4 Reasons Why Google is Bad for Education

One of the disconcerting aspects of my role in education is that I always need to be thinking a couple steps ahead. In many cases, this means looking deep enough into the crystal ball to see the decline of technologies we’re just starting to use. I’ve written in the past about how 1:1 programs may not be the final answer, even as we continue to move toward them. I’ve also realized that learning management systems, like Moodle, Schoology, and Edmodo, are probably bad ideas in the long run, even as we continue to promote and encourage their use now. In both of these cases, the pedagogical transformation that comes from their adoption is invaluable. So we can’t just skip to the next step.

When it comes to Google, I’m torn. Their collection of tools (primarily Gmail, Docs, and Calendar) has had a tranformational effect on many of our practices, both in and out of the classroom. The collaborative features in Docs make it possible for dozens of people to edit the same file at the same time without the pain of “this document is locked for editing by another user.” The cloud-based solution has allowed us to open up email and other tools to students, which would not have been possible if we were still hosting it ourselves. And their innovative approach to calendars has given us the ability to communicate event information to staff, students, parents, and the community like never before. In short, moving to Google is probably the best technology decision we’ve made in our district in the last ten years.

But that doesn’t mean we will use it forever.

There are some scratches and dents in our Google experience, shiny though it may be. There are some things that are ultimately going to force us to go elsewhere. I don’t know where elsewhere is yet (and it’s not Microsoft, so put down the phone, Live 365 sales rep). Herewith are the four reasons the K-12 Education / Google marriage is destined for divorce:

Customer Service

Google doesn’t excel at customer service. They rely heavily on forums and written documentation for the majority of support issues. I’m also not one to depend on companies’ customer support. In my experience, most companies’ support people generally aren’t much help. But I’ve had two issues with Google customer service within the last few months that have me seriously thinking about my future relationship with this company.

The first issue was a billing one. We pay for email archiving for staff email accounts. This year, the invoice was more than double the regular rate, despite our being quoted the same amount we always pay. It was a simple matter of them double billing us, and charging us tax when they shouldn’t have. But it took about 10 weeks to get it resolved, mostly because I was working with a different person at each interaction. I don’t have an account representative that I can call who can take care of this. “We’ll submit a request for re-invoicing the correct amount.” Then there’s nothing until I get another nastygram about non-payment. And through the whole experience, I’m the bad guy for not paying the bill.

Still, that’s just a minor annoyance. It didn’t really affect our use of Google’s services. But when we had a few staff members get married, I changed their usernames to reflect their new status. This broke their email accounts because the change didn’t propagate correctly through Google’s services. It took two weeks to resolve this one, and ultimately ended in them directing me to use a workaround to sidestep a bug in the original workaround that they told me to use to get around the apparent bug that they never acknowledged. In the meantime, these staff members couldn’t use email for two weeks. It worked out all right, because this was in late July and early August. But if I had a teacher without email for two weeks in September, I would be facing a lot of pressure to switch email systems.

Google Plus

I was excited about Plus when it launched. Here was Facebook, without it being, well, Facebook. I’ve often thought about using Facebook as a learning management system, in the spirit of bringing the learning to the networks our students are already using. What if a discussion of the hero’s journey and a description of RNA synthesis were mixed in with friends’ status updates and photos of cats? What if we didn’t force our students to come off the beach to play in our sandbox? Plus seemed like a golden opportunity to embrace social networking in education while sidestepping the privacy, online safety, and general disintegration of civilized society charges that are constantly levied against Zuckerberg and his company.

But, alas, Google Plus is not available for Google Apps for Education domains.

Fine. I can see their point. COPPA has some legal requirements regarding the use of these technologies by students under the age of 13 that make it difficult for Plus to actually work the way it’s supposed to without getting parent permission for every student user. Legally, it’s probably better for Google to not allow K-12 to use Plus. I get it.

But here’s the problem: over the last year, Google has been putting more and more eggs in the Plus basket. Nearly every new Google feature launched in the last year has required a Plus account. Google’s video conferencing app? Need a Plus account. Search Plus Your World? Have to have Plus. At the same time, they’re reducing the functionality of non-Plus tools. Remember Google Labs? No longer available. Google Reader has significantly reduced features. iGoogle is going away, in favor of a more customized Google home page. Where does that customization come from? You guessed it, Google Plus.

