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Google is transforming public education with low-cost laptops and free apps (nytimes.com)
138 points by edtechstrats on May 13, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 167 comments

I have a daughter in the local school district.

They use Lenovo Chromebooks which are built like brick sh*thouses with proper full-travel keyboards and touchscreens.

Chromebooks work, and I am a big fan of them in education. I have a pretty good idea how hard our teachers work, and I'd hate to think of the Windows bullshit being imposed them, like it's imposed on me and my coworkers.

Chromebooks free up teachers and IT admins from Windows update administration, anti-virus software install and administration at the computer level, and from most other malware other than browser extension malware.

Google Docs is incredible and a huge step forward to the point that where possible, most of my own notes are accessible to me from anywhere I can get into my Google account.

For a child, this means they no longer have to schlep a laptop around. Just an account and a Chromebook or other thin client are needed.

I'm a big fan of Microsoft's recent changes, and generally a pretty heavy Windows user warts and all, but it's interesting that Microsoft have never been able to make say cross-machine sync'd folders work, despite pushing it for like 15 years, whereas DropBox has built a giant business from it.

Chrome book is indeed a real killer product, not just for schools but for average home users as well.

Microsoft used to have a Briefcase icon on desktops for offline file syncing. It used to work for those who used it effectively (it was under used of course). But yes, Dropbox went further than anyone else.

I remember Microsoft Briefcase. It was one of the new, exciting features you could only get with Windows 95!

Yes, woefully underused. But in those days networked storage was difficult to set up and removable media meant ZIP drives. Today we have The Cloud™, aka PFM that just works.

It was buggy as hell, I've known quite a few people who lost hours of work to it.

When I was a kid and first learning to use a computer, I thought the briefcase was just like a fancy folder where you should put your important stuff. So I put all my docs and bitmaps I drew in MSPaint and midi files of songs from movies and Dark Forces levels in there.

Months later, everything in there just... disappeared. Gone one day. For reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me. Never (mis)used it again, haha.

Aaaaand this is why non-tech people are terrified that their computers will bite them.

Yes I loved the convenience that the briefcase introduced.

OneDrive works, if one wants to use it. It just came too late.

I have an Office 365 Home subscription and OneDrive is a piece of shit.

The client is slow and unreliable, had problems with conflicts and the service doesn't do file versioning, thus your files being susceptible to ransomware or random mistakes.

I've been through too many OneDrive snafus to invest more effort into making it work or trusting it for anything. Failed syncs, never-ending syncs, and it has hosed up my OneNote notebooks such that I have a whole set of duplicate notebooks I have tried and failed to fix, which all say "This section isn't available yet. It was added from another device. You'll be able to use it when that device syncs. Section was last modified at (some date over 2 years ago)"

And I am a bona fide Microsoft fanboy former employee of 15 years!

Is the onenote data not available as XML?

Ok I guess it doesn't, sorry. I just guessed it would by virtue of Google, Dropbox, Owncloud & Seafile offering relatively stable services...

> most of my own notes are accessible to me from anywhere I can get into my Google account.

And inaccessible forever if you lose access or get banned from your Google account.

Office 365 can also be used in a browser so you get a similar experience. Our state university system switched a couple years back.

All of our documents and apps (Word, Excel, Outlook, OneDrive) are available in any browser.

A couple personal anecdotes related to this: I volunteer at a school to help maintain around 300 iPads and ~20 iMacs. It's awful. (I am a longtime Mac user at home BTW). The management tools around updating the iPads, installing apps, and configuring users are all terrible, unreliable and old. It leads to teacher frustration and less use of the equipment in the classroom. The only thing worse are the windows computers, which are in such bad shape that they just stopped using them.

An example: To install an app for all students on the iPads, we need to plug them all in to a big USB hub, then connect a Mac with management software to it and run a sync procedure. It fails on about 10% of the devices, so we run it again. Each run takes several minutes. There are over-the-air methods for doing this, but they're corporate solutions not provided by Apple and are pretty expensive.

So given all that, if ChromeBooks promise per-user customization and document storage with much simpler administration, it's no wonder they're taking over.

My personal experiences is exactly the same. In 2012 my old high school rolled out whatever the Google Apps for Education equivalent program was. They auto-generated usernames and passwords based off first and last name. Not only did this lead to a large number of students and teachers getting """hacked""" but most students ended up triggering the rate limit for incorrect passwords and the teachers eventually gave up on it. 5 years later they seem to be doing better but never underestimate the number of hurdles rolling out tech into an education environment. You either sync 1:1 with AD or convert water into wine, otherwise you are not getting adopted probably.

> corporate solutions

This is why I have always wanted schools to start using Linux.

When I use Windows or OS X, and I want a program to do a thing, I have to sift for hours through half-baked $20 tools that claim to do that thing until I find the free one that does it well. In Debian/Ubuntu/Nix/etc., there's a package for that.

The goal is to maintain these systems. The least maintainable operating systems I have ever used are Windows and OS X. To contrast: the most maintainable operating systems I have ever used are NixOS, Android, Archlinux, and Ubuntu (in that order).

Story Time:

When I was in high school, all the computers were running Windows (XP to 7 depending on the date) and Deep Freeze. Deep Freeze is a "commercial solution" that runs windows like a Live CD (All filesystem writes go to a tmpfs that disappears at reboot). Every time we went to the "computer lab", we would have to wait ~10min. (not kidding here) for windows to boot. If we wanted persistent storage (to save homework), we would need to use our own (USB storage, email, etc.) I, and a few of my friends, learned the password to disable Deep Freeze, so we could have persistent storage, and secretly abused it. "C:\persis.sys\[Starcraft, Warcraft, OpenLieroX, HaloCE, etc.]" stuck around for a few years after my graduation.

