Easy as A, B, Chromebook

I learn about Google in the classroom

Art: The Country School, Winslow Homer, 1871

With my daughter quickly approaching school age, I’ve been doing some research on the current state of the American public school system.  Of course, the biggest headlines have been school shootings and how their aftermath has turned schools onto surveillance.  And then, there are the more mundane, but still urgent problems: growing class sizes, an increasing spate of tests, kids going to school tired, school lunch debt shaming, decreased recess times, and soda companies sponsoring vending machines

But underpinning all of this is a foundational issue: the steady creep of technology into every aspect of the classroom. 

From the students’ perspective, there are the same device companies that rule all of our lives, that create the phones and tablets that most kids now bring to school and create a number of new issues:  harassment and bullying on Instagram, cell phones in the classroom, and revenge porn, are all just the surface. 

Coming at the students from the other side is the behemoth ed tech industry, which includes everything from apps to computers to devices, pouring money and energy into getting into classrooms. The industry is, at this point, well over $10 billion dollars

There are hundreds of thousands of ed tech vendors, but one company in particular stands out: Google, and it’s shaping how things happen inside the classroom in a big way. 

All of the concerns I listed are important, but my eye turned in particular to Chromebooks. 

When I went to my local school district’s website to investigate schedules and policies for the upcoming year,  I noticed that they said they provided Chromebooks to all kids first grade and up. After talking to friends who have kids in schools, as well as current and former teachers, I learned that  Chromebooks have been gaining a lot of momentum in schools over the last decade, through Google’s massive lobbying and marketing efforts at schools, and without any checks and balances on privacy whatsoever.

Step into the Googleverse

There are two core products under the Google for Education umbrella,  software and hardware. 

The software came first. Initially, the effort was led by Jonathan Rochelle,now CPO at Zapier, who was in charge of product management for Google Drive Docs. Google rolled out Drive apps specifically tailored towards college students, which no one else was doing at the time. 

Having found success in the university space, Rochelle and Jamie Casap, now Google’s Chief Education Evangelist started trying to introduce the products to schools, but found themselves stymied by privacy concerns and crippling bureaucracy. What they did was then bypass administrators and talk to teachers directly, a ready audience, who led to wider adoption across schools for GSuite, as this very good New York Times article from 2017 describes, 

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.

Around the same time, Google was also making a push into hardware with Chromebooks, which were initially a flop. Hoping to find a non-consumer market for them, the company invited schools to take a look. 

In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet Mr. Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.

Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.

In the audience, Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., was converted. Students in his blue-collar district near O’Hare International Airport faced similar struggles. On the spot, Mr. Markey said, he abandoned his previous plans to buy Microsoft Windows laptops for 3,500 high school students. 

It’s true: if you listen to this guy talk, you’re gonna buy what he’s selling.  He knows his Sales Culture, and audiences love him

There are, now, apparently, 30 million Chromebooks for education being used around world with the majority of them in the United States,  

Google-powered devices made up almost 60% of computing devices purchased for US classrooms in 2017, up from 5% in 2012.

All of this is pretty unnerving background info if you know what Google’s been up to in the consumer privacy space. 

But if you haven’t been glued to the news like me, it may be hard to understand why you wouldn’t want to give your kid a leg up in the digital age. After all, aren’t we all supposed to learn to code and make oodles of money? It would make sense that the earlier and more kids are exposed to computers, the more money they’re guaranteed to make in the future. 

There are a couple problems with this logic. 

Everything is logs and you can’t escape

First, everything is logs. Or rather, everything creates logs and data

Today, the company who collects the most logs wins because, ostensibly, studying these logs, like so many internet entrails, allows them to understand what their users do, when they do it, and tweak sites to allow their users to do more. Completing more purchases. Finishing more MOOC courses. Converting free users to paid users. Figuring out how to get more users to push the like button. And so on.

Google explicitly says they don’t track kids, don’t do any kind of ad targeting, support compliance, and give you information about security and privacy policies

That’s great, except it’s not true. In 2014, when Google was just getting started with the platform, they were more forthcoming: 

When pressed, Google immediately turned off ads. 

