THE BLOG

Google Apps for Education: Teachers and the Unsuspected Stranger

04/29/2014 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014
  • Sue Scheff Author and Parent and Family Internet Expert

We know that privacy is slowing diminishing in our lives. As parents we try to protect the innocence of our children and students as long as possible, but what happens when you determine that the one place which should provide the ultimate safety is failing you?

Schools.

I am not speaking of violent crimes such as Sandy Hook or Columbine that will be forever engrained in our memories. Those kids weren't strangers, they were actual students that needed emotional help before their crimes escalated to a point of dark destruction.

Many schools today are mandating that students sign-up for free software that could expose them to unexpected strangers who might potentially build virtual profiles on them.

Why?

Because it is offered to the schools for free! Like everything in life, nothing is truly free, so the price of this software is really the students privacy.

Recently we read about how the online student data depository inBloom has decided to shut down because of concerns over privacy and security of children's information. Parents are actually calling this a victory -- yes, a victory. They understood the concept of their child's personal information being stored and the potential risks and didn't like it. They understood it because inBloom was transparent about what it was doing.

So I ask, what is the difference between inBloom and Google Apps for Education (GAFE)? One answer is that Google, unlike inBloom, is not transparent about what it is doing. It will take parents a lot of digging and research to decipher how it works.

How does this work and the 'who'.

I have previously discussed the threat to children's privacy created by the data mining and user profiling that Google admits doing in GAFE. Google is the stranger that is reading your children's email and using it to profile them. It has admitted this in court. But I haven't discussed the people that parents trust every day with their children -- the teachers. The unfortunate fact is that some of them now work for Google, at least indirectly.

The Google Academy.

Google recruits teachers for its Google Teacher Academy. When they complete the coursework, they become either (a) Google Certified Teachers, or (b) Google Certified Trainers. Because they're certified by Google, they can market themselves as trainers and consultants to the schools where they teach. They can charge those schools fees, by the day or the hour, to instruct other teachers or administrators in their schools on how to use GAFE in the classroom.

The schools pay these Google-certified teachers out of whatever training budgets they have. Once there is a critical mass of people who (a) know how to use GAFE, and (b) are excited about the prospect of "free" software that frees up budget resources to be used on other things, and lets administrators tell lawmakers they're doing more with less, then schools sign contracts with Google. Is this good or bad? You be the judge.

Here is another problem. No one has mentioned whether the data mining and user profiling GAFE is compliant with Federal laws like CIPA, COPPA or FERPA. Does this worry you as a parent? It should -- be sure to take the time learn about each of these acronyms.

The Catch.

Google has been very clever. Google Apps for Education by default does not serve ads. This reassures schools. Oddly, however, Google insists in its contracts that schools always retain option to turn ads back on, while stating that if they do it will not share the resulting ad revenue. Isn't this strange? Why would Google insist on this? Why not just strip the ad serving and ad targeting functions out of GAFE completely?

One reason is that leaving them in gives Google options for the future. Perhaps one day it will say that, sorry, your school can no longer receive this wonderful service for free unless, ahem, it agrees to let ads be turned back on. Because, as everybody knows, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

But we as parents surely all know and agree that marketing to children in school is not acceptable. Schools are a place of learning, not a place to exploit kids.

By the way, New York's Governor Cuomo, who until now has had a great track record in supporting school reform, has just appointed Google's top executive Eric Schmidt to a seat on a board that will decide how to invest $2 billion in new technology for the state's schools. Does this cause you to pause? Conflict of interest maybe?

Digital parenting today includes monitoring your child's social media and networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and all areas of their Internet use including cell phones. But are they neglecting to monitor the unsuspected virtual stranger at their own school?

Takeaway tips:

• If your school is using GAFE, be sure the ad-services are turned off, permanently.
• Take a moment to learn more about CIPA, COPPA and FERPA.
• Isn't it time you learn more about GAFE? If you are a parent that was against inBloom, have you taken time to review GAFE?
New privacy laws are being introduced for students. It is up to parents to be proactive.

Be an educated parent -- you will have safer kids online and off.