The geek that I was, I eventually moved up to carrying around a flash drive with tinycore, and a floppy to boot it (those systems just predated USB boot). When we went to the computer lab, I popped in my floppy and flash drive, and within a minute had Linux running on a ramdisk, and Chrome at my fingertips. At least 5min. passed before anyone else could log in to Windows.

End Story Time

Windows has gotten much more maintainable, and usable, but still hasn't even approached what Ubuntu was more than 10 years ago. The fact that Microsoft software is the status quo sickens me. We have failed our communities by letting that perpetuate. We have wasted thousands upon thousands of tax dollars on this issue when free software has been readily available, and far superior. There is no excuse.

isn't this exactly what macOS server and MDM is for?

>The only thing worse are the windows computers, which are in such bad shape that they just stopped using them.

Sounds like they are old and haven't been maintained properly.

I have experience with small (~200) and large (~6,000) professionally maintained Windows installations. They operate like a finely tuned engine, allowing you to focus on your core work.

And that's the key. There are hacks who call themselves "IT" and there are true IT folks who have the training and knowledge to do things right the first time around.

Prior to my first experience with professionally managed Windows installations I had completely ignored that entire world. We built our own computers --save laptops-- and every installation, save the initial image, was locally managed by the engineer running that machine. Works great. No question about it.

From experience with 20~30 machine installations, I can't remember a single serious issue in, say, 20+ years other than a hard drive failure. No real hardware failures outside of that. No viruses or any such problems in, again, 20+ years and multiple generations of OS and hardware. The key, I'll guess, is to buy good hardware and install good software.

And so, when I read accounts that describe nightmares I have to wonder what people might be doing. I don't understand it at all. I've been using PC's since the very original IBM PC and I can't remember a nightmare scenario, ever.

As for Mac's and iPads. I've had experience with ~200 seat Mac installations. They have the same issues PC's might have. The only "nightmare" I could point out is that, generally speaking, Mac users are utterly clueless. This excludes developers, of course. I saw IT burn time with the dumbest issues, whereas the PC users in the same business (about 200 as well) really only consumed IT time when there were hardware or software installation issues for the most part.

iPad's? I consider them to be useless for but a narrow set of business or educational applications. Cash register? Sure. Authoring documents and doing heavy web work? Nope. In general terms I am pretty down on tablets. I think they've manage to ruin desktop software. The transition of something like Skype from a computer-class application to mobile-first turned the program into a circus act that uses 10x more screen space for everything. Touch, as far as I am concerned, for business and other applications, is bullshit.

Chromebook is a far better choice, one that is easy to manage and deploy.

> Sounds like they are old and haven't been maintained properly.

That is the heart of the issue. Maintenance should not be so difficult. It has generally been a non-issue for most Linux distros for over a decade. Windows maintenance is difficult on purpose. There is an entire economy based on windows maintenance. It's not just a headache, it's like shooting yourself in the foot.

> There are hacks who call themselves "IT" and there are true IT folks who have the training and knowledge to do things right the first time around.

Since we are talking about public schools, I accept the reality that there will, more often than not, be a "hack" employed. Even so, their job should be that easy. The reason that it is not is that Windows promotes a culture of "hacks" and misinformation. GNU/Linux has the opposite culture, and it's free.

And in my case, there are no IT employees at all. For some reason there is budget available to buy the hardware and none to maintain it. This is changing slowly but for the moment it's the unfortunate reality. So it's up to teachers and volunteers to try and make things work, and as you were saying if things are too difficult they just stop using them.

And a side note, I was a Windows user for a decade and have now been a Mac user for a decade and the level of maintenance required for a Mac is _easily_ an order of magnitude less than Windows.

> I was a Windows user for a decade and have now been a Mac user for a decade and the level of maintenance required for a Mac is _easily_ an order of magnitude less than Windows.

That's still generally the case, but it's worth mentioning that over the last decade, Windows has improved significantly. It's still the worst OS, but it's a lot closer to OS X now.

After decades of innovation, we now have operating systems like NixOS and Guix that are inherently maintainable in ways Windows and OS X can only dream of. If we had a user-friendly NixOS (or Guix) for schools, etc. it would be trivial, even for teachers and volunteers, to maintain hundreds, or even thousands of systems.

You should try TestFlight, I think you can have a lot of free users for a large number of poeple.

You can only distribute your own apps through TestFlight. This wouldn't work when trying to install an app from the App Store.

I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, working as a contractor at Google was one of the interesting jobs I have had and I generally like Google.

That said, after reading Dave Eggers' excellent book "The Circle" last year and having watched the movie yesterday, I was reminded of the dangers (even if fictional in the case of the book) of a monopoly controlling knowledge. The book/movie is obviously about Google and information monopolies even if the fictional company is named The Circle. Buying the education business with free/inexpensive services definitely increases Google's chance of being the information monopoly.

Personally I like to pay for services. I pay for FastMail and just use GMail as a backup email. I pay for Evernote instead of using free offerings like Keep. I pay for Office 365 to get lots of cloud storage and the Office apps for the rare times when I need them. I pay for using GCP and I buy movies and TV shows from Google Play and Apple. It is a cliche, but I like to be the customer and not the product.

I understand that School districts are on a tight budget, so it is understandable that they make use of free (or priced under-market) services.

For a historical perspective on the privacy issue, I found this book review interesting.

