The World Wide Web is an amazing human creation with unlimited potential to advance the education of children and youth. In its first phase, it was exciting and wide open, stimulating innovative thinking, sparking incredible creativity, and fomenting a little anarchy. Out of this creative chaos emerged a master integrator known as Google.
With its global mission—“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”—and its much-quoted mantra, “Don’t be evil,” Google won converts worldwide. More recently, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken K-12 education by storm. School systems have adopted and embraced GAFE with remarkable zeal and surprisingly little critical analysis of its impact upon the way we think, the personal privacy of students, or the implications for professional development. Google now competes with Microsoft and a few smaller players for a large share of the $8-9 billion market for software for elementary and secondary schools.
Google Apps for Education, first introduced in 2006, attracted some 30 million users (students, teachers and administrators) by 2013-14 before it hit a bump in the road. While Google kept GAFE advertisement-free, they did scan the contents of students g-mail accounts, gathering information that could be used to target ads to those students elsewhere online.
In 2013, students and g-mail users in California banded together to sue Google, claiming that e-mail scanning violated wiretap laws. During the litigation, Google conceded that they were scanning emails sent and received by students using GAFE. Faced with a wave of popular opposition and media criticism, Google announced, in April 2014, that it would no longer mine student email accounts for ad-targeting purposes. That followed a decision made two weeks earlier that a competitor, InBloom, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was shutting down its operations.
The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is one of hundreds of school systems that have jumped on the latest 21st Century digital learning bandwagon. Three years ago, without much fanfare, provincial school authorities announced that they would be signing an agreement with Google to implement GAFE in the public schools. After piloting the program in a number of schools in 2014-15, the DoEECD decided to make GAFE available to every single child and teacher in the 400 schools across the province.
The Nova Scotia GAFE service, according to high school teacher Grant Frost, provides every student and teacher user with their own g-mail account, as well as several useful applications, including Google Docs, a leading edge word processing program, Google Sheets, which outperforms Excel, and Google Slides, which is a more integrated multi-platform version of PowerPoint. Users also have access to Google Classroom, where, with a click of mouse and a one time code entry, they can sign up for a class and receive notifications about upcoming events, class assignments and ask about homework questions with their teacher via his/her cell phone at all times of the week.
Twenty thousand out of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students are now using free computer software from Google as part of their classroom activities. Provincial education officials expect Google Apps for Education to be nearly universal by the end of 2016-17. The cloud-based suite of programs can be accessed on any electronic device with an internet connection and a web browser. It includes email, word processing and assignment management software. Some school boards have chosen to issue students $200 devices called Chromebooks to let them access Google products at school and at home.
Google Apps for Education is spreading quickly and teacher training summits have been held or are scheduled to be held in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and BC as well as Nova Scotia. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is now transmitted on-line, and more readily accessible if you have the electronic tools to access the information.
Google provides access to Apps for Education to schools for free, along with unlimited electronic storage on Google’s servers, with the expectation that students will be ‘inducted’ through education into the World of Google. Dr. Mike Smit, a computer scientist and associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, told CBC News Nova Scotia that the cost per student, per year of the free access is negligible for a company as large as Google. Besides, he said, Google has all the training modules and infrastructure in place to minimize its costs of implementation.
Many educators like Grant Frost express grave concern about the “digital divide” and the inequities in terms of student access to computers and digital devices. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is available on-line, if one only has the means to access it. Its hard to expect full student participation when, according to a 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, 1 out of every 5 children living in Nova Scotia in 2012 was living below the poverty line.
Canadian universities, like K-12 school systems, have embraced “cloud technologies,” turning either to Google or Microsoft as the favoured vendors for outsourcing of their eCommunications services. Ontario’s Lakehead University was early out of the gate late in 2006 and became the legal test case for the legality of storing sensitive personal data outside the country. After it was settled in a 2009 arbitration decision ruling in favour of outsourcing, most universities went that route. More recently, academics Heidi Bohaker and John M. Dirks, have raised serious questions about the impact of outsourcing on “digital archives” containing personal user accounts, organizational memory, external and internal online conversations.
Student privacy concerns have not gone away in the United States. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint on December 1, 2015 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches. It also launched a “Spying on Students” campaign, which launched today. to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.
The EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and found holes in the protection of student privacy and evidence of unfair trade practices. While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on the inexpensive brand of Chromebooks sold to schools.
The California-based advocacy group claims that the “Sync” feature allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords. Since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are left unaware of the scanning of student data and unable to prevent Google’s data collection.
Does the spread of Google Apps for Education raise unresolved student privacy issues and the spectre of major corporations mining metadata to shape their messaging? Is student and teacher data stored with “cloud technologies” safe, secure and free from domestic spying operations? What’s the impact on education when whole school systems outsource to one supplier whether it be Google or a competitor? Is it possible for Google to virtually subsume professional development through system-wide online training and the enlisting of Google certified teacher-trainers?