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.

More About Alexa and Its AI Siblings

Following up on my previous rant about Alexa in the classroom, two good, related articles from Wired on the subject of artificial intelligence that are worth your time to read.

In one the writer highlights sections of reports to regulators from both Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Microsoft that warn of possible “risk factors” in future products.

From Alphabet:

New products and services, including those that incorporate or utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning, can raise new or exacerbate existing ethical, technological, legal, and other challenges, which may negatively affect our brands and demand for our products and services and adversely affect our revenues and operating results.

Microsoft was more specific:

AI algorithms may be flawed. Datasets may be insufficient or contain biased information. Inappropriate or controversial data practices by Microsoft or others could impair the acceptance of AI solutions. These deficiencies could undermine the decisions, predictions, or analysis AI applications produce, subjecting us to competitive harm, legal liability, and brand or reputational harm.

On the other hand, Amazon, in a report to stockholders, is more worried about governments regulating their products than they are about Alexa activating Skynet at sometime in the future.

The other post is a long excerpt from a book being published this month called “Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think”.

It covers some pieces of recent history in the development of artificially intelligent products and the difficulty of programming a machine to understand the many ways that humans communicate.

I’m undecided about reading the whole book, but this part of it is worth 15 minutes.


The image is the user interface of HAL, the malfunctioning artificial intelligence from the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It also links to an interesting New York Times story of how the sound of HAL was created.

Hey, Alexa! What Are You Doing In The Classroom?

It’s very hard to escape all the hype around those voice-activated, quasi-AI powered personalities: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant.1

And, of course, some people bring up the idea of using them in the classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on an ISTE webinar2 by a professor of education who was going to explain how we could use Alexa, what he classified as an “internet of things technology”, for teaching and learning.

Notice his thesis was centered on how to use Alexa with students. Not why.

Ok, I can certainly see how there might be a case for hands-free, artificially intelligent devices with certain students, those with visual and motor impairments. Maybe even to support students with reading disabilities.

But are these tools that can really help most students learn?

Currently Alexa and her competitors can only answer specific questions, when they aren’t monitoring the room for requests to place an Amazon order. Sometimes getting to those answers takes several attempts (as unintentionally demonstrated in some of the examples) as the human tailors the question format to fit the algorithms inside the box.

(I wonder how students with far less patience than the presenter would react to Alexa’s confusion.)

He also demonstrated some “add-ons” that would allow a teacher to “program” Alexa with what, to my ear, amounted to little more than audible flashcards and quiz-type activities.

So far, pretty basic stuff. But, when it comes to this supposedly new category of edtech, I have more than a few questions that go beyond how well the algorithm can retrieve facts and quiz kids.

Do we really want to be training our kids how to speak with Alexa (or Siri, or Google)? If we’re going to spend time helping them learn how to frame good questions, wouldn’t it be better if they were working on topics that matter? Topics that might have multiple or open-ended answers?

Instead of two-way artificial conversations with Alexa, how about if the kids learn the art of participating in a meaningful discussion with their peers? Or with other people outside of the classroom?

But if you really want to bring an AI voice into the classroom, why not use it as a great starting point for students to investigate that so-called “intelligence” behind the box?

Let’s do some research into how Siri works? Why does Google Assistant respond in the way it does? Who created the algorithms that sit in the background and why?

What might Amazon be doing with all the verbal data that Alexa is collecting? What could the company (and others?) learn from just listening to us?

The professor didn’t include any of that in his presentation, or anything related to the legal and ethical issues of putting an always-listening, network-connected device from a third party in a setting with children.

Some people in the chat room brought up COPPA, FERPA, and other privacy issues, but the speaker only addressed questions regarding this complex topic in the final few minutes of the session. As you might expect, he didn’t have any actual answers to these concerns.

Anyway, the bottom line to all this is that we need to consider suggestions of using Alexa, or any other always-listening device, in the classroom with a great deal of skepticism. The same goes for any other artificially intelligent device, software, or web service used by students.

At this point, there are far too many unanswered questions, including what’s in the algorithms and how the data collected is being used.


I have one of those HomePods by Apple in my house. I agree with the Wirecutter review: it’s a great speaker, especially for music, but Siri is definitely behind Alexa and Google Assistant in its (her?) artificial intelligence. On the other hand, I have more trust in Apple to keep my secrets. :-)

1. I excluded Samsung’s Bixby from that list because I’ve know absolutely no one who has actually used it, despite being release two years ago.

2. You can see the webinar here but you’ll need to have a paid ISTE membership. His slide deck is available to everyone, however.

Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.

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. :-)