"So from the beginning, kings had an incentive to make the country 'legible' – that is, so organized and well-indexed that it was easy to know everything about everyone and collect/double-check taxes. Also from the beginning, nobles had an incentive to frustrate the kings so that they wouldn’t be out of a job. And commoners, who figured that anything which made it easier for the State to tax them and interfere in their affairs was bad news, usually resisted too."

So this resistance to being indexed has very deep roots! But I think we're way past that point now. Being "undocumented" makes it very hard to participate in society.


Just a quick +1; Seeing Like a State is one of the best books I've ever read, and is a must read for anyone who uses data to make decisions. (Which, really, should be just about every software engineer...)

I also think it is kinda backwards that a for-profit corporation is subsidizing public education. This is a symptom of a broken system and instead of praising Google we should fix what is broken about the system. This also creates an interesting precedent if it sticks. Are parents going to beg Google to prop up their schools now?

This isn't even remotely new. Apple and windows have been doing the same ever since computers were in schools. Heck, I even got free oem copies of Vista and 7, and Ms word through my school (University) which were provided to the school well below what the normal prices were.

The fact that Google is providing a subjectively better alternative isn't remotely new, but if it works better and see lower cost to schools, I'm more than happy to see it happen.

I didn't say anything about it being new.

a for-profit corporation is subsidizing public education

You think this is altruism? It's getting kids hooked early. Everything Google does is about getting more eyeballs on more ads, never forget that.

You misunderstood me. I agree it is not altruism and that is why I think for-profit corporate entities must be kept out of education. Their values and motives are misaligned.

> we should fix what is broken about the system

Who is we? The state? I don't trust the state to be able to fix this. Remember the launch of healthcare.gov? Google employees had to step in to fix it to make it usable.

Why do you automatically couple the collective noun to the state? I didn't say government bureaucrats should fix the problem for specific reasons. The world is more than just corporations and state sponsored entities. "We" means regular people, parents, teachers, community organizers, etc.

'We' could roll our own Linux distro, work out deals with manufacturers to provide some form factor useable by children to run our distro on, set up a massive cloud to orchestrate all these devices in such a way that they are useful to children and teachers without being a huge pain in the ass.

But I don't feel like it.

This should be a tell that education has value and the government is underinvesting.

Yes. Educating children is the most profitable "startup" investment ever.

Practically guaranteed returns. Just teaching a child to read is probably more than break-even for every education dollar spent on the child.

It makes time traveling to get in on the ground floor of Facebook, Google, and Apple look like investing in treasury bonds.

You're probably right, but it could just as easily be a tell that education has monetary value, and more invested would only get captured by organizations seeking to make a profit.

Are Chromebooks subsidized? Maybe they're just cheaper.

Even if the Chromebooks aren't subsidized, Google Apps for Education is free to use which amounts to some kind of subsidy.

Google Classroom is not free and schools pay per recurring per kid.

Pretty sure they're subsidized. Plenty of products given to educators are subsidized. That in and of itself is not bad or wrong. It's when we put things in the proper context and ask how exactly does Google benefit from this that things take a wrong turn. I don't see how any positive spin for why Google is doing this actually holds up.

CB are not subsidized and schools pay for Google software recurring per kid.

Did the invention of printing press made them a monopoly? Google does not generate information; they facilitate it. The more the information is free, the more it will be converted to knowledge by these same schools and students. Your comparison of it to your values of buying things for yourself, is misleading.

I'm glad you're questioning that assertion, but I don't think your counter-argument is very convincing. The economics of the printing press were different than the economics facing Google. For example: Google search benefits from network effects (clicks are used to improve future search results). Google mostly provides information goods (zero marginal cost of production), but books aren't really a perfect information good.

Google is darn near close to a monopoly on search (at least, Peter Thiel made that the premise of Zero to One), which isn't to say they're also a monopolist in every other field they're in.

They're a semi-monopoly (~80%) in the following markets: mail, search, online advertisements, browser, smartphones, mapping, layer data (it's $AMOUNT busy at place X right now)

I like Google since they're one of the few companies that has a 20+ year record of being careful with user data, but how much they control (or at least facilitate) is pretty scary from an objective viewpoint.

I don't know what your definition of "perfect information good" really is, but books have been converting information into knowledge for hundreds of years. Before the printing press, scribes used to hand-duplicate. The invention of printing press effectively changed the whole scene (just as the searching on the Internet changed Internet). Irrespective of the concerns of privacy etc, Google provides the best sauce of technology which facilitates searching the information (which converts to knowledge). As far as I can see, Google isn't in the business of creating knowledge.

The term "information good" is from economics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_good

An information good is one for which it's very cheap to produce additional units. Unfortunately, I'm probably abusing the term, since books are listed as an example of information goods. The idea is that most of the cost of producing the book goes into the content (writing, editing, etc.) and actually printing one additional book is cheap. (When I said books are "imperfect" information goods I meant that they still require paper and shipping and retailing and such, but it's probably just a bad use of the term.)

There's a fantastic book about the economics of information goods called "Information Rules" ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/087584863X ). Software is an information good so this covers some topics relevant to the digital economy. My favorite part is the chapter on lock-in. In particular the discussion around the equation:

profits from a customer = quality advantage + switching costs

which puts "(marginal) goodness of your product" on equal footing with "pain you can inflict on your customer for leaving".

The original topic was not on the topic of economics, rather, the monopolies any invention creates. The economics of things have existed alongside everything else in human history. The point was whether Google is a monopoly in the context of information. My contention was to identify the fact that Google only facilitates the information (like what printing press did to the information people were keeping orally, or through scribes).

If Google is the monopoly in the sense that the OP describes, then a unified Internet itself is a bigger monopoly. Break apart the monolith of the Internet itself, and you have more player contending equally in facilitating search etc.

If you're not aware, one of the authors of Information Rules (great book, BTW, I second the recommendation), Hal Varian, now works for Google as their Chief Economist.

The comparison with press does not fully stand. After the invention of printing lots of different publishers were born, while we still have essentially just one Google. So they actually have quite a strong monopoly and quite some power with it. If they decide to not "facilitate" you, you become invisible.

Even though lots of different publishers were born, they were using the same technology, which is the printing press.

Google's core technology is search facility. If someone does this better than them, then there will be no monopoly. The core feature of printing press stood as is for longest period of time (even Xerox did not bring anything "new" to the table). That's, until the Internet in fact, was able to put a dent on the core invention of printing press. People are now reading on their screens, where as previously, they used to read only on the paper.

You are stuck with the short-term view of monopolies and privacy issues. We wouldn't be surprised if there was a big brouhaha over privacy during the time of the invention of printing press (ask any religious scholar what they have to say about the history of churches against the advancement of technology and knowledge).

If someone does this better than them, then there will be no monopoly

The problem is, this isn't necessarily true. Microsoft used to make the same argument in the '90s. The point is when you get entrenched in so many areas it becomes hard to switch. It's a network effect of information rather than people. There would have to be a significant improvement in order for people to switch (with some other motivation, like political).

If there were only 100 people on the planet, you'd only need one government. Would you call it monopoly? Internet as a whole is monolithic in nature. You are hitting the boundaries with the potential of one product delivering whatever it is supposed to deliver, in the best possible manner which satisfies everyone. If Internet could be broken down and become diverse, you'll naturally see more diversity of choices easily cohabiting.

^^ s/with some other motivation/without some other motivation/

They no longer just facilitate it, they gather it with an ever-more-naked avarice and disregard for personal privacy. And I say that as a long time fan who has become increasingly creeped out by them over the past few years.

Google gatekeeps information by ranking algorithms, and information payments by advertising.

In bothe these areas, and others, they benefit by network effects, which I'm coming to see as foundational to natural monopoly and rent-seeking.

I simply don't understand what you're trying to say by mentioning the printing press in this context, though you might want to look up its particular disruptive history. Elizabeth Eisenstein is recommended reading.

If Guthenberg had invented the printing press in the current legislative framework, he would have enjoyed a monopoly for decades.

Thank you. That's exactly my point.

If you don't pay for the product, you are the product. That's how these services are funded, by selling your personal information at scale, which you generate.

Now, your kids are the next product.

Tim Cook is that you? Really this line is rather ridiculous. Google charges per month per child for the software.

Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.

Mr. Rochelle, the Google executive, said that it was important for the company to have large, diverse sets of educational users giving feedback — otherwise it might develop products that worked for only a few of them.

Why would they fail to provide that breakdown?

Because then they would have to admit they're building a profile of that child from the minute they start early school, and how strange that would be.

> he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

Wow. Back when I worked for Boeing on the 757 design, there were engineers that were "formula pluggers" who pulled formulas out of manuals and used them. Then there were engineers who understood the formulas - where they came from, what assumptions they were based on, and how to derive them.

The latter used the formulas correctly, the former often blindly misused and misapplied them.

Googling for a formula is not how proper engineering is done.

It is not in Google's best interest to have people that think independently of Google. The more woven Google is into the daily fabric of our lives the more profitable it becomes. I don't understand why more alarm bells aren't ringing. A for-profit corporation should not be subsidizing public education. They're not a non-profit. Their motives are always going to be at odds with creating a free-thinking populace.

Google and Google products are not commodified and generic tools of thought. In fact they are the exact opposite. They're contextualized and proprietary. We are doing ourselves a disservice in the long run by letting them get a leg up in education.

The best thing that happened to me was learning math in post-soviet Armenia. To this day I still think best with pencil and paper and can put other computational tools in the proper context. Whereas growing up with Google branded products I imagine would have had a much different effect. There was one thing the communists got right and that was science education.

What? Google provided a far better solution to our schools that is more efficient in every aspect. They listened and stepped up. Not a good thing?

A narrow focus on efficiency, which does not always equal the best solution overall.

Take a read of the 350+ comments on the NYTimes article to see how thrilled actual parents and teachers are about all of this.

Governments have their agendas in public schools other than free thinking, as well.

This is also correct. I mean you're speaking to someone who has first hand experience with how those agendas play out in the U.S. and abroad. Those agendas are exactly why education must not be coupled to proprietary tools. We should be teaching people how to think instead of giving them government or corporate sanctioned thought gardens and patterns.

I don't see how letting Google take the lead is fixing that fundamental issue. It is not in their best interest to do that no matter how you slice it. By Google I mean the corporate entity and not the people working within it.

You're talking about engineers. Of course you need to understand some formulas if you're going to be an engineer. But for most of the people who aren't going to do that, they're useless.

Except the quadratic formula, just as an example, has a lot of positive qualities when taught to children:

* The longform is fairly complex, so it is non-trivial to remember or recount. You can't just guess it (at least without knowledge well beyond it). So it looks like "magic".

* It is a great introduction to what formulas are. They are non-trivial proofs of concepts that took research and logic to conclude.

Learning logic and learning patterns, especially the non-obvious ones like the qf, are what promote analytical thinking. We need more of that, not less. Maybe the problem is more that kids are shown a magic formula and made to mechanically repeat it on a couple dozen data sets than to actually learn how to reach conclusions like the qf. Making kids proof it would probably be more valuable than making them repeatedly use it beyond a few times to assure them it is valid magic math.

