Problems with the New York Times’ Google takeover story

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A recent New York Times article seriously overstates its case for a Google takeover in education.

By Richard Lee Colvin

The headline of last month’s New York Times front page story on the rise of Google in American classrooms (“How Google Took Over the Classroom”) implies something deeply sinister is occurring in our public schools: A nearly ubiquitous, enormously powerful company had staged a secret coup and is changing education in profound and, apparently, harmful ways.

Now, we all know that headlines can be misleading, exaggerating some element of a story to draw readers in and generate clicks. But the tone of the entire May 13 story by Natasha Singer conveys a warning that public schools and America’s young are being put at risk by a crafty marketing campaign driven by an unseemly hunger for profit. Earnest but naïve educators are being unknowingly drafted to participate in the behemoth’s onslaught.

Google Takeover NYT

Singer writes about technology and philanthropy, and her story is basically about how Google has surged past its competitors in the rapidly growing worldwide $43 billion market for education-related hardware and software:

“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.”

It also helps that Chromebooks are easy to set up and manage.

The marketing story is interesting, although it has been reported elsewhere, including by the Associated Press, Fortune, Fast Company and others. But Singer weakens her piece by trying to turn it into an expose.

Google, she claims, is helping “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.”

Google and the tech economy are “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 article even puts a name to the phenomenon: the “Googlification” of American education.

What evidence of this monumental shift does Singer point to? Not much. There’s a quote from a speech that a Google executive gave at an industry conference. (“I cannot answer for [my children] what they are going to do with the quadratic equation,” the executive is quoted saying. “I don’t know why they are learning it. …. And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer.”) The implication is clear: students don’t need to know much because, thanks to Google, they can always look it up. She also quotes a teacher who says she turned to Google products because she believes they make it easier for her students to learn to collaborate, a skill the company is pushing and something surveys show parents think is extremely important.

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Undermining the argument is Singer’s basic misunderstanding of how schools operate and teachers teach.

Many factors shaping American schools are more powerful than the brand of computers and type of software students use: demographic change; economic inequality; the increasing demands of the labor market; the recognition that enabling all children to meet those demands requires greater personalization, which technology can facilitate; state standards that call for more emphasis on applying and communicating knowledge, not just memorizing it; and the fact that digitization has made traditional textbooks in print all but obsolete, allowing teachers and students to tap into limitless resources for learning.

In response to a query about the tone and substance of the article, an emailed statement from a Times spokesperson said the piece was “based on extensive school visits along with more than 70 interviews conducted over the better part of a year with school officials, company executives, teachers, researchers, students, parents and others, representing the full spectrum of experience in this important topic.”

“We are confident,” the statement continued, “that people who read the piece will recognize the work’s depth and fairness.”

But the reporter’s school visits yielded only one glimpse of so-called “Googlification.” In the article’s anecdotal lead, sixth graders  are doing nothing more radical than writing essays on Chromebooks using Google Docs.

A slide show accompanying the article provided other putative examples of the shift in the purpose of education Singer claims.

But those also are not unsettling:  Students are seen using Google apps to edit their poetry and comment on the work of their peers. They work in groups but, because they are using Docs, they can collaborate online and do not have to move their desks. A teacher uses an app called Google Classroom to check students’ work, provide real-time feedback, and individualize assignments to fit each student’s needs. Students use Classroom to work on assignments at home. They use another Google app to give the teacher feedback on the assignment.

All but one are traditional activities, made more convenient with technology. The only one that’s new? The app that makes it easier for students to give teachers’ feedback on an assignment.

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Reading some of the author’s previous work, it’s easy to see that Google’s 58 percent of the mobile-device market in education has been on her mind. She reported earlier that Apple had fallen behind Google. (“Apple’s Devices Lose Luster in American Classrooms,” March 2, 2017.) She also co-wrote an article focusing on Microsoft’s struggles. (“Microsoft Looks to Gain Lost Ground in the Classroom,” May 2, 2017.) The pieces note that both companies are designing new classroom-friendly devices, cutting prices, and adding new features to existing products.