Ok, fine, that was in the past, you say. Now they’re all locked down. 

Not quite. New Mexico is now suing Google over Chromebooks

New Mexico is suing Google for allegedly invading children’s privacy through educational products it provides to the state’s schools, claiming it tracks students’ activities on their personal devices outside the classroom. The suit calls into question what a major for-profit player in the nonprofit educational space — which counts millions of children among its users — is doing with whatever data it collects from them. . 

My investigation has revealed that Google tracks children across the internet, across devices, in their homes, and well outside the educational sphere, all without obtaining verifiable parental consent,” Balderas wrote. “Google has used this access to collect massive quantities of data from young children not to benefit the schools you have contracted with, but to benefit Google’s own commercial interests.”

This issue came up in Springfield Public Schools in Missouri a few years back, when as part of a larger case, teachers discovered that the GSuites attached to school accounts were tracking non-school accounts as well, if they were accessed from a different machine

The Elys claim that the SPS Google Drive, given to all SPS employees and students, automatically begins to store information from any device the drive is accessed on. This includes browser history, but also personal information such as files and passwords. They add that even if you log out of the drive, it stays running and recording in the background.

After bringing their concerns forward this past May, they say that despite the evidence presented, no serious action has been taken on behalf of the district.

This sounds like it could be unintentional on Google’s part, in the same way that any data collection is unintentional: It’s in Google’s best interests to collect as much as possible, and, at a certain point, the system becomes so complicated that it’s very hard to explain the side effects of where one account ends and another begins. Just look at this list of things parents have to go over in Chromebooks to make sure they’re not tracking location history, voice and audio logs, and connected devices. 

And here’s the real problem: We’re not inside the black box where these decisions get made as to what “intended state” should be. We have no way to see what’s actually tracked and what’s not, how decisions get made,  other than to trust Google’s marketing department, and if we, as technologists, can’t tell what’s what, then non-technical teachers and administrators swamped with a million issues and lured by the dual siren songs of free apps and discounted laptops certainly won’t, either. 

Take this example in California, from a very in-depth study conducted by the EFF a couple years back, where a father was trying to get his child exempt from these computers. 

But the district never sought written consent from Jeff or his wife. The district provided no details about the types of devices students would be required to use or the data that would be collected on students. Rather than allowing Jeff to sign his daughter up for the Chromebook program, the district consented on his behalf, making the device mandatory for Katherine—with no ability to opt out. This means that Katherine is required by the school to use Google with a personalized Google account, and Google can create a profile of her—that is, a dossier of information that vendors collect on users for advertising, market research, or other purposes—and use it for commercial purposes the moment she clicks away from G Suite for Education.

Jeff went through several emails and a tense meeting before the district agreed to provide Katherine with a non-Google option for fourth grade—but once again declared that such an accommodation would not be possible for fifth grade.

You can’t see what’s going on on these machines, you can’t opt out, you can’t fight the school district because they’re overwhelmed and completely uneducated on the issues, and all of this software is given completely free to exhausted teachers. 

And in the meantime, everyone is telling you that Chromebooks are the future, Jamie Casap is giving inspiring keynotes about being lifted out of poverty through the power of technology, and every day that your kid uses one of these devices, they learn how to be a better Google customer, which is helpful when Google wants them to transition to becoming full-on Google training data as adults

Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.

“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”

We Don’t need no Ed-Techification

But do Chromebooks, and more generally, ed tech really work? There is some evidence that they don’t at all, or at least in the way they’re being currently implemented. In a long (and sometimes rambling) but thoughtful essay, Jared Woodard writes

Students using tablet computers at school saw on average a 10 percent lower math test score versus peers who didn’t. E-book read­er use meant an 18 percent lower score in reading. Desktops, lap­tops, internet access, and Wi-Fi all were linked to lower scores. Even the widely touted interactive whiteboard was associated with worse results in reading, science, and math. The only technology linked to a meaningful improvement in test scores was that old standby, a projector.