One of my teachers back in high school made a comment to the effect of: "This class isn't about learning math. It's about practicing critical thinking skills."

At the same time, I think some amount of repetition is important. You don't get a true understanding of something by just studying it, you need to apply it "on a couple dozen data sets" to get a feel for it, at least in my opinion. "Understanding" can initially be a bit transient.

Teaching formula plugging is about as useless as teaching history as dates and names.

Teaching how to derive the formula, why it works, etc., is very useful (even if one never needs to use it in post school life).

Googling for answers is not learning. It's like lifting weights with a forklift is not exercising.

Not sure. Most people won't remember how to derive equations any,nor they need it, if they need to derive equations they could probably use some piece of software(symbolic solver?), and that's just takes time they could use to understand statistics, for example, which seems more useful.

> if they need to derive equations they could probably use some piece of software(symbolic solver?)

The point is to understand. Having some software do it for you does not help with that.

But for most of the people who aren't going to do that, they're useless.

A system that cuts out a whole range of career paths simply because as a kid someone didn't like maths, is a bad one. Kids don't know what they need in life. That's why our culture takes decisions away from them until they are 18.

At the same time you can't prep every kid to be a neurosurgeon. Or a prison guard. Or a helicopter machine gunner (which many would probably sign up to be if presented with the option at a young enough age!).

That's exactly why you need to teach a broad range of subjects, including basic math like simple calculus and arithmetic, so kids can actually make a choice about what they want to do. If they never get taught any of that, then they don't have the option available.

And just to be clear, quadratic equation is basic math, and not anywhere close to 'prepping a kid to be a neurosurgeon'.

   “I cannot answer for them 
   what they are going to do 
   with the quadratic equation. 
   I don’t know why they are 
   learning it.”
If Mr Rochelle cannot answer this question, and recommends just googling it, he might not be a good person to be anywhere near STEM eduction.

Only a person who had once learned it before would be able to quickly get back up to speed by googling it. Math is a language not trivia.

Also, the most literal answer "solve quadratic equations" is kind of the most meaningless, what a physicist does with it is different than what a graphic designer does with it. The teacher might be saying they don't know in that context and would rather not lie to individual students that it's super important for them in particular way.

That's like saying you don't know what you'd "use a lever" for.

And I imagine after answering that question a few hundred times it might take on a level of kafkaesque absurdity.

He is exactly where he is supposed to be. They do not want a thinking general population equipped with cognitive tools. That would be a disaster for that set and the end of their long running party.

> I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it

This sounds disingenuous to me. There are lots of things kids and college students and adults learn that have no immediately foreseeable application. I'm sure most people on HN have thought about it. I wonder what the consensus is.

My take is that learning how to use technology should not be a classroom priority, for many reasons. One of those reasons is that there is no guarantee that whatever tech you learn will stick around. I had a high school teacher insist that we use Ask Jeeves rather than Google because she "liked it better."

It feels as if the adoption of Google products is driven much more by convenience for the school system than by a strong belief that it improves learning. I'm not an expert, but I remember reading more than once that technology doesn't seem to have a meaningful main effect on learning (though perhaps has a mild interaction effect with the teacher.)

The article itself barely addresses the question of learning outcomes, and focuses so much more on privacy.

This is probably taking his off-hand remarks too seriously, but I don't think anyone really uses the quadratic equation for anything. Quadratic functions definitely come up, and the derivation of the quadratic formula is definitely useful to learn, but the formula itself seems like a mathematical dead end.

In general I think being forced to learn things with no clear application is part of why the school system fails so many people.

I see your position. We should acknowledge that both sides of this are well-trodden, and the article even touches on it:

"It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers."

I guess over time I've started leaning more toward "knowledgeable citizens," but I don't know why they need to be mutually exclusive.

You can do both if the tools being used are commodified but not if they're propietary. Chromebooks and Google applications are proprietary products so they're at odds with creating knowledgeable citizens that can work and think outside Google sanctioned confines.

Here's an application of the quadratic formula: https://twitter.com/beesandbombs/status/863124880614719488

According to the Abel–Ruffini theorem the formula for fourth-degree equations is a dead end :)

I agree on both points. If we limit education on absolute minimum every kid is guaranteed to use, they wont learn all that much and they wont be able to proceed to college nor do non-trivial professional jobs. If you come to college without knowing quadratic equation, you wont be able to keep up with physics classes designed for students who already know elementary school math. If you don't understand for cycle when you are 18, you will have very hard time competing with students who come in already knowing real programming. Duh.

Continuation of that quote is no better. You wont even recognize utility of quadratic equation in more complicated equation (exercise) if you do not understand and remember it - much less google it. You will simply fail at solving it. There is also big difference between people who know history enough to see something suspicious when they see bad history and people who believe everything they read on random discussion forums.


I think that changing tech school to use because new tech is more convenient to administer is perfectly good reason on itself. I don't know why everyone needs to bs about "transforming education" each time. However, I would much rather have education transformed by people who a.) value learning b.) can explain what quadratic formula is useful for c.) have knowledge of education theory (they dont need to agree with most of it, but they should know what it is they disagree with).

> there is no guarantee that whatever tech you learn will stick around.

Ok, but there are plenty of aspects of using tech that transcend the lifetime of the actually device you are using. Coding, of course, is timeless, but even the basic idea of experimenting/discovery within a UI is something that many older adults lack from not having tech when they were younger.

