4 Ways that Google Might be Hurting Education

I like Google. I benefit from any number of Google products and services. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the headquarters twice, once with a group of University executives, and another where a kind Google employee took me on a less trodden tour, including a walk through the Garage (a very cool maker space). I use Google products for personal and professional purposes, my children use a Chromebook or educational purposes (they also use a Mac), and I am the first to commend the quality and reliability of many Google products and services. To the tell truth, if Google invited me out to join their team, it would be tempting to be part of such an intellectually stimulating organization that has the potential to do some real good in education and society. At the same time, I’m beginning to think that, albeit unintentionally, Google’s influence on the field of education is a mix of positive and negative.

On the positive side, many educators and schools benefit from free to incredibly affordable services ranging from Chromebooks to a solid learning management system, email to their suite of productivity tools. Google has even taken a more direct role in championing educational innovation, equipping educators, and building a community of educators around both educational technology and educational innovation. There is much good in this work.

Now that I’ve qualified my remarks with some of the many positive contributions of Google, I am compelled to at least share four growing or persistent concerns I have about Google’s contribution and influence in the larger field of education.

Digital Advertising Wars in Higher Education

You can read more about my comments on this in a recent post on Etale as well as in this Edsurge article. Here is the short version. Higher education institutions are paying for digital ads to compete for the attention of prospective adult and traditional age college students, and this competition is getting out of hand, drawing money away from Universities that could be used for better purposes. Google is not to blame, by the company is also not turning away the significant dollars that could be going toward improving teaching and learning, increasing retention efforts, or maybe even offering modest or sometimes substantive discounts or scholarships.

For-profit and now non-profit higher education institutions are the ones who believe that they must engage in this expensive competition if they want to recruit beyond the regional realm of their broader brand awareness. As I wrote in the last article, however, I believe that there are ways around this, and I’m gathering my thoughts around maybe even doing something about it. I’m not alone. Within a day of the Edsurge article release, I received close to a dozen calls or emails from others who resonated with my position.

What can Google do about this? I have a few ideas, but each one comes with an up and downside. All of those ideas, however, mean taking the risk of less revenue for Google from for-profit and non-profit education institutions.

Commercializing Educators

I believe that Google is about more than profit. There is an undeniable and wonderful culture of intellectual curiosity, and while I’m sure that people don’t mind the good pay, the culture of Google is unquestionably about more than maximizing profits, at least from my vantage point. Yet, as best as I can tell, Google is still primarily an advertising business. They’ve taken bus wrap advertising into the digital world, expanding upon that with countless technological enhancements.

Then we have programs like the Google certified educator. At one level, this program is unquestionably about training people in Google products and services, and helping people to achieve positive educational results from these efforts. On another level, it is creating a community of Google champions in schools, influencers who sometimes end up guiding schools into the adoption or further integration of Google products and services into the life of students. I’m sure that it is seen as a mutually beneficial exchange, but I find it hard to deny that these educators and leaders are also at least partly commercialized along the way. There is still a profit motive at work. This draws educators and students into the Google ecosystem and away from competition.

Google isn’t the only one. There is Apple, Microsoft, Discovery Education, and many others who use this strategy; and I am certain that these are incredibly well-meaning communities that benefit schools and students. Yet, I for one believe that just as schools should not endorse political candidates and try to directly influence students toward one candidate or party, some corollary likely applies when it comes to endorsing or influencing students with regard to commercial products and services. I realize that this is easier said than done. This is a complex and potentially unavoidable dilemma, but at a minimum, we are wise to teach the dilemma, to disclose conflicts of interest, and to revisit the nature of our connections with corporate brands. I still happen to think that corporate/school interactions and partnerships have more value than harm to offer, but there are risks to be managed and dangers to be avoided. I contend that there is a code for companies that choose to step into the education sector so directly, as I partly identify in this proposed Educational Entrepreneur’s Code of Ethics.

Search Over Research

There is Google Scholar, but search and research are not the same thing. I “Google” questions and topics as much or more than the next person, and I learn much from it, but I meet a growing number of students whose research skills are so limited that Google is a necessary crutch to survive. I don’t have any great insight into the algorithm’s used by Google’s search engine, but it is not optimized to produce the best resources for every academic project. Nor is Googling information an adequate replacement for other forms of inquiry. Yes, we can and should teach information literacy and research literacy to learners, but the incredible ease of search is a persistent challenge. It is a digital age equivalent of the temptation to just look in the back of the book for the answer to that math problem, only the answer that we search for and find is not necessarily the most useful, most accurate, or most edifying one. Austin Kleon is often quoted as saying that, “If you are not online, you don’t exist.” The same can be said for incredibly valuable insights and information that are less likely to surface for a Google-centered student researcher. Educators have a responsibility to make sure that students are keenly aware of the fact that answers and insights are found beyond the Google ecosystem. Otherwise, the hidden curriculum is just a molding of the next generation of consumers (or people whose attention and actions Google sells to others).

Products Before Practice

Check out the Google for Education site. It has some impressive resources on it. The expeditions section is one of my favorites and I celebrated when I reviewed what Google is doing in the programming for the Google Certified Innovator…until I discovered that you have to go through the Google product indoctrination programming of a Google Certified Educator 1 & 2 before you are even eligible to apply for the innovator program (which doesn’t necessitate use of Google products). What you will see as you browse the site is just that it is heavy on Google products, as you would expect. It is run by Google, right? Yet, the entire focus and the fact that the certified innovator program requires training in Google products as a prerequisite puts the products before the discussion of education needs and best practices.

There is a time for experimenting with a new products or services. This can spark great ideas for teaching and learning, but most of us in the educational innovation and educational technology world caution about that being the dominant method. Otherwise, the product shapes the sense of what is possible. We become conformed to the products and services instead of seeking out that which allows us to do things our own way (or a better way).

Closing Thoughts

I started this article by recognizing many positive contributions of Google to education, and I will conclude that ways as well. I can list countless examples of promising education applications of Google products. Students and teachers use Google Hangouts or Google Drive for student groups, to connect with experts and classmates around the world, and to bridge classrooms across time and distance. Google tools and products are reliable and robust enough to support research products, engage in collaborating writing, math and statistics projects and experiments, going on virtual tours around the world (no the universe), and a thousand other educational experiences. At the same time, not everything that Google does is necessarily a help to education, and the four items above represent some of them. I don’t offer an easy fix to these (although I certainly have my ideas), but I’m convinced that there are ways that Google and those of us in education can mitigate against these downsides.

If you are a Google certified educator or a champion of Google products in school, this is not a criticism of the good work that you are doing for students. If you work at Google, keep up the great and innovative work. At the same time, how about if we find ways to collaborate around addressing some of these challenges?