How Google Can Help Schools Navigate the 21st Century Student
Google first entered the K-12 world in 2005 when the company (a for-profit tech firm) made college access somewhat easier for teachers in public schools across the country. At the time, professors and librarians created the “Google for Education” platform so teachers could find educational resources. Google began adding features for students in 2008, and expanded the platform to include help for students and parents in 2009. In 2011, it even enabled online, adaptive assignments for all students that weighed their ability to absorb information.
This spring, when America’s 2,000 universities offered the ability to enroll applications online, Google faced new challenges from social media, as institutions were suddenly competing for students (as opposed to just providing a place to collect test-taking and other forms of information). There were concerns that some students might use their smartphones to pick up virtual, non-educational essays. That’s the promise of online enrollment, which will be the focus of a panel at Nextgov’s NetHacking conference.
For Google, the need to compete for the attention of those students with Facebook and others is an ongoing challenge, says Tom Homberg, director of Google’s educational resources in the U.S. “But I’m also excited because it’s helping the school. Schools are not just being driven by competition, but being driven by the very, very smart thinking that happens behind the scenes, that can be hard to get your head around,” he says.
Google has also built-in features designed to improve instruction, helping schools tailor programs to ensure the right curriculum and materials is provided. For example, Homberg notes, by making it easier for teachers to add quizzes to exams, they are often able to make more effective assessments. The database of resources from Google as well as partners, like the Gates Foundation, Open Ed, EIDM, and others, brings more than 25 million resources to schools. The platform, designed for use by both teachers and students, also makes it easy for teachers to ask questions to other teachers, and others to address them in real time via web conferencing or instant messaging, which has cut down on the time it takes teachers to get to know and bond with students and others in a school.
While Google is well positioned to meet the challenges as they arise, Homberg doesn’t share Hanks’ view that Americans’ online access to information will be broadly beneficial for children and young adults, but that high-speed Internet access, whether it be provided by companies like Google or government, can improve learning. There is evidence, he points out, of meaningful impact when the Internet is connected to mobile devices, particularly those for educational use. It’s also much easier to teach “nonfiction” when the student is equipped with their own library of materials and an ability to find and analyze materials quickly, than it is when school teachers are having to provide that for students who come from homes with the greatest amount of resources.
Even as Google prepares for an increasingly competitive environment, Homberg recognizes that K-12 officials are looking to its platform as an alternative to other education technology vendors, who generally work to win individual contracts (such as the $1.1 billion that the Department of Education awarded Google in a five-year, $600 million deal in 2012) in order to protect their turf. While he says the vendor relationships at which he focuses at Google have often not “felt best” in the past, he tries to focus on the potential of his work, rather than on what it might fail to deliver.
“I do think that there are a lot of technology solutions being put forward for K-12, particularly to help students discover and access new ways of learning. In the past, I’ve been skeptical, but I’m realizing that a lot of very talented people are working very hard on creating things that are really new and exciting,” he says. “I’m really encouraged by this because there really are the kinds of things that we can build and you don’t get to do that in other places. The alternative to that is to basically sit still, or become an audience. We get to play in a much bigger sandbox.”