The other issue is that these devices have a limited lifetime in comparison to what they are replacing, paper textbooks. We may complain that textbooks our kids have are X years old, or don't have Y or Z fact in them that has transpired since the book was printed, the fact remains that the school didn't have to refresh that book every couple years at great expense. Chromebooks, laptops, iPads, etc. all are fragile and have a very limited lifespan in comparison to a textbook. That money would be much better spent on teachers which will have a far greater impact on the student's lives than any book or piece of tech ever will.

Do we really think that 20 years from now students will look back fondly and remember their old Lenovo Chromebook? Or will they remember the teacher that took the time out to make an impact in their lives?

Technology changes, it's impossible to keep up. Human interaction is a constant over all these years and advances.

Teachers need tools to teach. Books are not exactly better. Texas has had huge influence over the type of books used by US schools. In that case, a Chromebook with Wikipedia is probably preferable.

As near as 5 years ago tech-illiterate friend of mine did a 'computing' course in the UK. Most of it was using a word processor, which is fine, but the 'exam' consisted of knowing exactly which menu/shortcut key was used in Word 97 to achieve a goal - bold some text, etc.

Yup I would agree from what I have seen end up happening at schools that are given tech but don't have the long term resources to utilize it right.

Ideally you pay attention to the people who have done some teaching and know something about tech like Sal Khan. He understood what tools kids need only after spending a bunch of time teaching kids.

Tech is not magic just like information access is not magic. Libraries have existed for a longer time than schools have but we don't send our kids to libraries cause a good guide makes more of a diff in where kids end up in life than just access and tools.

For us Microsoft tools were the highest price point and we didn't use 50% of the features. Apple Enterprise is a joke though they are making good progress now. Google had just enough of a tool at a price we could really justify to the tax payers. As for Google evangelism we offer Google docs and office 365 online. Students are free to choose as Google and Microsoft have been awesome at cooperation in tools. We also have a training with outgoing seniors about how and why free accounts exist on websites. I've always told them they can used a paid account to retain privacy. To this date no seniors have chosen this. Most don't even convert accounts but just use takeout, the bulk data download tool.

I would be very happy if the kids became conversant in libre office. It has all the functionality they need and they would be comfortable with it going into college.

I'm a big fan of free software. My desktop is Linux. But I almost never use LibreOffice. Can't access and edit the docs on my Android, nor my wife's work Mac. Nor my parent's Windows PC when I visit them. I'm definitely not installing software on my parent's PC. I'll be responsible for the next 100 "something isn't working" phone calls.

Is there no way to install LO on the Mac or Android? Do you use Google Docs instead?

Can't install stuff on my wife's company Mac. But a browser is everywhere. Yes, I begrudgingly use Google Docs. One big challenge to alternative offerings is compatibility. There is usually little resistance to asking someone to accept a Google Doc or an MS Doc. I wish there were a widely accepted open source alternative.

Agree. I even started using Google Docs with a contractor. Not happy about it, but it more-or-less worked. I'm on a slow network and I find Google Docs annoyingly unresponsive.

For basic-to-semicomplex tasks (I'm sure it'd be different if writing a book or something) I've found Google Docs/Slides/Sheets to be easier to use and more feature-rich (…you still can't crop pictures in LibreOffice…)

> (…you still can't crop pictures in LibreOffice…)

You can. It has been in Draw and Impress for a long time, and since LibreOffice 5.0 it's supported in Writer and Calc as well. 5.0 was released 2 years ago.

I agree. I have no problems at all doing any basic stuff in LibreOffice. I've not done any serious programming in it though (db connect to fields in writer etc.)

For us we only have 2 of us to cover all technology in our district. That is every from servers to networking to security appliances to the apps on the kindergarten iPads to writing custom tools for admin. We have to carefully choose tools we can manage in mass. I wish we could offer more, but there is no money for it.

I think you make a great point and I must say I really don't understand the downvoting going on in this thread.

Google is providing cheap, stable laptops for education and most people commenting here are painting Google as an evil data-hungry corporation. I get that companies should be subject to scrutiny due to their outsized responsibility and impact, but this is just silly.

In 2013 only 60% of children had internet access at home in the U.S.[0]

It might not seem like a big deal for HN readers, but computer access is still a really, really big deal for kids in the U.S.


It can be both. They are doing a good thing and they are also a data hungry giant who does questionable things. We should ask the right questions and demand a higher standard for the data of children.

Provide cheap, stable laptops that do not have any bias to any corporation, no integration with Google services, or anything, and this would be true.

But this way? Sorry, but after the past years you can’t honestly believe this is pure altruism.

Sorry, but after the past years you can’t honestly believe this is pure altruism.

Of course it's not. That doesn't mean all parties can't benefit.

I’m sorry, but that’s not relevant. A child should never have to enter any such arrangement where they have to give up anything.

Anything shy of pure altruism regarding schools for young children should be considered automatically evil. Making profit with children is always bad.

I teach high school kids as a part time.

I have around 15 students, and afaik all of them use Android. Most of them are 13-14 years old. They have absolutely no understanding of how advertising-based businesses work, a poor knowledge of privacy settings or the workings of data deletion, nor do they have any remotely adult conception of why they should worry about those things.

They share everything. Sometimes they even take pictures of my whiteboard doodles.

Google's objective is in plain sight for everyone to see. Imo, this Chromebook move is not good at all.

Thank you for the links, and yes it is. In particular, Zuboff's third law: "Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control."

It's still better than maintaining windows, or even OS X.

Ideally they would use a nice maintainable linux distro, but no one is doing that right now, AFAIK.

