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?

Is Educational Technology Making a Difference in Education?

I had the opportunity to lead a recent webinar on whether educational technology making a difference in education? Are we seeing increases in student engagement and student learning? Or, is this billion dollar industry known as educational technology just misleading us, absorbing our time and money? In fact, this is not a new question. It has been debated and written about for decades now. It is a valid question, one that is certainly important before we starting devoting the amount of time and money that can easily go into educational technology efforts and investments.

Yet, there is not a straight-forward or black and white answer. That is because it is a bit like asking whether teachers are making a difference in education. A wise respondent to suck a question will point out that you can’t give a simple answer to that question because it depends upon the teacher. Some teachers enhance learning while others do not. Some teachers make a difference at some times and some contexts more than others. It depends upon the learners, the context, the teacher’s competence and confidence, and probably a dozen other factors as well. We can say that “teachers make a difference” or that “educational technology makes a difference”, but any honest answer will probably need to start with “it depends.”

Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is a useless question. We should be asking about whether or use of educational technology is helping or hindering, and in what ways. Consider the meta-analysis conducted in 2014 on the use of educational technology with at-risk students. This looks at 70+ studies on the use of educational technology with this specific population and the researchers noted that it can indeed make a difference, but that there are three important factors.

First, educational technology that promoted “interactive learning” had a more positive impact of student learning. In other words, simply digitizing worksheets, workbooks, and textbooks is probably not especially effective. A digital “sit and get” will not necessarily make more of a difference than a more traditional one, unless the digitizing resulted in more interactive learning. Interactive learning provides each student with multiple ways to explore a challenging concept. It promotes deeper thinking, choosing, analyzing, grappling, engaging, exploring, and more. This should not come as a surprise since these are things that enhance pretty much any learning environment.

As an example, consider the countless drill and kill math applications that you can find for mobile devices. Why would we expect those to be more effective than less digital drill and kill? Yet, other math applications are true enhancements, creating greater interactivity and giving learners tools with which to think and analyze. Contrast a simple math app that quizzes someone on fractions and another that asks fraction questions but then gives students a collection of visual tools, like pieces of pie charters, that allow students to figure out the answer to the question.

A second finding in the student was that exploring and creating was more effective in educational technology than passive content. Again, we know this to be true in almost all of learning. This means that the more impactful educational technologies are beyond drill and practice. They are immersive games, simulations, and data sets that student manipulate. They are technologies that promote creation over consumption. Students create reports, digital stories, presentations, visual representations, artistic expressions and more. Notice that much of this can even be promoted with productivity software and not always dedicated educational apps.

Finally, the study pointed to the importance of having the “right blend of teachers and technology.” It is not necessarily just throwing these at-risk students in front of a computer with educational software. The teachers serve as learning architects, game and learning experience designers, curators, sources of support, coaches, mentors, and facilitators of peer mentoring and meaningful peer interaction.

In fact, these three distinctives like resonate with many educators. While not all research turns out this way, these three attributes make intuitive sense as well. In fact, we could say that educational technology seems to be most impactful when it amplifies what we already know to be true about quality learning experiences. As an amplifier, educational technology used to amplify our worst or least effective strategies will propagate expected results. Educational technology used to extend or amplify best practices spread positive results.

Yet, this is not the entire picture. Technology also has the capacity to think about possibilities for teaching and learning that were previously not possible. We can extend the walls of the classroom around the world. We can increase access and opportunity to learning experiences and resources. We can personalize and differentiate in ways that serve those previously treated as defective because they don’t seem to learn within the standard system, only to find that these students have immense potential. These are just a few of the possibilities that have become more visible to us as we explore and experiment with educational technology.

Does educational technology make a difference in education. It certainly can and does. Yet, it is not like some pill that you take and it does its work apart from other factors. This is something that quite often calls for design thinking, planning, strategy, and support. It is often best used when combined with an understanding of current research about quality learning, but an openness to imagining new possibilities and surfacing future best practices.

Yes, Educational Technology is a Trojan Horse. It Has Been One for Centuries

Educational technology is a Trojan horse. It has been one for longer than we’ve used the phrase “educational technology.” Audrey Waters was the guest on episode 8 of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast. The provocative title for the episode, “Why Audrey Waters Thinks Tech Is a Trojan Horse Set to ‘Dismantle’ the Academy” was indeed provocative, enough for me to listen to it. What I heard was a good and important reminder that technology is a cultural artifact that is not neutral. Audrey’s ideas in this segment would be common and welcome at the annual Media Ecology Conference. As such, this was familiar ground for me, given that I cut my teeth on educational technology from an unusual collection of thinkers, not from technologists but from some of media and emerging technology’s greatest critics and analysts. This included people like Neil Postman, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Lewis Munford, Sven Birkerts, Daniel Boorsten, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Jack Goody, and Jay Bolter. These and others taught me that technology is values laden, and that more than often, it has its way with society. As many of these people say in different ways. We create technology. Then is creates us.

