At the beginning of last school year, I gave my 7th-grade students an assignment. “Draw me a picture of the Internet,” I told them. They looked at me like I was crazy.
“How are we supposed to draw the Internet?” one young critic asked. “You can’t really SEE it.”
“Use what you know, and use your imagination,” I replied. “How does information get from cyberspace to your computer?”
The markers and crayons I provided came in handy. Asked to draw the Internet, most of my students drew the primary color-hued Google search interface.
Google: Everywhere and Nowhere
For many students, Google is the Internet: it is their gateway to the web, it curates their online experience, and it structures the results of their Internet searches. Google is everywhere.
I teach a class called Library and Technology, wherein 7th-graders learn how to navigate libraries, evaluate sources, and troubleshoot tech problems. The goal of the course is to help students become thoughtful and successful researchers. Asking my students to draw the Internet helps me gauge their understanding of the web and reveals how they see the online world.
Paradoxically, however, Google is so ubiquitous that it is hidden in plain sight. For most students, it is invisible. This is why, when asked to draw the Internet, they draw Google. The interface dominates so effectively that, when asked to visualize cyberspace, students don’t even see an interface. Google as a corporate entity, with economic and political interests, is not visible to them as researchers. To be fair, it is not visible to many adults either.
Corporate Interests, Classroom Markets
The invisibility and hyper-visibility of Google in the classroom is no accident. It is part of a corporate marketing strategy designed to direct the energies and interests of teachers and students toward Google products. In a recent New York Times article titled “How Google Took Over the Classroom,” Natasha Singer scrutinizes Google’s courtship of the K-12 market. Singer reveals that Google primes its customer base by leveraging administrators and teachers as marketing partners. “In the space of just five years,” Singer writes, “Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools. It has directly reached out to educators to test its products — effectively bypassing senior district officials.”
In defense of this strategy, Google argues that their products help schools emphasize skills like problem solving and collaboration. They also argue that reaching out to educators promotes digital equity among students. However, Singer reports that “[s]ome critics… contend that the equity argument for technology is itself a gimmick that promotes a self-serving Silicon Valley agenda: playing on educators’ altruism to get schools to buy into laptops and apps.”
Google may be preparing students for future work in a digital economy. However, training workers sometimes clashes with teaching critical thinking, the mainstay of information literacy. This clash underscores an old argument about the purpose of education, given a new spin with the challenges of contemporary technology. We can teach students not to “just Google it,” but with Google found everywhere in the classroom, it is likely that our students won’t listen. And as Singer suggests in her article, the customer base (and customer data) that Google gains from schools may outweigh the benefits that students gain from Google.
I am not suggesting that librarians and teachers avoid Google and Google products—to do so would be counterproductive as well as nearly impossible. Students do need to understand how to navigate an Internet structured by Google, because that is the reality of their research context. However, we can do more to make students see Google, which will help them become better critical users of technology. I will be exploring the idea of Google literacy in future posts.
Have an idea for how to make students see Google? Share it below!
Author: Loretta Gaffney
Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.