Capturing the Classroom
Sidestepping school authorities, Google directly enlisted teachers to promote their products in the classroom, securing a valuable, lifetime supply of student data 

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Not long ago, school districts made decisions about major technology contracts—such as laptops for students—after a rigorous and competitive process that carefully weighed factors including cost, usefulness and safeguards on children’s privacy. In the past decade, Google has radically transformed that model by directly enlisting teachers to push their products into the classroom.

By insinuating itself under the guise of so-called teacher professional training summits with catchy names like “Googlepalooza,” “Get Googley Online” and “Moonshot,” the company, with the help of teacher “evangelists,” has established a near-ubiquitous presence in classrooms throughout the U.S. public school system.1

Festooned with balloons in Google’s primary colors, rah-rah Google seminars promote the company’s products to teachers and administrators, often adopting the boosterish look and feel of a multi-level marketing conference—far removed from the typically dry educator-training meetings.2 Students are often recruited as props as teachers and “EdTech” presenters share inspirational tales of classrooms transformed by Google’s products.

Children serve as EdTechTeam props during 2017 Google Summit in Taiwan

Google’s strategy has proved enormously successful. Today, 25 million students worldwide use Google’s Chromebooks at school, 30 million teachers and students use Google Classroom, and more than 80 million people use G Suite for Education.3

But Google’s approach in the education world bears striking similarities to Coca-Cola’s and Pepsi’s efforts in the 1990s to create lifelong customers by placing vending machines in every school.4 “The tech companies do know that the sooner you get kids, adolescents, or teenagers used to your platform, the easier it is to become a lifelong habit,” a former Google employee, Vijay Koduri, said recently.5

Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator and advocate for the use of responsible technology in the classroom, compared the Google teacher training summits to a cross between an “Amway convention and cult meeting.”

“The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering ‘The Google,’” Stager says.6

Slide from 2017 Chester NJ teacher presentation for Parent Technology Night

The story of how Google took over the classroom in half-a-dozen years was explored in 2017 by The New York Times, which detailed how Google was transforming public education by providing low-cost laptops and free apps to schools across the country.7 Our review of publicly-available information about Google’s education drive—including from open records requests, grant materials, financial disclosures and school board documents—raises further questions about the company’s tactics to capture the classroom.

The analysis found that the company implemented a three-pronged strategy to take over America’s— and increasingly, the world’s—classrooms. First, Google pitched its education products directly to teachers, offering them lucrative consulting contracts and turning them into advocates for Google’s products with their peers.

Second, Google passed off much of the expense of teacher training on its products to school boards, thus helping defray the costs associated with conducting thousands of Google Education seminars. The result was a gold rush for a fledgling EdTech industry that trained teachers on Google products by tapping into schools’ “professional development” funding. Today, hundreds of companies and teacher evangelists offer such services not only for Google, but for Apple, Microsoft and other tech companies.

Third, Google relied on its relationships with well-connected education officials to lobby for its products. Not only have Google’s evangelists worked to push the company’s products locally, but they’ve also worked with Google’s EdTech partners to participate in influential working groups on national education policy.

Jonathan Rochelle, a product manager for G Suite for Education, for example, served as a member of the Board of Education in Chester, New Jersey, until the end of 2017.8 The school district adopted Chromebooks during his term.9 Google’s “Chief Education Evangelist” Jaime Casap continues to serve as a 10th grade public school teacher at the Phoenix Coding Academy.10
Jennie Magiera and Chris Craft, two evangelists with Google for Education “partner” EdTechTeam, advised the Department of Education and Obama White House officials on technology in schools.11

Google’s strategy appears to have been inspired in large part by Esther Wojcicki, the former mother-in-law of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and mother of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki,12 whose high-level ties hint at the strategic importance of the effort to the company’s future.

A journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School and a longtime Google consultant, Wojcicki was one of the first to develop the idea of a Google Teacher Academy, and today “remains a guiding force” with the company’s educational outreach.13 As an educational consultant to the company in 2005-2006, Wojcicki designed the Google Teacher Outreach Program and the Google Teacher Academy.14

In her training sessions, Wojcicki instructed teachers to get their students to open Gmail accounts, and suggested ways to circumvent objections by the school districts. “Have them sign up for a Gmail Account,” Wojcicki wrote. “If district blocks email accounts, sign up for as many dummy email accounts as you need and let students use them in class.”15

“Have them sign up for a Gmail Account,” Sergey Brin's mother-in-law, Esther Wojcicki, instructed teachers. "If district blocks email accounts, sign up for as many dummy email accounts as you need and let students use them in class.”

Wojcicki’s insight—that teachers would be a far more effective sales force than company representatives—was evident from an early teacher academy pilot organized at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in November 2006. After being certified by Mountain View, teachers were expected to lead “at least three related professional development activities for local educators.”16

Today, Wojcicki’s program has spawned hundreds of EdTech consultants and resellers offering Google education training and certification programs for teachers and administrators around the world.17

Yet Google’s aggressive use of educators to push its products to the classroom has raised questions about potential conflicts of interest and time spent away from educators’ primary jobs— teaching students. Google’s marketing push also raises questions about whether the promise of a consulting contract with Google or its EdTech suppliers may inappropriately influence teachers’ decisions in the classroom.

Google isn’t the only technology company trying to push its products into the classroom. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, as well as other device manufacturers and software developers, all have aggressive programs targeted at classrooms. Many, such as Amazon Inspire,18 Microsoft’s Certified Educator program19 and Apple’s Distinguished Educator program, take a page directly from Google’s playbook, also courting teachers and administrators with free trips, software and, increasingly, lucrative consulting gigs moonlighting for EdTech companies.20 21

But Google’s early 2006 entry into the education market and its aggressive outreach to teachers set the standard and gave the company considerable first-mover advantage. Google’s business model also allows it to undercut the competition: it doesn’t need to make money from the laptops like Apple, or from the software, like Microsoft. Instead, it can offer its products at cost, or even as a loss-leader, in exchange reaping a lifetime supply of the essential feedstock for its business—data about millions of new users to help the company better target ads.22

Left unexamined in Google’s aggressive push into the classroom is whether its EdTech strategy is actually making students smarter. A growing chorus of educators think the answer is no. For example, Joe Clement and Matt Miles, two social studies teachers at Chantilly High School in Virginia, say the avalanche of iPads, Chromebooks, Google Docs and YouTube in the classroom actually makes it more difficult for students to concentrate, and learn.23

“Students need no help from schools developing their tablet, smartphone, or Twitter skills. They are doing this on their own,” the teachers told The Washington Post. “What they need help with is critical thinking, problem solving, and community building.”

Parents, too, are beginning to question big tech’s invasion of the classroom. DC Urban Mom, a popular message board in the Washington, D.C., area, is full of comments from anxious parents concerned about the downside of technology in today’s classrooms. They report seeing kids rushing through lessons for “reward” time on Chromebooks; spending “device time fooling with avatars, fancy fonts, and lame clip art” rather than writing or imagining; and having books “read” to them by computers so they stay occupied while teachers take a break.24

The concerted push to put devices in front of children at public schools contrasts with the growing concerns among Silicon Valley tech executives about technology in their own children’s classrooms. Increasingly, executives from Google and other technology companies are choosing to send their kids to “tech-free” schools such as the Waldorf School in Los Altos, stocked with “retro” chalk, blackboards, encyclopedias, workbooks and No. 2 pencils.25

Alan Eagle, a Google employee who works in the company’s executive communications division and has written speeches for the company’s former Chairman, Eric Schmidt, is blunt about the threats posed by the modern classroom. “I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” he said. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”26

Adding to all of these concerns is the perennial issue for products involving Google: privacy. Advocates have warned for years that Google is tracking every move students make online and that parents have few options to keep their children out of Google’s system.27

While the company insists it complies with the law, it has never properly answered a host of questions, including whether a student’s use of Google education tools in the classroom is used to build a historical profile that is “switched on” when the student reaches adulthood.

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January 15, 2019
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