The tech giant is transforming public education with low-cost laptops and
free apps. But schools may be giving Google more than they are getting.
free apps. But schools may be giving Google more than they are getting.
CHICAGO — The sixth graders at Newton Bateman, a public elementary school here with a classic red brick facade, know the Google drill.
In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, and began composing essays.
Looking up from her laptop, Masuma Khan, then 11 years old, said her essay explored how schooling in ancient Athens differed from her own. “Back then, they had wooden tablets and they had to take all of their notes on it,” she said. “Nowadays, we can just do it in Google Docs.”
Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the United States, with about 381,000 students, is at the forefront of a profound shift in American education: the Googlification of the classroom.
In the space of just five years, Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools. It has directly reached out to educators to test its products — effectively bypassing senior district officials. And it has outmaneuvered Apple and Microsoft with a powerful combination of low-cost laptops, called Chromebooks, and free classroom apps.
Today, more than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.
“Between the fall of 2012 and now, Google went from an interesting possibility to the dominant way that schools around the country” teach students to find information, create documents and turn them in, said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”
In doing so, 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.
The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he 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.”
Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.
Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable.
Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so. This month, for instance, Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo., sent out a notice urging seniors to “make sure” they convert their school account “to a personal Gmail account.”
That doesn’t sit well with some parents. They warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.
“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”
Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.
Google captured these next-generation users so quickly by outpacing its rivals in both educational product development and marketing.
In 2013, while other tech firms seemed largely content to sell their existing consumer and business offerings to schools, Mr. Rochelle, a co-developer of Google Docs, set up a team at Google to create apps specifically for schools.
To spread those tools, Jaime Casap, Google’s global education evangelist, began traveling around the country with a motivational message: Rather than tout specific Google products, Mr. Casap told educators that they could improve their students’ college and career prospects by creatively using online tools.
“Teachers really helped to drive adoption of Google in the classroom, while Apple and Microsoft continued to leverage traditional sales channels,” said Phillip DiBartolo, the chief information officer of Chicago Public Schools.
But that also caused problems in Chicago and another district when Google went looking for teachers to try a new app — effectively bypassing district administrators. In both cases, Google found itself reined in.
Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data. Questions about how Google might use data gleaned from students’ online activities have dogged the company for years.
“Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid,” said Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group, who vets the security and privacy of classroom apps.
Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.”
Mr. Bout said that student data in Google’s core education services (including Gmail, Calendar and Docs) “is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email.” These services do not show ads, he said, and “do not use personal data resulting from use of these services to target ads.”
Some parents, school administrators and privacy advocates believe that’s not enough. They say Google should be more forthcoming about the details it collects about students, why it collects them and how it uses them.
“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?”
A Campus Marketing Machine
Mr. Casap, the Google education evangelist, likes to recount Google’s emergence as an education powerhouse as a story of lucky coincidences. The first occurred in 2006 when the company hired him to develop new business at its office on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mr. Casap quickly persuaded university officials to scrap their costly internal email service (an unusual move at the time) and replace it with a free version of the Gmail-and-Docs package that Google had been selling to companies. In one semester, the vast majority of the university’s approximately 65,000 students signed up.
And a new Google business was born.
Mr. Casap then invited university officials on a road show to share their success story with other schools. “It caused a firestorm,” Mr. Casap said. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and many others followed.
This became Google’s education marketing playbook: Woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.
The strategy proved so successful in higher education that Mr. Casap decided to try it with public schools.
As it happened, officials at the Oregon Department of Education were looking to help local schools cut their email costs, said Steve Nelson, a former department official. In 2010, the state officially made Google's education apps available to its school districts.
“That caused the same kind of cascade,” Mr. Casap said. School districts around the country began contacting him, and he referred them to Mr. Nelson, who related Oregon’s experience with Google’s apps.
By then, Google was developing a growth strategy aimed at teachers — the gatekeepers to the classroom — who could influence the administrators who make technology decisions. “The driving force tends to be the pedagogical side,” Mr. Bout, the Google education executive, said. “That is something we really embraced.”
Google set up dozens of online communities, called Google Educator Groups, where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech. It started training programs with names like Certified Innovator to credential teachers who wanted to establish their expertise in Google’s tools or teach their peers to use them.
Soon, teachers began to talk up Google on social media and in sessions at education technology conferences. And Google became a more visible exhibitor and sponsor at such events. Google also encouraged school districts that had adopted its tools to hold “leadership symposiums” where administrators could share their experiences with neighboring districts.
Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.
“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”
Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.
“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”
At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.
In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.
“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.
Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.
Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.
A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.
Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.
Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and a major school district’s values.
In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.
Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”
Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.
Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.
Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.
Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.
Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He said he did not earn a fee for the post.)