There Are No Ads (And There Is No Spoon)

There has been a lot written lately about Google “mining” student data in the free for education Google Apps suite of online tools. I’ve watched the conversation evolve from a desperate attempt by Microsoft to remain relevant to seeing passionate educators accused of bringing the Google “stranger” into their classrooms for money.

I must admit that as a Google Certified Teacher and user of Google Apps For Education (GAFE) since 2007, I have found this all very disturbing. Having witnessed the power of Google Apps to transform learning with realtime and asynchronous collaboration, in a platform neutral, device agnostic suite of online tools, and all for Free, well, needless to say I’ve been a huge fan and advocate for many years. And for most of those years, my response to the inevitable questions about student data and privacy relied on the Google Apps For Education Agreement (does anyone have a link to it?), which clearly stated our Data was our own and that we could disable Ads in GAFE domains, as well as what Google Apps for Education people said that Google did and didn’t do with our data.

Google isn’t supposed to be Evil, right? and with California school budgets free falling just as demand for more technology in the classrooms started to accelerate, Free alternatives to Microsoft’s Office and Outlook products were hard to pass up, especially when the possibilities for learning were taken into account. It’s really not surprising to find more and more district going Google. In fact, I would wager that the primary reason a district hasn’t gone Google at this point is an IT department firmly entrenched in the Microsoft way and looking for any reason to keep running big iron in their data centers. But I digress.

When this article came out, which is admittedly written by a Microsoft funded think tank, it was surprising for the one truth it does include, that Google was (was) running GAFE data through it’s “data mining” Ad scanning algorithms even if a district had Ads turned off in their Domain. Many people jumped on this, saying Google was tracking students and building profiles to use for serving them Ads, perhaps at some future date, when they grow up and get real Gmail accounts.

Knowing how systems work, more likely Google was doing this because that’s how the backend was setup and because they had originally given schools the option to turn Ads on for their GAFE domains (and presumably share in the revenue). If you remember the early days of GAFE, Google had a hard time breaking out GAFE features from regular gmail features. This was also around the time that California School Districts were talking about selling ad space on the sides of busses and on their web sites to try and offset declining revenue from the state.

Still, the above article caused me to re-evaluate Google’s stance on student data and my belief in GAFE as the most relevant 21st Century learning platform for education. As a CUE Board member and a district technology leader, I’ve been in discussions about what this revelation means for schools and districts. For several weeks, I wondered why, if Google wasn’t serving Ads to GAFE domains, they simply didn’t stop running GAFE data through Ad scanning. That would seem to be the right thing to do and honestly it would be more in line with what the education community was initially led to believe was happening on the backend anyway.

Well this week, Google did just that. In a blog post they announced that they have:

…permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.


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All I can say is it’s about time. Forget that these accounts don’t stay with students after they leave the district. Forget that these accounts are for educational uses and that the district owns the data. Forget that parental consent for students to use GAFE accounts is generally required by Law. Forget that scanning for Ads has only one purpose, to serve Ads that you might actually want to see and click on (Why did I get an ad for math homework help? Talk about a teachable moment!). Google, for all it’s miss steps in handling the situation, in the end, did the right thing. Can the same be said for the limitless number of iPad apps out there, currently enjoying a wild west of data collection and in use in schools across the country? But I’ll save that for another post. On to the Spoon!

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Spoon boy: There is no spoon.

Neo: There is no spoon?

Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.


Ad scanning in GAFE  is no more, but data mining is all around us. The world is becoming ever more connected and our lives are becoming ever more integrated with online services. We must teach our students how to bend and not to break, to realize the truth about the online world, their data and their responsibility in this new reality. Laws will never keep up with technology, the age of privacy is past, there is no spoon.

Don’t believe me? Just ask your ISP what they know about you.