I get that. It is why many of my early presentations at education conferences (especially those about ten years ago) were about the adverse impact of technology in education and society. I was driven by what I considered a holy discontent about people’s seeming ignorance to the realities of how technology works on us, uses us, shapes us and our world. My plea was not for the use or rejection of it, but simply for us to deeply and persistently consider the affordances and limitations. To get a sense of how much I’ve used that phrase, simply Google “affordances and limitations” and scan the articles that appear on the first 3-5 pages.

Even though that is not the focus of much of my work today, highlighting the dangers of technology in education, it is still a line of thinking that I consider important for those of us working in the education space. In an age where everyone is touting the importance of teaching critical thinking, we are wise to do a bit of our own critical thinking about our decisions and technologies in education.

In the interview with Audrey Waters, the following quote is shared: “Education technology is Trojan horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource, unbundle, disrupt, and destroy.” I agree and the statement reminded me of how I used to start many of my presentations about ten years ago. I would begin by explaining that educational technology is a conspiracy. Technology is not neutral and those of us who are its greatest advocates in education are co-conspirators. Educational technology will and does shape and reshape education. When we adopt it, we are knowingly or unknowingly joining the great ed tech conspiracy. Furthermore, many of us who champion its use in education have ulterior and a subversive set of motives. I certainly do, and I develop new subversive motives all the time.

The difference is that I’m okay with that. A turning point for me in education was a realization that many critics of emerging educational technologies were doing so to protect a set of personal values. These were often values that helped protect their power, privileged position, and preferred perspective. As Postman and many others point out, there are always winners and losers with each new technology. I completely agree. I agree so much that I think it is true with the traditional and dominant technologies today as well. The concepts of the age-graded classroom is a technology with winners and losers. The technologies that amplify the lecture creates winners and losers. The technology of letter grades has winners and losers. The technology of credit hours, academic standards, learning objectives, course syllabi, faculty tenure systems, professionalism about teachers and professors, teacher unions, college diplomas, modern transcripts, standardized tests, education funding models… All of these are technologies or are amplified and supported by associated technologies, and they all create winners and losers. I am completely okay with challenging these more established technologies or systems, and I do not start from a place that gives them privilege because of their history or broader acceptance in society or the education establishment. These deserve just as robust of a critique as do the new technologies.

This is not to suggest that new is going to be better, but it will be different. It will generate new winners and losers. This is why I continue to come back to the argument that a diverse educational system is the most humane. There will always be different winners and learners, so we must at least embrace a variety of options so that the largest possible number of people will find places where they can be winners. I admit that I am intolerant of absolute claims about the “right approach in education”, whether they come from government, the corporate world, teacher unions, education researchers, or any other source. An education system that fights to exclude that which is different or highlights different benefits is one that is fighting to become an educational monopoly. Even some the people who are most outspoken about the corporatization of education are essentially seeking their own type of monopoly or power hold on the system.

Before the next paragraphs, perhaps I should slow down and share a working definition of educational technology. From AECT, ” educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.” As such, it is much more than mobile devices, educational software, computers in the classroom, interactive whiteboards, virtual reality in education, and other more “techie” artifacts. Educational technology also includes assessment frameworks, grading systems, educational policies, teaching strategies, approaches to designing curriculum and lessons, and the many structures that are considered standard aspects of schooling today. Not everyone agrees with my broad approach to the phrase, but I see too much danger in using more narrow ones. The critiques of computers in the classroom and new educational software are needed, but it is just as important for us to critique these other technologies.

Yes, educational technology is here to dismantle, outsource, unbundle, destroy and do so much more. Isn’t that what the technologies undergirding the education system of the 20th century did to the systems that preceded it? Didn’t the modern University dismantle the higher education system prior to it? Didn’t teacher professionalism undermine the model in existence prior that construct? Didn’t age-graded classrooms destroy the more diverse vision of the one-room schoolhouse? Didn’t the technologies of the book and literacy education unbundle learning from centralized authorities as the sole source of knowledge for many? Didn’t the textbook invention change things? Didn’t the letter grade system dismantle and disrupt the way in which students and teachers thought about feedback? Isn’t the national standards movement undermining greater local control and influence on curricula to some extend? Even the concept of curriculum (or rather the many concepts) was an an undermining invention.

As such, people who are defending the status quo in education are just as much advocates of a Trojan horse, just a different one. Every past, present and future educational technology is a Trojan horse. You don’t have to agree with my individual questions to see my general point. This is what technologies do. They represent a conspiracy against that which came before them.

9 Critical Issues in the National Educational Technology Plan

Over the upcoming weeks, I will be reviewing and reflecting on 2016 National Educational Technology Plan, a Department of Education document that seeks to cast a vision and priorities for educational technology in K-12 and higher education. It is an important document because:

  • it has a history of provoking large-scale conversations,
  • it gives a glimpse into potential grant funding priorities,
  • it offers a snapshot of current priorities on a national level,
  • and it helps people understand the scope of what we mean by “educational technology” today.

