I’m a “techie.” A techie in the sense that I enjoy my smart locks, smart speakers, and smart plugs and, on top of that, I run it all through the router Comcast gave me because I’m an idiot. I also really, REALLY like using Google tools and apps. I bring that love of various tech tools into my 8th grade ELA classroom, and I enjoy doing it. My students use Google Docs on their essays, collaborative Slide activities to model their thinking, and tests that grade automatically on Google Forms. G Suite has become inextricably linked to my classroom procedures.
Because of that, I was thrilled to become a Google Certified Educator Level 1 and Level 2. I went through the material and practice tests and paid $15 for the honor of taking the two three-hour web-recorded exams. I passed with flying colors, and was emailed my certificates and shiny yellow badges to include in email signatures and such. Being an early 20-something surrounded by older coworkers meant the Google certificates looked great sitting by my desk. I became the resident “Google expert” in my school, and on days when the Wi-Fi would go out, colleagues would approach me with the solemnity as if a family member had died.
I sought out the Google Certifications my 2nd year of teaching, when I was searching for any sort of sign or symbol that I was growing in my career, that I was becoming a good teacher. Education is a job with little to no positive reinforcement. No news is good news and even if one administrator thinks you’re doing a great job, some think-tank out there is already creating a new rubric to judge you on. But these Google certifications were something I had that others didn’t. I added the badges to my email with pride. The great god Google rained down its praises and made me a better teacher, somehow.
Answering emails and helping out colleagues put the bug in my ear to get the “Certified Trainer” certificate. I enjoyed presenting at conferences around Chicago and for other teachers, so I added the shiny blue Trainer badge to my email signature. One holiday, my step-father even bought me a baseball cap and a piece of athletic wear with the Product Sans Google logo embroidered on. I signed up for statewide conferences instead of just district-level, I joined edtech professional organizations, I participated in a few Twitter chats. My social media feeds were, and still are, inundated with professional edtech-ers and edupreneurs. Personally, I love my multiple Google Homes that control my Chromecast to play my YouTube TV subscription. My entire life has gone full Google.
I also dream of flying all over the nation and keynoting conferences and connecting with educators. I dream of being one of the six teachers Google posts about when they ask for input. (Google acts like they’re asking the whole country, but it’s always one of the big names.) I really do enjoy helping teachers use new web apps and tech tools into their classrooms. I love making other teachers’ lives easier. I love creating an auto-calculating, color-coding Google Sheet that seems like magic. However, because I am so connected to numerous news outlets and social media services, I take notice of when Google or Alphabet is in the news. Over the past few years, I don’t like what I have seen.
When Google dropped the “Don’t be evil” clause from its code of conduct in May 2018, I didn’t give it much thought. It’s a company, (Alphabet) and it’s harder and harder to act in a completely non-evil way in 2018. I thought of my favorite show, The Good Place, and how they posit that, under late stage capitalism, even the simple act of buying flowers for someone carries a slew of negative unintended consequences. Plus, Google had already been pretty close to “evil” in how it collected and used data by scanning Gmail messages. Later in 2018 it came out just how in bed Google was becoming with the US military, including Project Maven a drone-based AI software for the DOD, causing dozens of Googlers to resign. They also were in the process of developing a censored search engine for China to block politically “sensitive” phrases. This is to say nothing of the numerous social protests of Google. One including not being more cognizant of how search results for abortion services lure women to “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are basically religious-based fear-mongering centers. Another social issue Google needed to acknowledge was the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment within its own walls. Google responded by publicly supporting its workers walking-out, while privately lobbying for their rights to organize via work emails to be restricted. This shouldn’t really matter anyway, because employees were recently caught making transphobic comments about a former co-worker on an anonymous back-channel called “Blind.”
And here I am with my email badges. Showing other teachers how to use Google tools with their students. Evangelizing for a company whose employees do these things. At my most cynical, Google can call it a Trainer or Educator Certification, but in reality I paid for the honor of being a salesman for one of the largest companies on the planet. It’s a kind of pyramid scheme that dozens of other edtech apps, like EdPuzzle or Flipgrid, have adopted. Badging and Certifications presented as awards, but are really social media advertising in disguise. Do I co-sign these actions when I show other teachers how to build a visual text set using Google Arts and Culture? To what extent am I an, albeit tiny, cog in the Google machine?
This is to say nothing of my students. My kids grab their Chromebooks every day and log in to Google Classroom to see if I have attached a Google Sheet rubric to their latest assignment. While Google employees are spewing racist comments that would earn my students a detention, am I turning them into little future Google customers? The G Suite of tools allows me and my students to do more and to think in deeper, and more creative ways in our classroom. They will more than likely use these tools well into their careers in the future. Having some competency in any word processing or spreadsheet software can only help them. Do I have a moral responsibility to tell my 8th graders about some of Google’s terrible practices before we engage with the G Suite? They arguably aren’t mature enough, but where’s the in-between?
Can I be selective? For what it’s worth, I still believe in all the educational “good” that comes from these services. Can I take the good Google without the bad Google? I mean, no one is using my student’s essays to train AI drones to spot targets.
Despite all my trepidation, I also have to ask, where are all the eduprenerus? Where are the famous edtech bloggers willing to engage in this conversation? Showing teachers how to embed a YouTube timer into a Google Slide is neat and makes you famous, but there does not appear to any space for both sides of the conversation with any of them. Google, like Apple and Microsoft, are all vying for the biggest piece of the edu-pie, but it’s not entirely benevolent. There are ENTIRE books, blogs, podcasts, and video series devoted just to Google tools. Once a person gets famous off of tools like G Suite, they should use that platform to highlight and investigate these bigger issues. Or at least admit that we’re all struggling with the same moral quandaries.
In reality, this speaks to the larger divide in the “famous” online education community. On one side, the camp of innovators and disruptors who can change your life with a Google Form. On the other, the camp of “woke” individuals who are always (sometimes only performatively) discussing the racial, social, and gender inequalities in education. These camps never meet, yet both sides seem rarely interested in investigating how these technocrats and multi-billion dollar companies are infecting education.
Few people are willing to engage with this conversation because there is no good answer. Even in my personal life there is no way to detach from the massive machine that is Google. If you were to take the Chromebooks and Google Docs from my classroom tomorrow, it would collapse. I cannot fathom a way to reconcile my moral compass with giving my students an authentic set of learning tools. Do I have to strike “Don’t be evil” from my own, personal code of conduct?
Again, there is no good answer. Despite all this, I still plan on presenting at conferences and running this blog and updating people about Google’s newest features. I’m still planning on submitting a Google Innovator application in a few weeks, collecting the fourth and final shiny badge for my email. I’m stuck with this cognitive dissonance, at least until one of the big tech companies invents a secondary moral code to carry around with you. I think the best I can do is lead my edtech trainings, and be mindful to make people aware of a company’s practices. And ask those companies to improve.