle, over a year ago:
Referring to his own children, [JR] said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”
Clearly, a fall guy in the Times’ polarizing setup, Rochelle, who is also a publicly elected board member of his kids school district, contextualized his words in this Tweet [https://twitter.com/jrochelle/status/863573209995780096] shortly after Singer’s article went to print:
“UNDERSTANDING quadratic equation: awesome! MEMORIZING it without learning when to use it: meaningless”
Some additional discussion and comments arise from the thread. In a later reply to a follower, Rochelle writes:
“I’m not advocating not memorizing number facts – I’m suggesting not testing kids on recall of formulas and calling that “learning”
Of course JR’s clarification didn’t avert an avalanche of negative comments, with dozens of readers piling on and pummeling the JR-pinata as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with American schools and our declining republic. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that quite a few of the comments were also from parents, students, IT directors and educators giving unqualified testimony to their positive experience with G Suite, Chromebooks, and Classroom.
While Singer’s piece has some redeeming qualities, it also goes on to quote various online privacy skeptics and to offer factually inaccurate or incomplete information about Google’s privacy and product development practices, and to raise doubts without providing readily available facts and policies to counter them. Singer quotes a concerned Chicago father who is also an IT project manager who suspects that Google is building advertising profiles from student work in Google Docs and his home’s IP address:
“If my daughter came home and logged on to Google Docs on my computer at home, they’ll know it was now coming from this address,” said Mr. Barsotti, the Chicago-area project manager. “If this is truly for educational purposes, what is their business model and why do they need to collect that?”
It’s hard to fathom that an IT manager can’t understand that the IP address of a user is fundamental to providing a secure login experience on the public internet. Like any enterprise platform, G Suite’s administrative console makes user IP logs available to district administrators for security purposes. Does this guy really suspect that Google is going to retain information about his daughter’s geographic location so that it can target her with ads in 10 years? Why is his concern left unanswered by Google in the article?
While the article sews some suspicion about Google’s tactics and long-term business model, it downplays any of the ills of the existing product space that they disrupted. Education technology, state and federal testing laws, and textbook publishers have long formed a lobbying and industrial complex where billions have been made by the likes of Pearson, Apple, Microsoft, McGraw Hill and others while providing services that — given the market and policy environment and profit motives — have not always been developed with primary focus on the needs of teachers and learners.
Google’s mission and business model to make the world’s information discoverable and useful, and its commitment to free and open product APIs make it a very different kind of player than any of these incumbents, who too often profit from closed-model technologies that don’t play well with others, and often do little to empower great teaching or change the way schools work.
Google has captured market share from these incumbents through scrappy, user-centric product management practices that have produced tools that transform what’s possible in classrooms in a way that — used well — can result in markedly more powerful, iterative, feedback-rich, creative student experiences.
In my travels since setting up my first GAFE domain in 2007 as a teacher to my current work as a 3rd party developer and product manager in Google’s EDU product ecosystem, I’ve interfaced with dozens of folks across Google’s product and sales teams, and I feel quite confident that Google is categorically not engaged in a secret master plan built on an advertising play that harnesses student data profiles.
Ask any real Googler on the EDU team — not a man someone made out of straw — and they will respond that this suggestion about data profiling for ad revenue is preposterous. When pressed, they will also admit that the business case for giving away G Suite to schools started as an accidental afterthought and is at best a work in progress, with far more long-term unknowns than knowns, but with an overriding and extremely vigorous commitment to student data privacy.