Thursday, September 11, 2014

Google Wants to Save Our Schools—And Hook a New Generation of Users

by: Issie Lapowsky

The old “dog ate my homework excuse” is about to become a thing of the past. And kids will have Google to thank.

The search giant has just released Classroom, a free tool that allows teachers to do everything from assigning projects to collecting and grading assignments, all online. Classroom uses Google’s own products such as Docs and Drive to manage and organize the often chaotic classroom workflow.

Google launched a pilot of Classroom in May, but on Tuesday, the search giant announced it was offering Classroom to anyone with a Google Apps for Education account. The goal, says Classroom creator and Google product manager Zach Yeskel, is to make already overburdened teachers more productive by reducing the time spent pushing paper around a classroom.

“We did user research, and what came to the forefront was the fact that teachers were spending a lot of time doing things other than teaching,” Yeskel, a former high school math teacher, says. “The goal of Classroom is to make the things that should be simple, simple.”

The Business of Education

Of course, Classroom isn’t simply a show of altruism. There’s a business case for the product. For starters, Google Chromebooks have been a runaway hit in schools. In the second quarter of this year alone, Google sold 1 million Chromebooks to schools. The tiny laptops now account for a fifth of all the mobile computer purchases made by schools today, according to The Wall Street Journal.

This somewhat unexpected trend has made Google more focused on offering even more products to teachers already using Chromebooks, Yeskel says: “They were an organic hit in schools, so now our sales team and marketing team and product teams are all thinking about those users more.”

What’s more, those users just happen to be extremely valuable. The whole world may use Google products today, but kids will dictate tomorrow’s market. Tech companies from Facebook to Google are all too aware of the importance of hooking younger users early. “They’re the future,” Yeskel says. “They’ll be going into business someday.”

Just a Start

So it stands to reason that Google would make an aggressive push into the education space. The question is, of all the problems teachers face, why focus on this one? After all, the American school system is fraught with issues, and in Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of well-meaning companies attempting to use tech to solve those problems. Some provide sophisticated testing tools to assess kids’ skills in real time. Others offer up coding classes as the cure to the education system’s ills. All of it makes Google’s decision to focus on what is essentially a productivity tool for teachers seem somewhat mundane.

But Yeskel says Google’s education team spent a year working with teachers around the world to assess the crowded ed-tech space. They found one gap that remains was classroom management. “It was clear they had a lot of technology that helped with other problems, but there was still an opportunity for us to solve a real problem in classroom organization,” he says.

The whole world may use Google products today, but kids will dictate tomorrow’s market.

Today, Classroom allows teachers to set up a virtual classroom, invite students in, distribute worksheets, assign work, grade and return work, and collaborate with students on a document in real time. Classroom keeps track of what work has been turned in and automatically sorts it into Google Drive folders. Still, Yeskel admits this is just a start. Classroom is merely laying the foundation, spreading Google’s existing services to classrooms around the world in order to layer additional tools on top of it in the future.

“We think there are some foundational pieces that needed to be put in place before we can tackle those problems,” says Yeskel, adding that the company is currently in talks with some third party developers. “Classroom is just the beginning of what we hope to do.”

from: Wired

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