The bottom line is that Google is strongly encouraging the use of Plus, and is integrating it across the spectrum of Google products. That leaves people who don’t want Plus accounts (and those who can’t get them) out in the cold.

Rate of Change

I’m not a Luddite. I’m not change-averse. I love technological improvements. I still get excited about upgrades, especially when those upgrades make things easier to use and don’t break things. But I’m not a fan of change for change’s sake.

I love the incremental upgrades to Google Docs. The pagination tools in Docs are wonderful. The ability to sort on multiple columns in the spreadsheet makes it more useful. But changing the user interface, moving things around, removing options, and changing defaults can lead to confusion and resentment.

Last year, Google revamped all of their tools for the second time since we’ve been using them. Email looks different. Calendars have been redesigned. Some features are gone. Others have been re-worked. This is a fine line, I know. I understand that improvements are a good thing, and that there will be no consensus on whether each particular change is an improvement. But my users want to use the tool, and keep it out of the way. They don’t want to focus on Google apps. They just want the tools to be there and work consistently.

In education (as in the business world — let’s not kid ourselves), we have traditionally protected our users from the exhaustive upgrade cycle that the computer industry tries to thrust upon is. We’re using Office 2003 not because we don’t like 2010, but because 2003 works for us. It’s comfortable. It does what we need. We don’t want to have to re-learn how to mail merge yet again. We have other more important things to do. But in the cloud, we don’t have that option. We’re constantly upgrading. We’re constantly adapting. So the software isn’t always the same as it was last time we used it. That’s frustrating for a lot of people, including the ones who are trying to teach others how to use it.

There’s a tendency across the industry to fail early. Get a product out there, and then revise it. But we don’t have time to be your beta testers.

Data Liberation

Ironically, Google is one of the good guys when it comes to data liberation. When signing up for any online service, you should be asking how easy it is to take your ball and go home. Remember, when using these services, that your data is yours. You should be able to export it easily in a format that can be used elsewhere. Google’s Data Liberation Front explains how to do this for most of Google’s services. That’s great. But it’s not enough.

In our district, every fifth grader gets a Google Apps account in our domain. They keep this account until they leave the school district. For most of them, that’s when they graduate seven years later. Over the course of those seven years, they create hundreds of documents, exchange email with people both inside and outside our domain, create online portfolios, web sites, blogs, and other examples of their work, upload photos and videos and share them online, and create digital footprints all over the Internet. These are all very good things. Under the supervision of their teachers, they create online identities that are largely positive reflections of their experience in mddle- and high school.

But when they graduate, we delete it all. As someone who is no longer associated with our schools, they no longer qualify for an account in our domain. Ideally, we should be able to cut them loose — spin off their accounts into full-fledged Google accounts, outside the realm of our domain. But we can’t do that. The best we can do is say “back up your data, folks, because your account is going away.”

Some schools approach this by leaving their accounts active even after they leave. But this creates problems, too. Suddenly, the walled garden in which we are teaching our students about appropriate online behavior has people in it who are no longer part of our school community. That’s not a workable solution either.

The real solution might be to forget apps for education, and just have our students sign up for real Google accounts to begin with. We’re not ready to do that yet (and it would create problems for students under the age of 13), but it is an attractive option.

I don’t have any solutions. There’s no better alternative right now. There is certainly nothing available that’s so useful, easy to use, and affordable. But someday there will be. And we’ll probably switch.

Image credit: brionv on Flickr.

It’s Time

Time.

There’s nothing like a funeral to remind us that our days on this earth are numbered. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Time.

I often hear that time is one of the greatest barriers to teachers doing innovative things in their classrooms. I don’t have time to flip my classroom, or start a student blogging project, or connect with other schools, or develop an inquiry-based approach to some of my units. There’s not enough class time. There’s not enough planning time. There’s certainly not enough time for collaboration and professional development.

There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them.

