G Suite For Education: Parental Concerns

The seventh radio column for my new series on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. Giacomo Panico and I discuss the school board’s use of G Suite for Education and highlight what parents need to know.

Listen to the column.

Connecting Students

As summer draws to a close, families start prepare for the next school year. While you’re shopping for supplies for the new year, a surprising item might be on your list: a Chromebook.

Many schools—including most here in Ontario—use “Google” software in the classroom. More specifically, they use G Suite for Education.

This is offering is very similar to the standard G Suite offered to organizations worldwide with a few notable exceptions. These exceptions are critical to the community understanding the pros and cons of using this software in our schools. But a lot of backlash comes from a lack of understanding the differences.

For Education?

G Suite for Education doesn’t differ that much from the standard offering. Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Drive, and the other core services are all the same.

The key difference is that G Suite for Education also offers a new applications, Google Classroom and is covered by a different licensing agreement. This agreement—discussed later—can be summarized as following the “Student Privacy Pledge.”

This application helps teachers organization work assignments and various resources. It provides an areas for class discussions and aims to help streamline the work associated with each class.

Why G Suite?

There’s a surprising amount of money in the education market. Not to mention, the clear advantage companies can have if they get users trained earlier on their products. Despite this opportunity, the education technology market has really had three major cycles.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Apple was king. The ease of use and reliability of the Macintosh offset costs concerns. It was easy for students to learn, for schools to maintain, and the high upfront costs were offset by the long lifecycles.

As the internet became commonplace, sometime in the mid 1990’s Microsoft started to displace Apple in the education market. The low cost of clone PCs and smart licensing deals by Microsoft made the low costs and “good enough” software appearing to resource strapped school boards.

Microsoft was the primary player until the 2011 as Google started to make a push. The announcement of Google Chromebooks for Education marked the turning point where Google steadily gained market share and started to be the dominant player (58% of US market share) it is today.

While Google rules the roost, Microsoft is pushing Surface and Office 365 as an educational solution while Apple is focusing on iWork and iPad’s.

What sets Google apart? Most educators use it personally (who doesn’t have a Google account?) reducing the learning curve and the Chromebook.

Google Chromebooks

Google Chromebooks are laptop and laptop-ish devices that are typically low cost (starting at $249.99 CDN). Though the high end models can run as much as a new laptop, educational customers stick with the lower cost models.

The hardware itself is robust and performs well using Google’s custom ChromeOS to power the device. The simplest way to explain ChromeOS is that it’s the glue and support you need to run the Google Chrome web browser on the device.

Students sign into the Chromebook and quickly gain access to their data and resources. Once they sign out, another student can use the device without seeing anyone else’s data. For the truly paranoid, accounts can be easily removed from the device entirely.

This workflow means that the Chromebooks are easily swappable. Devices can be shared within the school reducing the overall number needed. In the event one breaks or needs service, it won’t impact student user. Simply log into another one.

Obviously BYOD schools have a different approach to device failure but even then, a student can use any device with a web browser to access their work.

This flexibility makes it easy to adopt the technology within an educational setting.

Student Privacy

The technology meets the demanding needs of the education market but there are very real concerns around student privacy. Google is regularly involved in scandals and issues around user privacy.

Google’s business model is strongly focused on advertising. They dominate this market by creating accurate profiles of their users that allow advertisers to target very specific consumers.

Profiling student activity raises some very real privacy concerns.

This is where the analysis gets tricky. Student privacy in G Suite for Education hinges on the fact that this version of G Suite uses a completely different license than the commercial offering.

G Suite for Education falls under the “G Suite for Education Agreement” and—in some cases—a “Data Processing Amendment”.

The second key fact is that G Suite for Education is divided into “Core Services” and “Additional Services”. The core is covered by the education specific license. While there’s lots of very specific legal wording, you can sum the education license up as;

Additional services fall under the “Google Terms of Service”, “Privacy Policy”, and various service-specific terms. Basically, “Additional Services” are standard commercial offerings.

The key for school boards, educators, parents, and students is to understand what the “Core” services are. They are subject to change but currently;

That’s a lot but there are a few critical services that are missing. Additional services are offers like;

And many more. The good news here is that while users will see ads on these services, they won’t be targeted to their profile because that profile is a “core” service.

Sharing With Others

Directly impacting student privacy is the ability to share data from within G Suite. While most boards restrict access to email and the internet, students can still use G Suite’s robust sharing tools to assign permissions and create shareable links.

Educators and older students will most likely have the ability to send shareable links from directly within the G Suite for Education applications.

I say “most” and “likely” because permission assignment is done at the organization level. In the case of G Suite for Education, the organization level is the school board. A board will sign up for the offer and all students and schools within the board will be able to access the products.

Based on my experience, research, and speaking with other parents, most boards in Canada use a staged approach to providing students with access to G Suite for Education.

Typically, grades K—2 have accounts but no access. Grades 3—6 have access but can only email within the school board and have limited internet access. As students move from grade 7—12, restrictions are removed while activity is still lightly monitored.

This graduated approach is a reasonable one as long it is matched with training and education for the students and educators. Permissions for sharing can be confused and tricky to use correctly in any organization.

Risk vs. Reward

Hearing “Google” in the same sentence as “Student Privacy” provokes a strong reaction in most parents. While there are some issues around G Suite for Education, they are primarily around a lack of transparency in it’s use and configuration within a school board.

Specifically in Ontario, the lack of a public privacy impact assessment and details of the agreement between the Ministry of Education and Google are troublesome but that relates more to politics than any real privacy risk.

Overall, G Suite for Education takes a reasonable approach to student privacy and security. A strong argument can be made that a centralized, cloud-based tool like G Suite makes it easier to strengthen the security of school and student data.

With any technology, the key risks are lack of awareness and education of specific features. That can be solved with consistent and repeated communication. Google does a good job of this but the onus is on parents to seek out the information. This is an area where boards and the Ministry can step up to help with little added expense.

When combined with Chromebooks, G Suite for Education significantly lowers the bar for technology use in the classroom. It’s cheaper and more accessible than ever. That’s a huge win for educators and students.

The few concerns are far outweighed by the upside of getting more students familiar with the digital world.