Her latest piece, (“The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools,” continues the narrative of outsiders inserting themselves into the nuts-and-bolts of education, offering up new approaches to personalization.

Competition, it appears, is benefiting students, teachers, and students.

Companies selling technology, curriculum, and assessments are frequently said to be making money “off the backs” of students.  But this is nothing new. For-profit companies have long sold into public schools, whether they be textbook publishers, furniture vendors, or foodservice providers. Over the past few decades, technology has claimed a larger and larger share of school district budgets.

It is clear that, often, that money is not well-spent and that, once purchased, technology is not well-supported. The education market is challenging to vendors. There are about 13,500 school districts in the United States, and purchasing processes are often cumbersome, driven by lengthy RFPs and slow decision-making.

Google’s innovation has been to reach out directly to schools and teachers and then set up online communities “where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech,” bypassing some of the usual gatekeepers. “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,” the article continues.

Teachers, though, are usually reasonable judges of what will work in their classrooms. Indeed, they should have far greater influence over technology purchases than they do. But it is districts, not teachers, who write the checks so they have the final say – especially when it comes to more expensive purchases.

Singer, though, like many journalists, is deeply skeptical of for-profit companies that peddle their wares to schools. “Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers,” she writes. But many children have mobile devices in their hands long before they get to school. They don’t enter schools as blank slates, technology-wise – and schools are not the only influence on their preferences.

Another source of profit, the article says, is data generated by students’ use of the apps will help the company target them with advertising after they graduate. That qualifies as a phantom worry. Google says that is not happening, and I believe the company. Can you imagine the reaction of consumers if Google began bombarding them with ads based on scans of their Docs?

Despite my criticisms of this article, I do think education journalists should be asking hard questions about the use of technology in school. Journalists should find out if Singer’s claims about a shift to skills and away from knowledge is, in fact, occurring, whether it is driven by technology or not. She doesn’t make a persuasive case that technology is driving this shift, if it is occurring, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t bear a closer look.

Other questions: how do districts decide to make major purchases of technology? Are they driven by comprehensive, well-resourced plans based on students’ needs, or are they being made in response to slick or deceptive sales techniques? As reporters look into technology, they should keep in mind that computers and software are only tools. What matters is how skilled teachers use them.

This kind of reporting is labor intensive and intellectually challenging. It requires going out and talking to teachers and being willing to listen and observe closely in classrooms with an open mind. Singer apparently visited lots of schools. But it seems her singular focus on technology blurred her vision of the larger context in which schools operate.

Richard Lee Colvin is an education policy analyst, writer, and editor, former chief speechwriter at the U.S. Department of Education, and Founder of the Hechinger Report. He can be found on Twitter at R_Colvin.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

9 comments

  • TRobinson

    Actually I thought the Times article hit it pretty well. Google is not giving anything away (they don’t even try to hide Google for Education as a Foundation or 501(c)3 like others did in the past). They simply are taking the long view and gathering years of data on children – often without the schools gaining permission from the parents. Google has repeated been caught gathering data they said they weren’t and gaining condemnation from state attorney gernerals for their privacy policies (I have no idea why you trust them). What is their secret sauce with schools? “FREE”. This makes is easy for schools who are starved for cash to sell their students. It also kills innovation in education. Just look as investors pull more and more money out of education companies. Why? How do you compete with a company that can give away a service to customers that you would need to sell? Google for education is an expensive and brilliant client acquisition strategy based on Apple’s success from the 90s).The schools get some nice software (and, yes, it is nice) but Google gets your child’s data. Google wins.

