This story is part of Fast Company’s Reinventing Education package. As millions of students begin school during a deadly pandemic and global recession, we’re highlighting the ongoing efforts to keep children safe in the classroom, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift. Click here to read the whole series.
As schools around the country closed their doors this past spring, the conversation about remote learning quickly focused on one topic: Zoom. Teachers debated the merits of Zoom versus its more established rivals, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. They learned how to share instructional slides on Zoom. And when troublemakers started “Zoombombing” classes to broadcast inappropriate material, like porn, teachers quickly taught one another how to adjust Zoom settings and maintain control—avoiding the fate of one middle school teacher who was nicknamed “Joe Erotic” by his peers after a student used Pornhub to Zoombomb a staff training he was hosting.
“Definitely egg on my face for that one,” says the New Jersey teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous.
Zoom mania has faded somewhat in the months that have followed, but the Zoom phenomenon is indicative of a deep-seated and problematic tendency in schools when it comes to technology. Too often, educators spend their professional development time mastering specific digital tools, rather than broadly applicable best practices. When circumstances change, or the tools evolve, they struggle to adapt.
This orientation toward tools is no accident. The biggest players in edtech—Google, Apple, and Microsoft—also happen to be the biggest providers of technology certifications for educators. On platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, educators know that attaching labels like “Google Certified,” “Apple Teacher,” or “Microsoft Certified Educator” to their bios will signal their tech-savvy to employers. But those labels say more about a teacher’s familiarity with, for example, Google Slides templates than they do about an educator’s ability to pivot to remote or hybrid learning.
“It’s a little like Houghton Mifflin doing a certification on how to pick a textbook provider,” says Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.
Now, educators are beginning to see the limits of our current system. Google, in particular, has been in the spotlight as usage of its Classroom product has exploded; the free service, which teachers use to assign and manage assignments, has added 50 million active users since March, doubling its global footprint in a matter of months. (Similarly, its cheap and kid-friendly Chromebook devices are still sold out at many retailers.)
But while Google Classroom has become a lifeline for schools and families, it has also become a source of frustration. For one, the product has been carefully designed to support workflows associated with in-person learning—workflows that make far less sense in a virtual or hybrid context. Secondly, the product is inherently limited by Google’s careful neutrality on questions of pedagogy and what kind of virtual learning actually works best for students. Google wants educators to turn to Classroom for answers; its new “Teach from Anywhere” site, for example, showcases a variety of product tutorials. But teachers with questions about the best, research-based models for effective virtual instruction are likely to walk away unsatisfied.
“Technology in education has the ability to accelerate and help teachers become great,” says Avni Shah, Google’s vice president for education. “In as much as we can help provide [teachers] with the functionality that they need in order to do what they know works best for their students, that’s the role that we’re trying to play.”
Thus, at exactly the moment when schools are open to experimenting with radically new instructional models, the industry’s dominant technology player is offering up YouTube videos demonstrating how to take a virtual coffee break using Google Calendar and Google Meet. Google has aggressively positioned itself as edtech’s leading player, and fashioned its “Google Certified” credential as a signifier of digital know-how. Unfortunately, that strategy has created a generation of teachers loyal to the tools in its product suite, rather than a generation of teachers capable of flexibly using technology to navigate the biggest disruption to education in over a century. It has also created a leadership void, with no similarly prominent voice endorsing the digital learning methods that a compelling body of research supports.
With its reach and resources, Google is uniquely poised to seize this role and provide clarity to the millions of teachers around the world trying to implement a version of remote education that actually works. But at the same time, Google’s power in our classrooms raises questions about whether a technology company should be influencing how schools incorporate tech into teaching. By staying as neutral as possible, Google seems to be side-stepping this problem while conveniently maintaining its reach.
If there’s any reason to hope, it’s that teachers have started to figure out these methods for themselves.
Why Google Classroom is so dominant
Google wasn’t always ubiquitous in schools. All that changed with the introduction of the Chromebook in 2011, closely followed by the launch of Classroom in 2014. Chromebooks remain far cheaper than Apple devices, and they pair seamlessly with Classroom’s free software. Just as important, Classroom can work on any device, making the product a natural fit for schools concerned about equity and access. By 2016, Chromebooks commanded more than half the U.S. market for educational devices. Since then, their reach has only grown—all the more so during the pandemic. This summer, during what is traditionally school supply shopping season, Chromebook sales were up 78% in the U.S. compared to the same period last year, according to research firm NPD Group.
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If Google’s low prices and simplicity have won over school administrators, it is the company’s dedication to honing the design of its products in response to user feedback that has won over many educators. In Classroom’s early days, after product designers watched students write entire essays on their smartphones—even with a Chromebook sitting in front of them—the company invested in making all of its core apps mobile-friendly. More recently, in response to the pandemic, Google has added features like the ability to tailor assignments to individual students or small groups.
