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Learning from Google’s Education Apps

Sergey Brin and Larry Page owe a lot to the education system. Stanford University wasn’t just the place where they met, it was also the place where Google was born. The site started as a research project for their doctoral theses and the search engine’s first address was google.stanford.edu. It’s certainly possible to argue that that debt has been repaid. When Google went public in 2004, the university was holding more than 7,500 Class A shares and over 1.65 million Class B shares, valued then at $179.5 million. A quick sale of some of those shares brought in $15.6 million, further venture capital investments in the company are said to have earned the university an additional $200 million, and Stanford will continue to earn royalties from Google until 2011. That school of learning, at least, has little to complain about.

But Google’s founders haven’t stopped at paying back their alma mater. Since 2006, the company has also been making its suite of apps available to all educational institutions for free. Holding everything on its own servers, Google lets universities and schools use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Sites, Google Docs and Google Video on the school’s own domain.

It’s not entirely pain-free. The Quick Start guide describes a six-week process of goal-setting, implementation and roll-out, but that may have more to do with the size of education institutions rather than the complexity of the apps. And it may also reflect the size of the benefits for those institutions. London’s Westminster University, which began using the system in 2008, for example, has reported savings of £1 million and a reduction in time spent on systems and user support. Google’s apps are simple enough for students to use without having to pick up the phone to find out how to create an email account.

Teachers Are Talking, Students Are Learning

The service’s functionality has been useful too. The university has described how one student used Google Sites’ codeless Web page creation tool to build a site for other students wanting to study medicine at postgraduate level even if they haven’t studied it for their undergraduate degree. Staff too have improved collaboration when gathering feedback about the students they tutor.

“Feedback has been difficult to collate and is not always available in one place meaning we can fail to spot common trends, identified by many different course leaders,” explained Professor Roger James, Director of Information Systems at the university. “Personal tutors want the full 360 feedback.”

Those benefits have been seen lower down the education system too. Before New York City’s Intermediate School 339 started using Google’s education apps, the “School of Communication Technology” was relying on a mixture of computers running various types of vintage software. Since implementing the service, students have begun submitting their homework and receiving feedback from teachers  through Google Docs, memos forgotten in mailboxes have been replaced by real-time chat, and even academic results have improved. Behavior is better, attendance is higher, and suspension levels have fallen.

“We’ve moved from 22 percent of kids being on grade level in math to 47 percent,” said Principal Jason Levy. “Writing volume and quality are both on the rise, and we anticipate seeing improved ELA scores.”

It’s hard to argue with benefits like these and considering that 85 percent of children at NYC IS 339 qualify for free school lunches, it’s perhaps foolish to try. Intel hardly benefited from its spat with the One Laptop Per Child program which accused it of selling its low-priced Classmate PCs below cost in order to block the program’s advance.

But while Google has a non-profit arm, it’s a public company, not a charity. The app suite is free for education institutions (as well as for non-profits with fewer than 3,000 users) but paid elements are never far away. Google Message Security, a system that allows administrators to filter messages based on their source, their destination or their content, is free now but the offer ends after June 2010. Google Message Discovery, a useful extra that archives all domain messages, is available to schools from Postini… for a 66 percent discount. Using the system for alumni only requires enabling ads.

Where’s the Competition?

Those additions though are optional. More worrying is that Google’s free system crowds out competition. It’s little different to Microsoft stuffing Windows with its own free software, restricting the ability of competitors to bring out better programs. Only companies with the clout and pockets of a Google or a Microsoft can afford to create loss-leaders like these and offer them on such a broad basis and to such large clients. There is a danger then that with one system offered for free from one company, the educational programs available in schools may not develop with the kind of dynamism usually seen in the tech field. The Westminster University student who built a Web page about medical studies, for example, could have done the same thing with any one of a number of other programs, many of them better than Google Pages.

But perhaps most worrying of all is Google’s targeting of young people. Google isn’t a sugary, fizzy drink that will make kids obese and send them to the dentist, but putting their products in schools will make children familiar with them. When they leave school, it’s more likely that those former students will continue using Gmail, Google Chat and the other systems they’ve become accustomed to using at school. Google’s Education Apps provide a way for a large company to place its products in the hands of millions of young people, making their products the default choice for life.

It’s certainly possible that Google was motivated by nothing more than a sense of goodwill and a desire to improve the world’s education establishments through better communication and improved collaboration. Those benefits have certainly resulted. But there’s also no question that Google too is benefitting from working with schools and universities — and by pushing aside competitors as it puts its product into the hands of young future users.

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