  • Very interesting take, especially since the Hechinger Report landed a $150,000 grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation last year. Nellie Mae has been the primary force pushing blended/online learning and competency based education throughout New England. Anyone who wants to learn more should check out Wrench in the Gears. In the end, digital education is about creating a derivatives market for P20 educational data via social impact investing. That’s where the real money is and why student loan and finance companies are so very interested in pushing education online. Sure, there’s money to be made in devices and data, but the speculative financial markets are something most people are overlooking.

    TEACHER’S COLLEGE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
    Grant: New England Reporting Initiative Year 1
    Initiative: Build Public Understanding & Demand
    Date Grant Awarded: 8/2/2016
    Location Served: New York, NY Teacher’s College, Columbia University
    Teachers College, Columbia University is the first and largest graduate school of education in the United States and is also perennially ranked among the nation’s best. The College is committed to a vision of education writ large, encompassing our four core areas of expertise: health, education, leadership, and psychology. The Hechinger Report is an institute within the Teacher’s College.

    Program Description
    Deep and sophisticated education coverage is needed to ensure the public has the information necessary to become a constructive part of the conversation about the systems and practices in their communities. The New England Reporting Initiative allows The Hechinger Report to expand their reporting on student-centered learning and other education innovations gaining traction throughout the New England region.

    • Richard Lee Colvin

      I haven’t been associated with the Hechinger Report since 2011.

    • Richard Lee Colvin

      Dear Actual Parent, I haven’t been associated with the Hechinger Report since 2011. Dig Deep, Actual Parent, Dig Deep.

  • A. Parent

    I think Mr. Colvin is the one who needs to do more research. I am a parent of two children in public schools, and this is absolutely happening, and on a vast scale. We are a district of over 100,000 students, and the devaluation of knowledge has been lauded by our own superintendent. Every student grades K-12 has felt the effects of this transformation, with kids in K-7 having had the heaviest load.

    It also concerns me that Mr. Colvin’s organization has received large grants from Nellie Mae, who is one of the major drivers behind tech’s foray into education. This conflict of interest should be transparently reported.

  • Actual parent whose horse is involuntarily and unwittingly in the edtech race.

    Dear Mr. Colvin,

    It is hard to take seriously an organization that has a dog in the fight or horse in the race. Your reporting is not coming from a unbiased place, but rather from a place in which you are defending a movement which you – or the company for which you work – agrees with professionally.

    I can understand your desire to defend a movement of which your company is indirectly or directly a part, but devulging who is paying your conpany’s bills is called simple honest reporting.

    So, a NYT technology reporter – who has no dog in the fight nor horse in the race, reported on technology in schools. I suggest you do your homework and see the opposition coming from parents whose children are the end-users of these initiatives.

    Our kids are the unwitting and involuntary consumers of these experimental initiatives.

    Since when did the ed tech industry have permission to drive school curriculum and the delivery of it? Since when did educators become secondary in the educational process in favor of technology experts? Since when did technology companies become the expert of education?

    Dig deeper, Colvin; dig deep!

  • Listen to the “anecdotal” evidence from parents who are living with the shift on a daily basis in our public schools. We are on both sides of the political aisle and see the same things on different areas of the country. Edtech profiteers, venture philanthropists, and public-private partnerships are circumventing the taxpayers to push their agendas. There’s nothing personal about personalized learning. It is an online education at their own pace on a device. Teachers will be relegated to guides on the side and digital data dashboard drivers. Constant monitoring, data collection, and data-driven decisions will dominate the classroom.

    https://m.soundcloud.com/alice-linahan/women-on-the-wall-with-alison-mcdowell-lynn-davenport-and-meg-bakich-technology-in-the-classroom

  • M.Thomas

    Mr. Colvin, Thanks for commenting. From your current Linkedin profile, I wondered who are your clients from “foundations, non-profit research and advocacy organizations and for-profit K-12 education”?

    “Building on my many years as an education journalist and policy analyst, I write speeches; research, write and edit policy reports; perform other editorial services; and provide strategic communications advice to government education agencies, foundations, non-profit research and advocacy organizations and for-profit K-12 education clients.”

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