A simple Linux distribution though out for kids, yes.

> “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

To me, this is giving Google much more than your privacy, customer loyalty or ad exposure. Your are giving away some of your very basic abilities: if you only learn to search with Google, you will not learn how to reason on your own. Knowledge stored in your brain is of much better use than that on Google, because your brain is capable to perform much more powerful queries on it.

However, using a brain at its maximum power needs years of training, which is what one would really expect to receive in school. This training requires that your brain works on its own, without external help from a search engine, for more or less the same reason you will hardly become a strong cyclist if you train on a motorbike.

Schools should really be wary of too much computer time for children.

>To me, this is giving Google much more than your privacy, customer loyalty or ad exposure. Your are giving away some of your very basic abilities: if you only learn to search with Google, you will not learn how to reason on your own. Knowledge stored in your brain is of much better use than that on Google, because your brain is capable to perform much more powerful queries on it.

Sorry, but this just sounds like propaganda. As an academic, Google is the single most useful tool at my disposal. It doesn't inhibit original thought, but lets me focus on what's actually new by giving me access to things that are already known and available.

This is a great business move, the children probably have no option but to provide their personal information to Google.

What a disgrace!

Google I feel has broken Microsoft Office monopoly the difference will be felt 10 years from now though. Earlier everyone had grown up using Microsoft office now most children will grow up using Google Office suite. Though I still think Google sheets is still way behind Microsoft Excel. The day Google can build a convertor that can convert all excel files and macros etc I would shift to Google sheets currently I have too many years of work to move to Google sheets. The next generation of students growing up with Google won't have the same problems.

Isn't proficiency with Microsoft Office still expected in most workplace environments? Google docs, sheets, slides all fall short of the capabilities of their equivalent applications in Office. The Google apps are good enough for many tasks, but really don't cut the mustard if you are accustomed to the depth of capabilities in Office. Are we doing students a disservice by sending them out into the world without proficiency or even familiarity with Office?

I think if students know the basics from Google they'll be fine picking up Office. Lots of people learned Office on the job after coming from Lotus 1-2-3, or electric typewriters.

> Are we doing students a disservice by sending them out into the world without proficiency or even familiarity with Office?

No. As long as you understand how a spreadsheet works, and how to use some sort of Word clone, it's trivial to learn the specifics of Microsoft Office.

On the other hand, we are doing the world a service by promoting tools that are more readily available, and less proprietary. It would, however, be more helpful to replace Google Docs with free software like LibreOffice.

Totally agree in consumer space. School docs, team roosters, anything was MS forever and basically overnight I only get personal stuff in Google Apps. But work stuff still dominated by MS but some slight cracks.

Personally prefer Google Apps now.

Btw, kids school they have to use Google as workflow including plagiarism check all based on Google Apps. Pretty amazing and had thought MS Office monopoly unbreakable.

Office is hardly nuclear physics. Any college grad can reasonably be expected to pick up what they need within a week or two.

They are also building profiles on every single one of those students which is not only creepy but downright dangerous.

Imagine if Trump decided he no longer wanted to hire anyone for a public sector job, if they are pro-green politics.

Society will come to regret this and I'll probably still be alive to witness it.

The privacy policy for education and the article both explicitly say they are not doing this.

Right! That’s why Google has never retroactively changed their privacy policies and decided to datamine anyway...

Oh, wait, they did exactly that with Gmail.

> say they aren't doing this.

Well, problem solved! Neither the government nor Google have ever lied to us. ;-)

Without an example that shows that Google has a habit of lying your comment just wastes people's time. Do your research and make your comment useful.

Oh lighten up. The defendant is already infamous. Whether or not you think Google is "evil" is largely a matter of opinion and definitely not worth anyone's time debating. It's already been done over and over. But it's still my right to distrust any big company or government with my data, along with deciding the odds that current or future leadership will break promises.

Street View wifi data.

Honestly, this isn't a big issue for two reasons:

1. The Google stuff works. I would have loved for that kind of organization and management in my elementary school classes. Google docs is also great and means I don't have to beg my not so wealthy parents for a Microsoft word license (or learn in the 4th grade how to pirate it).

2. Let's not kid ourselves, everyone is going to make a Google account anyway. As long as the school accounts aren't used in collecting ad data (which they're not) this is a non issue.

Your 2nd point and obedient acceptance of the inevitability highlights just how much of a monopoly it is and how desperately we need alternatives. Or to just break up the monopoly.

I agree that we need to promote real free software alternatives.

That still ignores the fact that Google Docs is quality, usable, and much more readily available than LibreOffice/etc.

What we are really talking about here is the move from Microsoft tools to Google tools. That is a move that is entirely positive. Microsoft Office is one of the most - if not the most - prolific suites of proprietary tools in the world right now. Maintaining Windows is an absolute headache, especially when it is constantly being used by hundreds of children/teenagers. OS X is easier, but still not a good alternative. Out of the options most educators find available, Chromebooks are definitely the best.

To convince the next generation not to rely on Microsoft's proprietary software is a huge step in the right direction. While I share your concerns, they are not new, and I welcome this change.

You are free to use something else. Google does some things better so people use. Gmail Google solved spam and unlimited storage and won. We should encourage companies to do things better.

Look at Google Photos now being far better so winning. This is how it is suppose to work.

Again,the products are good. It's not like Comcast where I feel screwed when I can only use them. If I want to use a different email provider right now I could very easily, but none of them appeal to me.

My problem is that it's everywhere you turn. Phone. SEO. Maps. Videos. Browser. Email. Search. The list is endless, and growing and for a phone is there really an alternative? The other choice is another big company who will collect data about you too. Agreed Comcast is worse. That's not exactly a high bar. :-D

"Free" apps.

