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.
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.
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.
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.