In a different essay from the Technology Review, Natalie Wexler writes about her observations from a classroom equipped with iPads, 

In a first grade classroom I visited a few years ago, most of the six-year-olds were using iPads or computers. They were working independently on math problems supposedly geared to their ability, while the teacher worked separately with a small group. I watched as one boy, whom I’ll call Kevin, stared at an iPad screen that directed him to “combine 8 and 3.” A struggling reader (like almost all his classmates), he pressed the “Listen” button. But he still didn’t try to provide an answer. “Do you know what combine means?” I asked. Finding that he didn’t, I explained it meant “add.” 

The school that Kevin and his classmates attend, located in a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC, prides itself on its “one-to-one” policy—the increasingly popular practice of giving each child a digital device, in this case an iPad. “As technology continues to transform and improve our world,” the school’s website says, “we believe low-income students should not be left behind.”

So, just to recap, Google is taking advantage of our kids, and, because they equipment is so convenient and low-cost, school administrators are powerless to stop it. 

I want to break free

And so, after months of reading about all of this, my husband and I were concerned with one thing: how to opt our child out of all of this. 

And the answer, of course, is to be rich. I wrote previously that the rich will have a greater chance to opt out of the digital noise that surrounds us all, and Chromebooks are pretty big digital noise markers for kids. 

After being completely dismayed with our local school’s stance on Chromebooks and figuring we wouldn’t make any headway asking them nicely to stop using them, we decided to check out some private schools in the area, just for kicks. 

The offerings weren’t much better. At several of them, the admissions directors proudly showed us carts of iPads charging, their lights blinking menacingly, ready to be used. In one school, we saw a scene like what Natalie describes - a table of six or so second-graders, all wearing headphones and looking at individual, or 1:1 iPads, completely silent, not interacting with each other, clicking on various parts of an app. The admissions director beamed, “We’re using all the latest technology to stay competitive,” she said. 

Even there, it seemed, the pressure of technology was too strong. But, I firmly believe that not having to use computers will be seen the same way in 10 years as being the first to get an iPhone in 2008 was. 

Because some rich people are already sending their kids to schools without computers

Yet there are now clear signs of a movement against tech in edu­cation, especially before high school. In the United States, the classi­cal education movement as well as Waldorf, Montessori, and other alternative models continue to grow; many of these prohibit infor­mation technology in K–8 classes and yet manage to foster model students. The most popular private school in Silicon Valley is just such a school.8 Likewise, an elite private school in Sydney, Australia, the alma mater of three prime ministers, banned laptops in 2016 and required students to handwrite essays through the tenth grade: the headmaster said the school found money spent on interactive white­boards, laptops, and the associated software was a total waste.9

And indeed, the one place we found that there was absolutely no emphasis on computers was our local Montessori school. When we came in, all of the kids were quietly doing individual work like math and geography, by hand. “We have one or two computers that they use maybe once a week for STEM and 3D-printing,” said the mom who took us around the school, “but otherwise the emphasis is very much time spent away from screens.”

The price of Montessori, which only goes up to fifth grade, is $18,000 a year per child. We have two of them (kids, that is), so it was a no-go for us. But it was encouraging to hear that people out there are making it work. 

What’s next

My feeling is that it’s going to be a long uphill battle against Google for us over the next couple years (which will probably result in more newsletters), but there is one piece of news that does give me hope (and is just a little funny).  

There is one other population of parents actively working to stymie the rising tide of data collection and surveillance in schools, and that group of parents is located in Montgomery County, Maryland:

Tech companies that work with the school district now have to purge the data they have collected on students once a year. Experts say the district’s “Data Deletion Week” may be the first of its kind in the country.

It’s not exactly an accident that schools in Montgomery county, in the suburbs of Washington DC, are leading the way on privacy protections for kids. The large school district is near the headquarters of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s a place where many federal employees, lawyers and security experts send their own kids.

What I’m reading lately: 

  1. I wrote a quick post on Jupyter and virtualenvs. The tweet has great responses.

  2. Why no one answers the phone anymore

  3. You don’t need to work on hard problems

  4. New Jersey government twitter

  5. This thread on women and career advice:

  6. Effective Python is really good so far


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.