The only cost is the student's privacy. Gotta get them sucking at the Google teat early, and in to their database as soon as possible.

Well of course! How else will you manage to look at historical trends of your consumers? Gotta start sucking the cash out of the little ones from an early age.

I wish someone from the GNU/Linux crowd could make a chromebook-like software set that was really Free software.

Doesn't come with lobbying money, though, so in the end it wouldn't make much of a difference.

With regards to quadratic equation comment, Aside from being one of the simplest non trivial derivations/ uses of algebra you could teach children (and often the derivation is not taught...), the solutions to polynomials have a very important place in the history of mathematics and the development of modern algebra (which of course is also not taught...) Should children all be forced to gain an appreciation for the significance and origins of modern algebra? I think, yes. We force them to learn history of whatever country they reside in, year after year. We force them to learn and appreciate novels and literary analysis (equally "useless"). If they don't have an appreciation for mathematics is or does (and quadratic equation is a simple example leading up to some VERY important developments), how will they really know whether or not they want to have a career involving math some way in the future?

Google Classroom has an interesting monopolising effect on schools. Google Classroom has changed the price dynamics hugely; making it impossible for other providers to really compete since they give so much away for free. It is really a shame - Google Classroom (the app) isn't the best LMS as it is quite unresponsive and confusing.

Exactly. This is an example of the possible downside of relaxed anti-trust enforcement: leveraging your domination in one area to brutalize competition in another.

Also, they've been caught once not keeping kid info private. They'll do it again. But, free.

Classroom for us is used in elementary,3-5. We use canvas for middle and high. Classroom doesn't have the features yet to be used at higher levels, though it's getting there.

What? Teachers love Classroom and why they pay to use. Something does not dominate as quickly as Google has in k12 unless very good. People do not lime change.

And the question is how long they will stick to it. There is a good chance they will abandon this at some point.

Chromebooks are much better than iPads for this kind of a task for sure, but I wouldn't want everything my child wrote and looked up throughout his development sent to a major advertising corp. This data should still be maintained by the school or by a company the school partners with with a zero internal or external sharing policy.

It seems to be maintained by a company the schools partner with with a zero internal or external sharing policy:

From [Common questions about Classroom](https://support.google.com/edu/classroom/answer/6025224?hl=e...)

Does Classroom contain ads? No. Like all G Suite for Education services, Classroom contains no ads and never uses your content or student data for advertising purposes. Learn more about [privacy and security](https://edu.google.com/trust/).


IMHO google is constrained by laws protecting minors here, not because the Google nor even the schools care that much.

Classroom is paid for and not ad driven.

If there was a chromebook that came with a SIM card and an unlimited data plan, worldwide, I would buy it in a heartbeat and replace my Macbook. I like the idea of cloud storage, the ability to instantly log onto a new machine and have everything there. This critically depends on 100% connectivity though.

The Chromebook pixel from 2013 had 4G LTE, for some reason they didn't include it on the 2015 one.

This is a huge step in the right direction. Microsoft Office and Windows are a huge unnecessary and practically unmaintainable approach.

That being said, public education would benefit even more from using a consistent, maintainable, and free Linux distribution.

Public schools but a lot of worthless effort into providing computers for students that are (attempt to be) secure and usable. A good Linux distribution (like NixOS, or even Ubuntu) has tools to provide a consistent maintained operating system for tens or hundreds of systems. This has been the case for over a decade, but administrations have assumed that since everyone uses Windows, that they would be swimming upstream to do otherwise.

Is there any evidence that computers in the classroom improve results of the 3 R's ?

15 yo high school student here; we have Google Apps accounts and use chromebooks every once and a while. The district has carts of chromebooks that are brought in when students need to do research or work on projects in class. They work pretty well. (The district also has Mac Minis, which are used by the teachers and in the library; they are imaged to Windows if the teacher chooses.)

Happy to answer any questions.

Do you use them for having fun or just for homework? What other computers do you use?

We don't take them home, just for working on projects in class. Of course, nobody ever goofs off when given an hour of relative freedom.

At school, chromebooks and the Macs in the library. At home, whatever we have--we don't get computers to take home.

> Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.”

In case anyone is curious, this video has a good visual explanation of how to derive the quadratic formula:


I'm still on the fence to whether or not the ability for big companies to give away free software is a net good or not. On one hand, schools theoretically have more money now to spend on mission critical things. On the other hand, the theoretically best possible product will in all likelihood will not be free. Such a product could give exponential gains in productivity to teachers, easily offsetting whatever cost is incurred.

> exponential gains in productivity to teachers

What are you thinking of? What are the big advances in education that have been made in the past few decades? I have kids in high school right now and I can say they are learning things earlier than I ever did. They have a lot more pressure on them as well. I'm not certain that's a good thing though.

As far as technology goes, I don't see much change other than acceptance of it. My kids are encouraged to use their cell phones productively (calendar, communication, camera, etc...). But the process of education itself seems about the same as it always has been. Gains certainly haven't been exponential.

Maybe we should pay for schools and watch athletes for free rather than the other way around.

Classroom is NOT free for schools.

Do you have a source for this? Their support documentation says otherwise.

"Classroom is a free web service for schools, non-profits, and anyone with a personal Google Account." https://support.google.com/edu/classroom/answer/6020279

"Classroom is free for all users." https://support.google.com/edu/classroom/answer/6025224

Classroom is free, I think the device management MDM software costs $30 per device for a perpetual license:


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