For the first time, I had the time discussion with my boss. The things that have to get done this summer are not going to get done. We don’t have enough time to finish. This is different from the past. Some years, we get to the end of July and pull a few things off the list. This may have to wait until October. That might have to be pushed back until winter break. That’s normal. But this year, there are too many things that have to be done before school starts. And the clock keeps ticking.

Time.

Every year is getting shorter. Never seem to find the time. Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines.

Education is obsessed with time. A high school credit is generally earned though 120 hours of class time. A college “hour” consists of fifteen hours of contact time in a class (generally an hour a week for a fifteen week term). Classroom time and planning time and lunch time are broken down into minutes per week. For the last 100 years, we’ve measured learning primarily by time spent.

Time.

Ironically, in education, we have nothing but time. When I was in high school, a teacher from a neighboring school talked to a group of us about the teaching profession. “We have 180 days of school per year,” she said, “and we have two teacher-report days. That makes 182 days per year that I work. That means I have 183 days off.” She made it a point to be in school every day, dedicated to doing her best work. While teachers work more than 182 days now, the point that we need to bring our A games every day is still valid.

Time.

Flowing like a river. Beckoning me. Who knows when we shall meet again, if ever.

At Kamasengre Secondary School on Kibuogi island in western Kenya, school starts at 7:40 and ends at 5:10. Many students in rural Kenya walk three miles or more to and from school. Since they’re a few miles from the equator, they have 12 hours of daylight year round. Each year, there are three school terms, 13 weeks each. We often hear about the over-achievers in China, Japan, and India whose children spend nearly every waking moment in school. But longer school days, and longer school years seem to be the rule, not the exception.

Time.

If you’re too old now, you’ll be older in a year when time flies by.

One of my daughters gets up at 6:15 on school days. She gets dressed and ready for school. Mom takes her to car pool, and then she rides to school, arriving at 7:30. School beings promptly at 8:00. She attends classes until 3:00, with breaks between them, lunches, recess, and change times. Dismissal is at 3:00, when she gets a ride from car pool. Then, Mom picks her up from the carpool meeting place at 3:45 and she’s home by 4:00. She’s in sixth grade this year, so she can expect 60 minutes of homework per night.

My other daughter gets up at 8:45, starts school at 9:00, spend six hours of class time on her studies (not counting breaks or lunch or recess), is finished before her sister gets home, and generally has no homework.

Time.

It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. A case of do or die.

We need teachers spending more time honing their craft. We need students spending more time on productive academic work. We need to stop wasting so much time on administrivia and busywork. We need to become more efficient with the time we have. And yet, we can’t make these changes because we don’t have

Time.

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver on Flickr.

(Did you get all of the quotes? First one to name them all gets a prize).

The Death of 21st Century Skills

My superintendent was looking for an event to attend. He keeps hearing about iPads and 21st Century Skills and digital textbooks and iPads and 1:1 programs and social media and iPads and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and iPads and he needed some context. He wanted some way to make sense of it all. I suggested the 21st Century Skills Summit earlier this month in Columbus. This one day event was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education, eTech Ohio, Ashland University, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and several other respected organizations and agencies. I thought the day would provide some great perspectives on the real needs of our students, and the challenges schools face in meeting these needs. I was right.

Karl Fisch started things off with an outstanding keynote focusing on personal learning networks. As we make connections and build our own personal learning networks online, we interact with other professionals and learn from one another. He described the impact of the Did You Know video on his own professional life, and focused on authentic work for students instead of simply preparing them to take high stakes tests on largely irrelevant content. The thing that I love about Karl is that he’s a very unassuming guy. He’s one of us. He’s just a math teacher – turned technology director – doing everything he can to help his students. He might speak in front of crowds of thousands and have millions of views of his videos, but he’s just another guy struggling with the same issues we’re all facing.

Author Dan Pink joined us via Skype. He talked about his books, A Whole New Mind and Drive, and drew connections between his work and the education world. For me, the most poignant moment came when he talked about merit pay. Motivation isn’t the problem with education, he observed. “Teachers are the most motivated group of people I’ve ever seen.” These are the people who are up late planning instruction and grading papers. Teachers are the ones using their own resources to buy classroom supplies. Teachers, in general, care about their students and will do anything they can to help them. But IF motivation were a problem, merit pay wouldn’t fix it. Financial rewards help improve productivity and quality of work in menial tasks. If your job is assembling instrument clusters for cars, or emptying trash bins in a shopping mall, or shelving library books, then merit pay will make you more efficient. But for jobs requiring critical thinking, complex decision making, and creativity, merit pay doesn’t improve motivation.

