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.

Ignoring the Rules

The New York Times recently published a long front-page story about how Google “took over” the classroom. The writer’s primary focus is on concerns about the amount of student data the company is collecting in exchange for their free tools, and what they plan to do with it, although she doesn’t get many answers from them.

However, the part I found most interesting was about how those Google’s tools arrived in many classrooms in the first place. IT directors from Chicago, Oregon, and Fairfax County (aka our overly-large school district) complain that representatives of the company went straight to teachers with products like Google Classroom instead going through channels.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

And why do so many teachers ignore IT’s rules and go through the formal process of getting those services approved?

Lots of reasons, but in our district it’s mostly because they know that the wheels of our bureaucracy grind very slowly. The formal evaluation system for new tech products can take years, especially for anything that hasn’t been blessed by Microsoft.

IT grudgingly went along with the use of Google Drive in the classroom after hundreds of teachers started using it on their own. Some of our innovative people very quickly recognized the value in online collaborative tools and jumped at the opportunity soon after it was released (only five years ago). One school even had the audacity to register their own domain to make things easier for their staff and students.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s no such thing as “free”, especially when it comes to Google. Even if the latest tool looks like a gift from the gods, teachers still have a responsibility to be cautious about allowing their students to pour data into these systems (see also the recent news about Edmodo).

On the other side of things, district administrators also need to understand that some of the best resources for evaluating new technologies are the connected, innovative educators working in their schools. Ignoring their expertise and judgement is going to result in them ignoring you.

[Apologies in advance to Doug for this post. :-)]

A Very Bad Definition

It’s the start of a new year and that means thousands of articles, posts, and essays forecasting the future. Some are thoughtful and intelligent. Many are trivial. The vast majority will be flat out wrong.

One titled Technologies That Will Define the Classroom of the Future certainly falls into that last group.

First of all, technology will never “define” a classroom, at least not a good one. Students and teachers, supported by parents, librarians, administrators, and others define a class community. Technology should only be there to assist the learning.

Anyway, so what are these innovative technologies that will “soon reside in the future classrooms”?

Augmented Reality – Certainly we want students to interact with the world. But this, and it’s cousin virtual reality, are just tools to help them do that. Unless you’re planning to recreate the classroom inside a virtual world, this concept should not “define” learning.

3D Printer – No. Just no. All of the creative work required to have the machine render the object has been done prior to starting the job. A 3D printer is no more defining of learning than was a 2D printer.

Cloud Computing, New interactive and flexible displays, Multi-Touch LCD screen – Again, no. These are not learning tools. They are devices (and in the case of cloud computing, a concept) that can enhance the teaching and learning process. They will not “define” the classroom of the future.

Biometrics – Huh? I understand the security part but saying this technology leads to “adaptive learning systems” that will “transform the education process into a more individual and productive one” is just silly. This is about management and control, not learning.

Learning based on games – If you expand this into the general idea of “learning based on play”, then I’m with you. But learning from play (aka experimentation) is how children gain understanding of their world from the beginning. Applying the concept of gaming to learning school-type subjects is fine as long as “games” are not just one more way to spoon-feed the same old curriculum.

And finally… MOOCs and other online learning options – Kids are certainly learning online, just not in the highly structured format of MOOCs (which haven’t been a roaring success despite the hype). I certainly hope the version of online learning envisioned by adults, which is largely a digital translation of the traditional teacher-directed instruction, doesn’t define the classroom of the future.

I have no doubt many, if not most, of these technologies will make their way into devices used by students and teachers. None of them, however, will define the learning process. And, if properly implemented, no one will even notice (or care) the technology is in the classroom.

Can We Watch You Working?

The first segment of last week’s Freakonomics podcast addressed a question from a listener who asked if internet-connected cameras were placed in a “poor performing junior high classroom… would performance improve, would the students grow up and contribute positively to society”.

The hosts didn’t believe placing cameras in classrooms would make any long term difference (“the problem is no one’s going to watch”) but they did like the idea as an experiment that might get parents more involved in their kid’s education if they could tune in anytime.

I also have my doubts that the “power of scrutiny” would have any effect after the novelty wore off and I certainly agree with this stumbling block: “I can’t imagine how many lawyers you’d have to talk to before you could get even one camera in the room.”.

But I wonder if there might not be other reasons for classroom cameras.

For one, I’d love the opportunity to watch a great teacher at work on a regular basis, something beyond a single, special occasion drop in. And that teacher could in return receive professional feedback from far beyond their local circle.

What about it? Would you be willing to let colleagues from the world watch you work?