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Is Google's Free Software A Good Deal For Educators?

Kaitlin Morgan says, this year, her school district is going "full Google."

Morgan teaches U.S. and world history and advises the yearbook at Woodlake Union High School in California's Central Valley. At Woodlake, "full Google" means a plan to have one Google Chromebook for every two students by the spring, running Google Apps.

The Chromebook is a relatively cheap, stripped-down laptop. It's become popular in the education world, with 85 percent of its U.S. sales last year going to the ed market.

And the Chromebook is just the beginning. Already, Google Apps for Education claims 30 million active users around the world. The free, Web-based software works on any device and allows teachers and students to use Gmail with their own .edu address.

It's the beginning of what Google calls the "paperless classroom" — moving assignments, class discussions, feedback, tests and quizzes online.

Now comes Google's latest education offering, launched last week: Google Classroom.

Classroom enables a teacher to create a "class" at the touch of a button. She or he can upload syllabus materials, whether text, audio or video, and send out assignments on the class news feed.

Teachers see instantly who has turned in their homework. They can start a class discussion and provide feedback and grades; students can see what's due and what's late. The whole package integrates with the rest of Google's apps, like Google Docs.

Zach Yeskel, product manager for Google Apps for Education, says Google "worked with innovative teachers to build their best practices and workarounds into the product. We really see Classroom as a tool that should be usable in any class setting to streamline universal workflows."

While it's too soon to tell how Classroom will be received, Google Apps for Education is already changing how early adopters teach — and raising some important questions about the transition to tech-enabled classrooms.

Heidi Berlusconi teaches biology at Clarkstown Central High School in New City, New York. She was a Google Apps for Education user and provided feedback on Google Classroom while it was being developed.

"One of the issues I had with students was their not citing correctly," Berlusconi says. "There was a lot of plagiarism." With Google Docs, she can figuratively look over a student's shoulder and flag improper citation even before they turn in an assignment. Plus, she says, when students are collaborating, a glance at the revision history "allows you to see who really is doing the work" by who contributed what edits.

The most important impact, she says, is that Google extends her teaching time. Students hold discussions online and offer each other homework help in the wee hours after she's gone to sleep.

History teacher Kaitlin Morgan, meanwhile, got professional development in Google and went all in with her summer school economics course.

"We used Docs for notes, Draw for projects like collages. They created their own websites through Sites for a budget project, and I built quizzes and tests on Google Forms." Morgan also used Pear Deck, an app written to work with Google Drive, to quickly check students' understanding during class.

"The kids love it," she says. "They're really engaged."

Still, not everyone is ready to embrace Google's free education applications.

A familiar charge is that the paperless classroom creates a digital divide. At schools like Woodlake, Morgan says, "we're not at the point where every student has a device and Wi-Fi at home." She had to print out some assignments for students, or else cut back on homework — not exactly what was promised.

Another big concern is commercialization and student privacy. As Yeskel has mentioned in other interviews, Google's business motive here is to expose young users to the Google brand. To hook them early.

Khaliah Barnes, director of the Student Privacy Project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), warns, "When you're using free services, if you don't know what the product is, you are the product."

In March, as part of a federal lawsuit, Google admitted it had been data-mining student email messages to potentially improve its targeted advertising, among other reasons. As of late April, says Yeskel, "We no longer show any ads to students or use any information in any other Google products. We take ownership of any user data extremely seriously."

Still, users of Google Apps for Education are subject to Google's terms of service, which is subject to change.

The need to decipher service agreements to protect student privacy is a big responsibility for teachers. And that's part of a larger dilemma as schools go digital — teachers and districts are being asked to make significant decisions about, and investments in, technology use without much help.

"The thing about Google is they're a technology company, not really a solution company," says Phil Hill, an educational technology consultant and market analyst. "Rather than understand needs and build a holistic solution, Google has the ability to throw stuff out and see what happens."

A school that takes the trouble to train its teachers and switch up their workflow is taking a risk that Google might not keep supporting a product, as with Orkut, Wave and Buzz, to name a few.

Andrew Jensen, a colleague of Kaitlin Morgan's, is excited about the possibilities of Google Classroom. But, he says, "sometimes the amount of time it takes to set these things up ends up being more than it's worth. A few years back our districts spent many thousands of dollars on interactive whiteboards, and it was a waste of money."

Unlike the enthusiastic early adopters, teachers like Jensen are more skeptical about being asked to adapt to a constantly changing set of tech tools.

Morgan agrees. "Some have just now got the hang of Google Apps," says Morgan, who has been involved in training her colleagues with the transition to Google Classroom. "Now we're saying, 'Everything we just taught you? Just kidding, now there's something new.' "

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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