Tech companies have a hold on education
Getting rid of Google Classroom or software from Microsoft costs a school a lot of effort. “An IT coordinator wanted to think about it, but he had two hours a week for all his tasks.”
Support, money and the opportunity to lead the way in educational innovation; the offer of a friendly alternative to Google Classroom and Microsoft seemed irresistible. The providers of Secure Cloud Skill promised full-fledged services, based on open source software, including privacy. 'Children start lifelong learning in a transparent and safe digital learning environment where users remain in control of their own data', is the promise.
What more could a primary school want? Nevertheless, no school has dared to pilot the Safe Cloud Skill, notes it expert digital innovation Fred Hage, who started the project in 2019 with Stefan Kooman with the support of the SIDN fund and Nextcloud. “Because we can say loudly that our education is too dependent on Google and Microsoft, but then let us, as experts, set up an environment ourselves that does comply with privacy legislation.”
Even then, their professional interlocutors recognized that embracing Microsoft and Google in education does not fit with Dutch and European legislation. Large American companies make money from children's data. Under heavy pressure from the regulator and the two education ministers, Google adapted its digital education environment to the regulations just in time last summer, but Hage and other experts see reason enough to say goodbye to Google and Microsoft. “The discussion about the power of tech giants starts in primary school. Your data is used to sell advertisements, making services on the internet seem free. How can you, as a teacher, justify raising a generation like that?”
Embracing Microsoft and Google in education does not fit the law
The custom Google Workspace for Education has restrictions for students and teachers. To protect privacy, the school accounts may not be used for YouTube, Google Maps or Google Photos, nor for Google Scholar, the search engine for academic publications. Taking a detour with a private YouTube account must block the IT administrator on school equipment. The general search engine can still be used, but students who search with Google are automatically logged out to protect their privacy. This makes the traffic data anonymous, which reduces their commercial value.
Teachers can still place videos in their teaching materials under certain conditions, but it is more difficult for students to include material from YouTube in their assignments. The blockages do not apply to their own mobile phone, tablet or laptop, which offers sufficient leeway for an ICT-skilled student – and Google still provides interesting data about young users.
“Ease of use often forms an obstacle to critical thinking,” says José van Dijck, professor of media and digital society at Utrecht University. She has been advocating for years that the public sector sets higher standards for digital tools. “We should not be trapped in one system, where all data goes to a central point. Instead, everything should be interchangeable.” Let educational institutions develop their own digital tools, she says, together with developers of open source software, where the code is freely accessible and can be adapted to individual needs. “Not to compete with Google and Microsoft, but as part of our knowledge development. Let our smart employees work on it themselves instead of outsourcing everything to companies.”
It's already happening elsewhere. The Firefox browser, the Signal messaging service, and the LibreOffice office suite are open source, as is WordPress, the world's leading website building program. WordPress is dominant in its market, but in other areas the competition has to lose out to Chrome, WhatsApp and Microsoft Office. Developing and using open source software is not always easy. (Text continues below image).
For Secure Cloud Skill, inconvenience is also the major bottleneck. A switch requires ICT expertise and new instructions for teachers and students, plus explanations for parents. That takes time and deviating from the market leader often means fewer options. Professor Van Dijck saw it happen at the start of the corona crisis, spring 2020. The university had to rush to provide online education and the open source platform Jitsi was still under development. “We were soon on Microsoft Teams because that application is best integrated with our online calendar. It is still possible to switch to open source now, if the universities decide that they will invest in it and announce it before Teams is in everyone's digital DNA. But you need an alternative before you can execute an exit strategy.”
Microsoft is dominant in higher and secondary education, with Google as a competitor. In primary education, the competition is between Google's Chromebooks and Apple's iPads. “Google is really a virtual classroom, especially for the children,” says Marieke van Osch about the appeal of Classroom. She supports schools with virtual learning and often works with iPads. “As a teacher, you can watch the Apple software on the screen, offer apps and prepare work, but it is not yet a copy of a room like Classroom. And the low price of Chromebooks helps give each student their own device. I think the advantage of Apple is the many creative possibilities. Almost all teachers now work with Microsoft Teams and Office365. A secure European system must match the advantages of the American giants, otherwise I do not expect education to embrace such an alternative.”
'Almost all teachers now work with Microsoft Teams and Office365′
Educational ICT specialist Katja van Well of the Consent foundation (32 schools, 7200 students in Enschede and the surrounding area) is an expert in Microsoft's educational offer and also knows Google Classroom. At Consent, students work on Chromebooks with Microsoft's online software. This largely removes the privacy concerns at Google. Only assigning, updating and other technical management of the Chromebooks still has to go through Google software. “We actually switched to Microsoft from virtually nothing.” That is now certainly as good as Google, believes Van Well, and even better in several respects: “Class Notebook is a digital folder with subjects and work where you as a teacher can look at the notebook, as it were. Google only has the commands feature. But if you know one system, you can also work with others, if you have a little affinity with digital tools. Think of it as if the herbs have been moved in the supermarket. You quickly get used to that.”
Virtual education will remain, Van Well thinks: “You can only work with notebooks and books in your classroom, but what if there is another lockdown and you don't even want to use e-mail? Do you visit all your students or do you have them pick up and deliver work? How safe and how sustainable is that?”
She sees little in her own applications or platforms for primary and special education: “If every board does that, you are constantly reinventing the wheel. There is too little money and know-how, such an environment is never finished. Nice for the companies that help you, but not for education.”
Nevertheless, development is necessary, says professor Van Dijck. “Of course the public sector is not going to replicate Google Classroom, but without an alternative it is difficult to negotiate. We must be able to offer a counterbalance, if only in parts. For example, Kennisnet has created the Entrance Federation for a secure login to all digital learning resources that meet the privacy requirements.” 150 providers are connected, but Apple, Google and Microsoft are not.
It is estimated that 70 percent of primary education works with Google Classroom and a large part of the other sectors with Microsoft, but according to Van Dijck it is never too late to guarantee freedom of choice. Finding a solution starts with seeing education no longer as a market, but as a public sector where public values such as privacy, transparency and autonomy are assured, preferably at European level. “If you don't unite, you have no counter-power.”
'If you don't unite, you have no counter-power'
She is not against Google and Microsoft, the professor emphasizes, and that also applies to Hage of Cloud Skill: “We just want to show that things can be done differently. There is interest in that. I had an IT coordinator who really wanted to think about it, but he had two hours a week for all his tasks. Then the choice is to put the cross at Google.”
This article is from the October issue of Education. All members receive the magazine in the mailbox every month. Do you want that too? Become a member!