In the afternoon, Ewan McIntosh provided an entertaining description of his work in the area of problem solving. He contends that problem solving is not as critical as everyone seems to make it. Solving the problem is the easy part. The difficult piece is identifying the problem to be solved. That is, how do you look at a situation, identify the problem that is causing the less-than-ideal conditions, and then describe how solving that problem can alleviate the condition? Once the problem is defined, finding a solution is the easy part. He explained that having students doing project based learning where they’re simply solving contrived, hypothetical, over-simplified problems does not really help students develop their critical thinking skills.

Usually, in these types of events, the educational establishment takes quite a beating. Standardized testing and No Child Left Behind are easy targets, as we have transformed our educational system over the last decade to become a race to mediocrity. We devote nearly all of our resources to ensuring that all students meet a basic level of competency, and then stop focusing on them once they’ve passed the test. But in this case, most of the stakeholders were in the room. The state Superintendent for Public instruction kicked off the day with a refreshing perspective on 21st century education focusing on critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, and collaboration. At our table, my superintendent and I were joined by four Ohio Department of Education employees. Their job is to implement Race to the Top. But rather than being defensive about the program, we had several honest discussions of the challenges and success stories surrounding our schools’ adoption of these new literacies. We also had a state board of education member sitting at our table, and his experience as an elementary and secondary teacher, teachers’ association president, school administrator, and school district board member gives him a unique perspective of education from nearly every angle. He, too, seemed frustrated with the status quo and excited and hopeful about the future.

Interestingly, there was one state agency that wasn’t involved in this event. Back in February, Ohio’s new Governor, John Kasich, named Robert Sommers as the Director of the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education. There’s not really much information online about this new office. As far as I can tell, they have no web presence, no list of staff members or initiatives or even goals. And they’re separate from the Ohio Department of Education. It sounds like the governor wanted to create a distinct entity completely separate from the current structure to take an objective view of 21st century learning, and then influence policy and budgeting with recommendations for improving education for Ohio’s children. On the surface, one would expect that this office would have a vital role in this 21st Century Skills Summit.

But taking a closer look, Sommers seems to have a completely different view of 21st century education:

Sommers’ answers to the question: “What is your vision of the future?”

  • Technology will be integrated in such a way to personalize education via “mass customization.”
  • Whole group classroom instruction — a teacher addressing an entire class — will be rare if nonexistent.
  • Adult success will be judged in terms of student success.
  • The use of technology and improved management will make education much more cost effective.

We’ll set aside the “rare if nonexistent” comment, because either I’m not smart enough to understand what he’s talking about, or he doesn’t know what those words mean. Evidently, a 21st century school is one that uses technology to automate the process of education, getting children to pass the tests of minimum standards less expensively. There’s no mention of collaboration or creativity or communication skills. There’s no authentic assessment or project-based learning or critical thinking or problem solving (or problem-identifying). This is all about test prep, at the lowest possible cost.

By the way, “student success” is a code word for “student test scores.” And “cost effective” means outsourcing to companies who provide bare minimum services and pay their teachers $30,000 per year with no benefits. “Mass customization” means 60 students per class, generally working individually with little or no interaction with their peers or their teachers. Just so we’re clear.

So it seems that we have two completely different views of 21st Century Education in Ohio. We’re at the point where the term is essentially meaningless. The two visions are so completely different from one another that we can’t use the term anymore to identify a common ground on which to base discussion. So I’m moving on. I’m not talking about 21st century skills or 21st century learning anymore. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (proper noun) focuses on next generation learning. Maybe that’s a better way to think about it. We’re not educating for the 21st century. That term was really cool when the 21st century was still a decade away. But the 21st century is going to be half over before we really figure out what we’re talking about. Let’s focus instead on educating the next generation.

21st century skills are dead. Long live next generation learning.