Is Google ready to take some education moonshots?

Is Google ready to take some education moonshots? Is Google for Education a champion for sustaining or disruptive innovation? I suppose it depends upon how you define your terms and what you identify as potentially disruptive. With that major caveat, most of what I’ve seen so far is a team of people largely (but not exclusively) content with sustaining innovations while holding in their hands some astonishingly disruptive educational technologies.

Google is an incredible organization. I have great respect for so much about what they do and how they do it. I’m even more impressed with the notion of a world-class organization that, when I visited it, felt like what you would expect to see if Maria Montessori married Richard Feynman and they started a Fortune 100 advertising company. I understand that it is still fundamentally an advertising company, but their products and services have also helped us imagine new possibilities for teaching and learning in a connected world. Yet, I’m still not sure that most people working on education at Google understand the scope of that impact. While some of the work at Google is clearly moonshot-worthy, their formal work in education still largely seems like a dabbling with sustaining innovations, bolstering the longstanding educational establishment.

I’ve had the joy of two quick visits to Google, both of which amplified my respect for what they do and the culture that they have established. People were clearly proud to be part of the company. The main campus dripped with curiosity, a love of learning, and a commitment to excellence. When I talked to people, they thought and spoke about their work with enthusiasm, but also with a sense that what they do matters. It is a culture rich with an individual and collective sense of purpose and possibility.

I went to Google with a group of University leaders a couple of years ago and we had a chance to meet Google team-members from various areas, including a few working in Google for Education or education-related products. I only met and spoke to a small number of people, but I was surprised that those I met who talked about education were largely conventional, talking about things that you could have heard or experienced at any one of a dozen education conferences.

Where were the education moonshots? The people with whom I spoke were seemingly championing longstanding education conventions, even one or two common clichés about notions of education and protecting the traditional role of the teacher. I was looking for a Montessori mindset to their educational endeavors, but I had trouble seeing it. Despite this seeming limitation, already two years ago they already had a dozen innovations with immense possibilities for education in a connected world, democratized learning, empowering human agency, and truly uncloistering education from its monastic roots. It was just that their seeming commitment to traditional conventions and the concept of traditional schooling seemed to be inhibiting them from seeing many such possibilities, from more fully embracing their position to to take some massive and exciting moonshots. Or, perhaps these moonshots will not come directly from Google but they will be partly Google-powered. Google provides the rocket and the fuel, but it is up to others to use them.