So-called Group Work is probably the bane of every tutor in higher education, myself included. As to the poor students having to collaborate; it’s always the motivated one dragging the hangers-on and possibly university’s resident idiot along with them. It’s a nightmare. The most common complaint is that they never turn up to meetings to work on the project because it’s too difficult to organise. Yeah, right!
So this week, one of my colleges persuaded me to get them all working with Google Apps. The theory is that they don’t need to be co-located in time or space to work on a common document. I suspect the lack of physical presence will actually make it easier for some of the group to loaf off, but perhaps I’ve been at this too long to be optimistic.
Google Apps, on the other hand, is gaining ground in education. Cloud-based applications that allow easy sharing of documents has to be a good thing, and I have to say I’m very impressed at the ability of several people to edit the same document at once. And it comes with the ultimate feature that will guarantee sales – it’s free.
When I say “free”, that means that Google gets to harvest your personal data instead of hard cash, and feed you targeted advertising. And this is a worry. You may be okay with this, but if it’s to be adopted in colleges or schools, supposing some students aren’t as relaxed about it? Those in the know keep away from Facebook for just this reasons, but it’s optional. If you make Google Apps part of coursework you’re forcing students to accept terms they’d otherwise reject.
So, in 2006, Google announced Google Apps for Education, with the advertising stripped out. It’s actually a pretty good deal. Features may change over time, but it’s basically business version of Google Apps with one difference – it’s also free.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft is really hacked off about this. They’ve been giving their Windows and Office software to educational establishments at a huge discount (or free) in order to get kids hooked on it, and as a result we have a generation that believes Microsoft Office is necessary to do anything. Kids come out of education knowing nothing else, which forces companies to purchase Microsoft Office at the full price in order to make them feel at home.
So, free or otherwise, Google Apps is probably more suited to college use, and Microsoft isn’t going to like it, so is fighting back with lawyers (no surprise there).
For example, last year Microsoft backed a bill in the US state of Massachusetts to block the use of Google Apps in schools.
To quote: “An Act prohibiting service providers who offer cloud computing services to K-12 educational institutions from processing student data for commercial purposes.”
Pernicious as Microsoft’s education offering is, this bill does have a point and I find myself siding with Microsoft for once. In fact I’d go further – no one should be forced to use applications collecting personal data, even in further or higher education.
This is becoming more relevant as I understand many schools are now considering the use of Google for Education. If their students are under 18, how can they even give informed consent? And once the parents understand the issues, who would give consent on their behalf? In most Judistictions, you need to be 13 or over (or 16+ in some parts of Europe) before you are allowed by Google to have a Google account, so it’s not like Google isn’t sensitive to the issue.
My sources inside the chocolate box tell me that the new Apps for Education will be advert free. When pushed, there was no guarantee that tracking wouldn’t happen – only that no adverts would be shown in the Apps themselves. Whether they will appear, based on tracking data, on other web sites remains to be seen and when the child reaches an “appropriate” age they’ll come with years of profile data. I’m awaiting clarification from Google on this matter.
(Update: Google has now publically declared that they will not scan Apps for Education data for advertising purposes, however the devil is in the detail. They don’t say that they don’t scan it for other profiling reasons. And then I found this court document, unearthed by SafeGov, in which Google’s own lawyers admit that they do profile students email and suchlike, meaning they can target adverts in other circumstances.)
And then there’s the question of whether it’s a secure environment. Well, no, it’s not. But that applies to Office 365, most LMS (see blogs passim) and anything else that has public messaging – in this case GMail. Given the problems I’ve had with users of freemail accounts, including GMail, I can’t help but question of the wisdom of allowing children access to it. When you’re signed up for Apps for Education you are supposed to be getting 24/7 support from Google, unlike Joe Public. Whether this helps resolve the issues remains to be seen. It’s also possible to turn off features centrally, such as Chat (an obvious thing to disable). Unfortunately, if you do turn off GMail there’s no other closed
messaging system to use instead.
As with my earlier papers and articles concerning LMS systems, I’m not saying that Google Apps are inherently insecure. In fact, I’ve got a lot of confidence that Google data centres, in particular, are robust. If Google does deliver on it’s data use policy, and is providing this service free of charge and with no strings attached, that’s great news. Microsoft has had their way for far to long for it to be healthy. Google has stated that as Google was born out of a research project at Stanford, they now want to give something back to education and that’s their only motive. It’s nothing to do with scuppering Microsoft; how could you possibly think that?
Like all Internet connect IT for use in schools, it’s the social risks that worry me the most, such as abuse of Internet email. If your school plans to use Google Apps, Office 365 or any other system with open email, just ask to see the risk assessment first.
That said, I’d still prefer to see educational establishments return to the open source model; Linux if you must, and OpenOffice. Computing by and for the people. Or perhaps those days are gone. We’re already stuck with a generation that now believes computing comes from large companies like Google and Microsoft. Sadly, I feel that it’s unlikely that most will have the technical talent in-house to make it happen.
Some of the concerns expressed here about data usage have now been addressed after Google signed up to this code of conduct IN THE USA.