It represents a solid think piece about many of the challenges and opportunities of learning in an increasingly connected world, beginning with an assessment of progress from the last educational technology plan, and then moving into priorities moving forward. For this article, I will focus upon that first part.

On page 5 of the plan, the authors explain that there has indeed been progress since the last educational technology plan, but that there are nine areas that require further or greater attention moving forward. I’ve included those nine areas below, followed by a brief personal commentary of each.

1. “A digital use divide continues to exist between learners who are using technology in active, creative ways to support their learning and those who predominantly use technology for passive content consumption.”

In early conversations about the digital divide, people focused on access to hardware and software. Then there was a focus on getting schools connected to the Internet. However, the digital divide conversation eventually moved to more than just having the tools. It is about the competence and confidence in using them in diverse ways. It is not just about completing drill and practice games on a device. As such, the plan points out there is a creation versus consumption digital divide that must be addressed if we want to set people up for success as connected learners throughout life. This is partly why there is also a priority to not only have Internet access in schools, but in homes, where people are more likely to engage in unscripted play and experimentation.

2. “Research on the effectiveness of technology-enabled programs and resources is still limited, and we should build capacity to generate evidence of individual-, program-, and community-level outcomes.”

As long as educational technology has been used in K-12 and higher education, there has been a challenge to find solid research to support the efficacy of certain technologies over others. I will not go into great detail here, but part of the reason is because it is like nailing jelly to the wall. Nonetheless, there can be solid research to inform our practices. The danger is that people may use such research findings in ways that are too scripted or generalizing beyond what is warranted by the existing reserach.

3. “Many schools do not yet have access to or are not yet using technology in ways that can improve learning on a daily basis, which underscores the need—guided by new research—to accelerate and scale up adoption of effective approaches and technologies.”

The “integrating technology” discourse has not served us especially well. We have quite a few teachers who see integrating technology as an independent professional development goal instead of an integrated part of increasing student engagement and learning. Reserach can help with this, but I contend that an even more important starting point is to help all teachers move beyond the idea of integrating technology.

4. “Few schools have adopted approaches for using technology to support informal learning experiences aligned with formal learning goals.”

Now this may be one of the most important statements in the entire educational technology plan. This is a recognition that achieving our goals of preparing people to thrive and survive in an increasingly connected world can’t just happen through scripted and prescribed educational programming. Informal learning, self-directed learning and personal exploration and experimentation are all important ingredients. I am delighted to see this recognition in the educational technology plan. It affirms the great work and emerging models by many new school startups but also recognizes the critical role of learning beyond the school walls and a prescribed curriculum. In fact, it is intriguing how little there is in the National Educational Technology Plan about national standards.

5. “Supporting learners in using technology for out-of-school learning experiences is often a missed opportunity.”

Again, there is an affirmation about learning beyond the school walls. This is certainly highlighted by the great success of the Cities of Learning projects, but it doesn’t stop there. It also affirms the good and important reserach and insights of people like Mimi Ito.

6. “Across the board, teacher preparation and professional development programs fail to prepare teachers to use technology in effective ways.”

Yes, educational technology is often a later consideration in teacher education, and there are often teacher education programs that don’t have a single faculty member who was hired with educational technology as a primary area of expertise. As such, we have people experimenting and dabbling but limited true expertise. This could work, but the standard for educational technology competence among faculty is relatively low. Sometimes they are tech-savvy, but that has little to do with educational technology, and some are still slow to really understand what the field is all about. Without a vision for what educational technology is and how it can be an integrated part of a robust teacher education program, we will not make progress in this area.

7. “Assessment approaches have evolved but still do not use technology to its full potential to measure a broader range of desired educational outcomes, especially non-cognitive competencies.”

If you’ve read my blog over the last year, you probably know how delighted I am about this one. Assessment innovation is such a promising and important area in education today. Feedback works in education and designing a robust and diverse formative assessment plans is a great starting point. My only concern is that some will interpret this to just be about standardized tests, vanilla learning analytics, and the like. Yet, check out the focus here. It is on assessing non-cognitive competencies. These are things like grit, curiosity, and the love of learning; topics about which I have been writing a great deal, and are as or more important than content area outcomes when it comes to predicting student success later in life.

8. “The focus on providing Internet access and devices for learners should not overshadow the importance of preparing teachers to teach effectively with technology and to select engaging and relevant digital learning content.”

Again, early efforts in educational technology focused on the hardware and software. Yet, it is the design and quality of the resources that has the greatest impact. We must continue to move beyond getting devices in people’s hands and think more about learning experience design and learning resources.

9. “As students use technology to support their learning, schools are faced with a growing need to protect student privacy continuously while allowing the appropriate use of data to personalize learning, advance research, and visualize student progress for families and teachers.”

There is no question about this one as well. Big data and learning analytics is here. Now how do we navitage important safety and ethical issues about how and if we use these data.

These are all important issues, ones that the NEDT notes require further attention moving forward. In the subsequent articles, I will write about the five proposed prioriteis moving forward: learning, teaching, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure.