Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.
“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”
Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.
“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”
At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.
In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.
“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.
Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.
Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.
A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.
Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.
Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and a major school district’s values.
In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.
Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”
Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.
Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.
Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.
Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.
Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He said he did not earn a fee for the post.)
“We were always enthusiastic to tell the Google story,” Mr. Tidmarsh said. “I would like to think dozens of school districts switched, based on our success.”
Ms. Magiera, now the chief innovation officer for another district, also helped Google’s cause. In 2012, as part of her effort to become a Google Certified Innovator in education, she said, she came up with the idea of having Chicago Public Schools hold a free conference — called Googlepalooza — to train teachers on Google’s tools. The annual event, co-sponsored by Google, now draws several thousand educators from the Chicago area, as well as a few from neighboring states.
(Ms. Magiera has since occasionally worked as a paid speaker for education technology organizations that train teachers on Google’s tools.)
“You can see it radiate out from certain geographic hubs, and that is very deliberate,” Mr. Bout said of Google’s growth strategy for education. “We are taking a very geographic approach because we know it works.”
Chromebooks Find an Audience
By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.
Although Google had a business audience in mind for Chromebooks, reviewers complained that the devices were of limited use without internet access.
But there was one interested audience: public schools. 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. Now he wanted Chromebooks for them instead.
“I went up to Jaime immediately after the presentation and said, ‘Are you guys ready to ship these?’” Mr. Markey said.
Then Mr. Markey went back to his district to inform administrators and teachers that he wanted to order an unproven device that most of them had never heard of. “It was a tough announcement to make,” he conceded.
It was an opportune moment for Google to pitch lower-cost laptops to schools. Districts administering new online standardized tests needed laptops for students to take them on. And Google offered a robust way for districts to manage thousands of computers online: They could lock Chromebooks remotely so that students could not search the web during tests, or disable missing ones.
Another attraction: The Chromebook’s cloud-storage approach made sharing among students easier. They could gain access to their documents no matter which Chromebook they used.
“That is one of the big reasons we took off in education,” said Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running.”
The Chromebook’s price and usability fit neatly into Mr. Casap’s argument that, for students, access to technology was an issue of fairness. “I didn’t want us to be vendors in the space,” he said of Google’s education philosophy in an interview last year at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Tex. “I wanted us to be thought leaders, to have a point of view.”
As he spoke, a group of students trooped past wearing purple superhero capes emblazoned with the logo for Microsoft OneNote, a rival classroom service. Spotting the capes, Mr. Casap said, “We don’t do things like that.” He added dryly, “I love gimmicks.”
Some critics, though, contend that the equity argument for technology is itself a gimmick that promotes a self-serving Silicon Valley agenda: playing on educators’ altruism to get schools to buy into laptops and apps.
“It centers learning on technology, not students,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the learning app analyst. “It is a very narrow lens on equity that leaves out things like student-teacher ratios.”
(Mr. Casap said he would not advise school districts with deficiencies in areas like teaching or student support services to invest first in classroom technology.)
Mr. Markey, the East Leyden High School principal, had another equity concern. About 20 percent of his students lacked home internet access, he said. How would they do their homework on a Chromebook, which required a connection?