Randolph Southern School Corporation in Lynn, Indiana, is part of Google’s Reference District program, which helps Google sell its education offerings through case studies based on successful implementation of its tools. Annette Wilson, technology coordinator for Randolph, says that being able to personalize assignments through Google Classroom has helped educators in her schools serve students who have opted to learn at home alongside those learning at school. “One of the best things Classroom did [recently] is differentiate who you’re doing assignments for,” she says. “You can pick and choose who needs what.”
Where Google Classroom falls short
Features like this sound like progress, and in many cases, they can help schools cope. But too often, teachers lack the foundational training and skills to use them effectively, let alone apply them to novel situations, like virtual school.
Leanna Archambault is an associate professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, which operates one of the country’s few teacher training programs focused on digital pedagogy—that is, one of the few not associated with Big Tech. “We start with the learning outcome, and then ask what activities are going to help your students achieve that goal,” she says of her program’s recommended method. “The third question is what technologies are going to help you get there.” Yet in practice, many teachers start with whatever technology tool is available to them—because it’s free, that’s often Google Classroom.
There are tons of tools out there, and you feel this pressure to learn and incorporate them.”
Teachers should have access to training on specific digital tools, says Michele Eaton, author of The Perfect Blend, a book focused on blended learning, or the combination of online learning and traditional instruction. But where Google offers educators a menu of fancy slide templates in its training, Eaton, in the trainings she develops, explains why educators should use only a couple of fonts and only a few colors in their presentations. The reason is to avoid taxing students’ cognitive load, or working memory. Busy, undisciplined slides create a distraction, and that distraction makes it harder for students to process new information.
“There are tons of tools out there, and you feel this pressure to learn and incorporate them,” Eaton says. Her rejoinder: “Learning first, tool secondary.”
Looking for answers
Up until the arrival of COVID-19, Google was thriving in education thanks to careful positioning that allowed it to be viewed as a voice of authority on topics like “collaboration” without getting too prescriptive about what and how schools should be teaching. Google Classroom brought practices like live commenting on a shared document into the mainstream, and built a system in which teachers familiar with those types of practices could become certified and accept invitations to share their knowledge at conferences and other schools. In this current moment, as befits a modern tech platform, it is maintaining that agnosticism.
“With remote learning, or hybrid learning, we’re all just trying to make sure that all the pieces are good and that the pieces can work together, without trying to have a strong opinion about how to do that, because the situation for every school will look really different and that’s really what’s driving their choices,” says Zach Yeskel, group product manager for Google for Education.
With remote learning, or hybrid learning, we’re all just trying to make sure that all the pieces are good and that the pieces can work together.”
Microsoft is similarly circumspect with regard to its education business and teacher certification program. “Certainly we provide lots and lots of training and readiness for educators, and that’s always important, but the most important value is the community,” says Anthony Salcito, Microsoft Education’s vice president. “Microsoft Innovative Educators are an active community that supports each other, they lean on each other, both for inspirational examples and best practice sharing.”
Given Google and Microsoft’s neutral stance, educators might be surprised, then, to discover that research supports a very particular form of virtual learning: on-demand lessons, combined with live, personalized check-ins.
“The most well-established model is, you create an asynchronous curriculum, and then you check in regularly with people around that asynchronous curriculum,” says Justin Reich, executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. “But for teachers, that’s a huge shift. We know from 40 years of research on teachers and technology that the number one instinct is to use new technologies to extend existing practices. How do I take technology and do what I was doing before? The intuition is, oh, we should be making synchronous classes through Zoom where I talk to kids. Instructional designers with education technology experience will say, that does not work.”
And so we are left with a reality in which some preschoolers are being told to spend six hours a day on Zoom or Meet or Teams, and the companies behind those platforms have little incentive to recommend against that approach, or any other. Smaller organizations have been stepping up to the plate and creating resources; meanwhile, Google and Microsoft are keeping mum on instructional best practices while they scramble to evolve their video platforms in response to Zoom.
However, schools are starting to realize that “Google Certified” is not enough to tackle the current crisis in education. Instead, companies that sell learning management systems, which provide a more robust set of features than Google Classroom, have seen strong growth in recent months. For example, PowerSchool, which acquired popular learning management system Schoology in November 2019, has signed state-wide contracts in Texas and elsewhere. The pandemic will eventually fade, but digital learning is here to stay, especially in regions where extreme weather events, like hurricanes and forest fires, are on the rise.
“Every school needs a really good continuity of learning plan,” says Tom Vander Ark, cofounder of Learn Capital and CEO of GettingSmart.
That is, if they can figure out their reopening plans first.