Free Comes With a Cost

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This article, with the provocative title Google’s got our kids, is about a year old, but the message is still one that every educator needs to understand. Especially if you’ve turned your classroom over to Google’s Classroom.

The author, a teacher who uses Google products with her students, makes the point that, although GSuite for Education and their other free or super-cheap products can be beneficial to schools and teachers, we also need to remember that the company has motives that are different from “normal” education vendors.

Unlike textbook publishers, Google has a “very strong interest not only in training the workforce of the future in G Suite, but also in forming positive and powerful brand associations in the minds of its littlest consumers”. Most of those kids sitting in front of a Chromebook running Google’s browser are too young to understand brand marketing.

Google’s “Be Internet Awesome” curriculum is another great example of the company selling itself to kids, specifically delivering the “message that Google is a trustworthy arbiter of online safety and privacy”.

The irony of a curriculum that teaches kids how to safeguard their privacy online yet is produced by a company known for its less-than-transparent use of personal data is a little on the nose, but the explicit lessons in Be Internet Awesome are too basic to be objectionable.

Pragmatic as the content is, it also transmits implicit lessons about the Google brand, whose brand colors, icons, and font are slathered over everything from student handouts to classroom posters to, for some reason, paper doll patterns for making your very own Internaut.

I doubt the students, or most of their teachers, get the irony.

In the end, the author admits that Google provides some useful tools, and that even the Be Internet Awesome curriculum “speaks to a real need schools have to prepare students for life in a digital world”.

However, we must understand that that these “free” resources still come with a cost.

The issue isn’t that Google has nothing of value to offer schools — clearly, it has — but rather at what price are we buying it. If it’s too steep we might want to recall lessons from our own educations, not about how to be savvy, polished consumers of technology, but about how to be citizens.


The image is from the Kalamazoo Public Library Flickr account, and is used under a Creative Commons License. Look closely at the screen. The student is viewing a message from a coding activity that incorporates characters from the game Angry Birds. Another example of brand marketing in a “free” educational product.

Investing in EdTech

ISTE Expo

A couple of posts back, I ranted about the ongoing quest for the new in edtech at large conferences. Of course, on the other side of that quest are the many companies developing and marketing their products at events like BETT, FETC, and ISTE.

Related to that, Audrey Watters is someone who does excellent work writing about the big money attempts to “reform” American education and the place of edtech in that process. In a recent essay, Fables of School Reform, she starts with this observation of the results of all that investment.

Over the past five years, more than $13 billion in venture capital has been sunk into education technology startups. But in spite of all the money and political capital pouring into the sprawling ed-tech sector, there’s precious little evidence suggesting that its trademark innovations have done anything to improve teaching and learning.

Extend that timeline back, say thirty years, almost the range in which I’ve been involved in the process of using technology for instruction, and consider all the money and time that’s been expended by schools, governments, and teachers. Can we say it has improved teaching and learning?

A question, not a judgement. One deserving a much more extensive debate.

Anyway, Audrey is excellent at following the threads of education reform through history and in this piece traces the efforts to bring computers into schools back to A National At Risk, the 1983 report that kicked off the modern panic about the American education system. As with so many of the studies that followed, the conclusions were based on test scores (the SAT in this case) and are “wrenched out of historical context”.

She then brings the thread into modern day by visiting the ASU + GSV Summit, “a business of education conference fondly known as ‘Davos in the Desert’” (before moving from Phoenix to San Diego). The New York Times called it “The must-attend event for education technology investors”.

This year featured speakers included such well-known education experts as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former US president George W. Bush, and… Matthew McConaughey?1 Of course missing from the presenters (and likely the attendees)2 was anyone who could speak with actual experience to the process of teaching and learning.

In addition to the conspicuous absence of education researchers from the “constituencies” served at Davos in the Desert, there was no mention of either students or parents. Indeed, every year (this year’s was its ninth), the ASU+GSV Summit seems to nearly coincide with AERA [American Educational Research Association], an organization that’s been around since the early 1910s. It’s hardly an insignificant scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, the dueling conference schedules tap into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version, but rather the sort that drives a typical VC roadshow.

There is much more to Audrey’s experience at the Summit and her observations of the edtech business in general. This post is well worth 20 minutes of your time to read it all. She is also someone you should follow.


The photo shows just a part of the vast Expo floor at the ISTE conference last June in Chicago. ISTE also works very hard to promote the edtech startup business through their Edtech Startup Pavilion and annual Pitch Fest.

1. The speakers at the 2019 event in April include a mix of tech executives, politicians, and celebrities. It’s a very strange brew.

2. With ticket prices starting at $2800, I’m guessing not a lot of teachers attend this conference.

Breaking News: Teachers are Using Google!

Free for all forever
In the world of click-bait, Business Insider is a master.1 Consider their widely twittered about story with the excessively long title “Teachers love Google’s education products but are suspicious. Why is a megacorporation giving them a perfect tool for free?”.

I’m pretty sure Google’s products are not “perfect”. I don’t know many teachers who express much suspicion about them. And “free” depends on how the bill is being paid.

But at least this site usually provides a nice bulleted “executive” summary summarizing the main points at the top of their posts.

Like this:

Google for Education tools have taken off “like grass on fire,” industry analysts say.

I suspect the writer is reading “industry analysts” from 2015 since the current name is G Suite for Education and has been very popular in American K12 schools for at least three years, maybe more.

The writer also wants us the know about the “Google-powered devices [that] made up almost 60% of computing devices purchased for US classrooms in 2017”.

As for the laptops, they’re deeply discounted. Institutional pricing for an iPad, once the standby education hardware nationwide, is $299 while Microsoft devices start at $189. Google said a single Chromebook starts at $149 per unit for classrooms.

First, a Chromebook is not the same as a laptop. It’s a device using a browser window into the web, mostly Google’s web. Google also collects a royalty for each one sold as well as a fee from schools for each one being managed through their administrative panel. I think “deeply discounted” is also a euphemism for “cheap” but that’s a discussion for another post.

Throughout the article, the writer emphasizes that the G Suite products are free. However, he ignores or glosses over the fact that there is a cost being paid, even if teachers don’t pay it directly.

As I’ve ranted about in previous posts, Google and other companies giving away their products, still extract their payment through other means. All that data being collected may not be used for advertising, as it is in their regular products, but it’s still valuable to Google’s research departments. Very likely they find ways to track students into the real world, based on the data they contribute during the school day.

Then there remains the persistent issue of depending on free. While Google is not likely to disappear in the near term (like those in Audrey Watters’ EdTech Startup Deadpool), it doesn’t mean their current offerings won’t change or that a service valuable to you won’t be summarily killed off with little notice.2

Anyway, I’m not trying to tell anyone not to use Google, or any other software, app, or service. This is just one of my regular nags about being careful out there on the internets. Be doubly careful when guiding your students (or your own kids) through the same maze.


Image: Free for all forever by Howard Lake. Published to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Yes, I’m very aware that linking to the article is contributing to the success of their click-baiting efforts. Moving on…

2. Looking at you Google Reader. Yep, still bitter. :-)

Another Wealthy Education Expert

The latest billionaire who wants to revolutionize education is Jeff Bezos. He says he got the idea from a Twitter “conversation” about where he should put his philanthropy. So you know the idea is well thought out, right?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is launching a $2 billion “Day One Fund” to help homeless families in the US and create a series of innovative preschools.

The Amazon CEO announced his new organization would be “creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities,” inspired by the Montessori School model, a child-centered educational method that relies on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood.

Bezos didn’t offer many details on the preschool project, but his words show that he plans on treating these new schools like he does Amazon. He described the students as “customers” and explained that his new organization would ”use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon” to “learn, invent, and improve.”

Describing preschool children as “customers” is rather clueless and somewhat frightening.

And I always thought the principles that have driven Amazon were to grow as fast as possible, crush the competition, and make Bezos very, very rich. I suppose I could have been mistaken.

Anyway, the writer of this particular report at least manages to land on some good reasons why we should not be relying on super rich people to create education policy in this country.

Bezos’ latest announcement comes at a time of heightened criticism of Amazon’s business practices, and some critics say this latest move is savvy PR by the CEO of one of the world’s most profitable companies. But it also illustrates a deeper problem, which arises when private philanthropy fills a gap that the government should be filling, namely, the lack of quality, affordable early education in the United States. The problem lies both in the US government’s lack of investment in early education, and in big tech companies’ success at avoiding paying taxes, thus depriving states of crucial funds they could use to start their own early education programs.

Yep. Maybe if Bezos and his friends just paid their fair share of taxes, we could afford to develop quality educational programs for all kids at all levels.

Sidenote: As always Audrey Watters has an excellent take on this story, adding the historical context that the general media usually misses. Check the URL on the page for her original title. I wish she’d kept it.


Image credit: Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license. The Amazon Go stores are completely self-service. Maybe the Bezos schools will be self-learning.


Misdirected Metaphor

Explorer

Lots of tech startups like to explain in their pitch deck how they would be the “Netflix of x”, the “Amazon of y”, or the “Uber of z”.1 Edtech startups are no different.

However, when it comes to edtech, Michael B. Horn, a futurist who a few months ago was declaring that voice-activated devices like Alexa would be “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”, spotlights a company that is using a more unexpected metaphor. 

The founder of Gooru “makes the argument that what education needs is really a Google Maps for education”. Of course, it’s all about “personalized” learning.

What he means by that is services that starts by “locating the learner,” or understanding the position of a learner relative to her learning goal before suggesting the best pathway to help that learner achieve that goal. Such tools must also accommodate a variety of other pathways depending on the actions and needs of the learner—just as Google Maps can accommodate a variety of routes to a destination once it knows where you are and dynamically change the route based on what you actually do.

Which is all very nice. Except that the Maps analogy assumes a fixed destination. One that is most likely established by someone other than the student. Based on a fixed curriculum, much of which they probably find uninteresting and irrelevant.

If you really want to relate learning to maps, maybe a better metaphor would be the classic road trip.

Layout a basic plan on the map but allow for diversions at each stop based on information from the locals, curiosity, and unexpected discoveries. Real learning can occur with a tightly designed plan. But, like a good road trip, it more often comes when you take a path that looks interesting and wasn’t on the original map.

Ok, that’s a pretty half-baked idea that likely will go nowhere. But it certainly makes more sense than the tortured Google Maps metaphor in Horn’s post.


Image: Explorer by Sakeeb Sabakka, posted to Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Well, not so much Uber anymore since they’ve acquired a rather sketchy reputation in a variety of areas.