I went along to hear Liz Sproat, Google Head of Educations EMEA, to better understand Google’s vision of education and the future of learning, as well as to hear Liz Sproat in person. This post provides an overview of that talk, presented on May 10 2017 and called “Uncertain Futures: Generation Z is coming to your university. Are you ready?”. Sproat spoke as part of London School of Economics’ Learning Technology and Innovation’s (LTI) NetworkED series addressing the role of technology in education.
The focus of Sproat’s talk addressed the characteristics and needs of “Generation Z” as today’s first year students, as well as Google’s tech priorities and the ways these broadly come together. Google for Education is a non-profit branch of Google responsible for developing tools, devices and products – including G Suite (formerly Google Apps for Education) – to support teaching and learning. The audience was small and when asked, most identified as coming from IT, learning technology and admin, with only two academics.
To begin, Sproat defined Generation Z students as “global, social, visual and technological” with vastly “different expectations for their time at university”. These expectations are shaped by being part of the “most technologically advanced” generation and are marked by “immediacy” – of information, of communication, and of interaction. Notably, these characteristics mean that today’s students expect dependable high performance technologies. For Sproat, social media, particularly Snapchat, are also important influences for Generation Z.
It was clear that Sproat was promoting a vision of today’s students as digitally sophisticated and literate, without addressing any of the evidence challenging the “digital native myth” and pointing to a lack of critical and digital skills (e.g. Helsper and Enyon 2009; Selwyn 2009, 2016).
In addition, Sproat provided the following survey results of Generation Z:
- 93% of Gen Z want a career that will make a difference
- 57% don’t have a concrete career plan
- 78% worry about the cost
- 72% want to design their own course of study or major (US students, e.g. Nike ID trainers – design your own)
Technological Change and Google Products
In terms of technological change and indeed the broader landscape, Sproat claims “we are on the cusp of a 4th Industrial revolution” (World Economic Forum). New kinds of jobs are emerging where technology plays a fundamental role across sectors as both a catalyst and an innovator. Here, Sproat focused on specific Alphabet/Google X initiatives, now X Company or Verily, like Project Loon, a project involving air-borne balloons used to enable internet connectivity in remote or rural areas or contact lenses which can monitor glucose levels for people with diabetes. Sproat also briefly mentioned Google’s impressive host of educational products included for free to educational institutions via G Suite for education and Google Classroom.
While Sproat was able to effectively map out Google’s impressive range of projects most related to education, Sproat emphasized Google’s Enterprise Cloud Platform as the “biggest growth area in IT and tech” – citing projections that the market will exceed $85 Billion by 2020. In addition to providing scalability and “user-managed, user-configured and user-maintained” data storage and systems for many clients (e.g. Spotify, Cern, Stanford Genetics), it is also the biggest area of investment. For example, Google is currently investing $29.4 billion in its Cloud Platform.
In terms of education, this has several implications, according to Sproat. First, universities provide a major source of talent and Cloud services means “helping students build what’s next”. Sproat also outlined that students would need to know data analytics, application development and infrastructure operations – all skills related to and enabled through cloud services. Perhaps one of Sproat’s most interesting points on the future of education included a list of what the Economist Group defines as employer defined “top skills”: problem solving (51%), team-working (33%), communications (26%), critical thinking 21%), creativity (18%), literacy (15%), digital literacy (15%), leadership (14%), foreign language (14%), and emotional intelligence (7%).
Given the pressures in HE around employability, this is a thought-provoking list marked by remarkably broad skills (e.g. like problem-solving, team-working and communications) and aptitudes (e.g. emotional intelligence) rather than specific skills like analytics or coding.
Second, in addition to aiming to understand these broad changes, Google aims to support education and the changing role of technology, of students and of desirable skills, through the cloud credit program. This program is responsible for supporting university courses, student innovation and student research through funding, travel grants and other resources. Google also supports universities and research excellence through a number of grants and funds such as the faculty research awards, most often awarded to top researchers from prestigious institutions. In these ways, Google aims to provide resources for select individuals and universities to use the Cloud Platform to harness innovation and prepare for change.
Finally, Sproat suggested that through Google for Education and Cloud Services, Google could help educators and institutions keep track of students – better following up with alumni and students after they got jobs, better meeting the needs of today’s and future students with better services. When combined, all of these things help make the transition from information to knowledge.
Uncertain Futures and Google’s Vision for the Future of Education
Based on this talk, it is clear that no matter what the future of education or indeed of the world may hold, technology will be a part of it. Google / Alphabet is also likely to have role in that technology – ranging from driverless cars, health, internet connectivity, data infrastructures – and most certainly the cloud and cloud services. While the immediate future of these technologies contain many unknowns, they are currently a big part of Google’s impressive portfolio. When asked what is uncertain about the future of education, Sproat said these broadly lie with politics (e.g. Brexit and global political change) but also with the role of skills in education. Currently, there is so much variation across countries, across subject areas and across institutions, it is difficult to be certain about what the future of education will look like and how skills will be incorporated into classrooms.
Sproat expressed a genuine enthusiasm for education and a convincing commitment to make a difference. For her, Google for Education can play an important role supporting educators and students by providing educational tools and techniques – an enthusiasm shared by many Google employees and advocates. There are currently 70 million + Google for Education users, all in line with Google’s primary aims to make the world’s information accessible and available.
The emphasis on Google’s Cloud services was a little surprising for me, as I expected to hear a lot more about G Suite for Education, as I have done at other Google for Education events. However, Liz Sproat painted a much broader picture of Google’s activities and indeed focus for the future of education. It is important to remember that HE is only one of the sectors Google for Education is targeting, and Sproat suggests that the great variation you see within HE as opposed to K-12 education poses a particular challenge.
Focusing on Google Cloud Platform makes a lot of sense. It is at the heart of so many of Google’s products – Chromebooks, G Suite, Google Classroom – so it should not be surprising this was the focus for a talk at London School of Economics. Google for Education provides so many tools that make so much sense in the classroom and legitimately appear to better enable education and learning. However, it is also important to note that amidst the overview of Google’s extensive technological innovations and global reach, there was no discussion of privacy or of rights, other than that using a Google for Education domain protects users from all consumer interventions including advertising and data mining. In addition, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was little discussion of the kinds of challenges the education sector is facing outside of Google and the importance of Google in fostering innovation through its products. For example, economic change, increased pressures on faculty and students and decreasing public funds were not raised.
So although Liz Sproat’s talk was informative and engaging, I still find myself asking, what do Google get for all this work and why is education so important for them?
Helsper, Ellen and Eynon, Rebecca (2009) Digital natives: where is the evidence? British educational research journal. pp. 1-18.
Selwyn, Neil (2009) The digital native: myth and reality. ASLIB Proceedings, 61 (4). pp. 364-379
Selwyn, Neil. (2017) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, Second Edition. Bloomsbury
Sujon, Zoetanya. (2017) ‘Book review – Selwyn, Neil 2017. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates’ #AltcBlog. March 27. URL: https://altc.alt.ac.uk/blog/2017/03/book-review-selwyn-neil-2017-education-and-technology-key-issues-and-debates/#gref
By Zoetanya Sujon, May 14 2017 – Original article posted at: