Executive Skills & Strategy

Q&A: Google’s ‘Senior Education Evangelist’ Talks About K-12

By Jason Tomassini — March 13, 2012 5 min read
Jaime Casap speaks on "Education as the Silver Bullet" at the South by Southwest education conference last week.

Google Inc. is a big company with a big mission that tends to generate big controversies. For instance, a recent change to its privacy policy would allow it to consolidate greater amounts of information on individuals as they use its various websites, a move that prompted privacy experts to suggest the company is putting profits ahead of the protection of its millions of users.

Now, the company is making a strategic push into the education market, establishing the job of “senior education evangelist” to promote the use of technology in education (and, by extension, Google products and services) to schools around the world. That effort raises questions about those products and services and how they will work for K-12 schools.

Jaime Casap, who was anointed the company’s education evangelist, gave a presentation at the South by Southwest EDU (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, Texas, last week. He is an animated speaker who often calls out to the audience and earns laughs with his self-deprecating jokes.

As a first-generation American raised by a single mother in a poor section of New York City, Mr. Casap focused his SXSWedu talk on students from his socioeconomic background who are lagging behind because they don’t have access to technology or teachers qualified to help them develop modern skills.

“My motivation was to get out of the ghetto,” Mr. Casap, 44, said during his March 6 presentation. “If the student figures out that’s what they want to do, then we need to find a path to get them there.”

Education Week Staff Writer Jason Tomassini conducted a telephone interview with Mr. Casap to talk about the digital divide, Google’s new reach into the education marketplace, and the company’s new privacy policy.

Can you give a brief overview of what Google’s education products are?

BRIC ARCHIVE

First is Google Apps for Education. Google Apps for Education is a suite of tools that schools use to improve lots of different things they are doing. Google Apps for Education is Gmail, Calendars, Google Docs, and Google Sites. Teachers use these tools for everything from using Google Forms for assessments, teachers communicating with students through email and Google Chat, students working together in Google Docs to collaborate.

The second product area is Chromebooks [laptops]. Chromebooks are being used in schools all over the country in the same way, where it becomes a tool in the classroom.

In education, there have been companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Microsoft that have a very long history selling hardware to schools. How have you been able to enter the market and how are you doing in the market compared with those companies?

We have been selling Chromebooks for six months, so we are relatively new at doing this, and yet we have hundreds of schools buying Chromebooks. And it’s not like we have thousands of people out there selling. They are coming to us.

When you pitch to these schools that are also getting pitches from Apple or Microsoft, how are you differentiating Chromebooks from their products?

The key there is the teachers and students themselves. How to use the tools in the classroom and the benefit of the tools in the classroom is what sells Google Apps for Education. It’s not us talking to the schools; they are talking to each other. In terms of hardware, I don’t go in and say, “This is why you shouldn’t buy this [competitor’s product].” I talk about how you should make technology a tool in the classroom. We should be using technology to teach, not teaching technology. That kind of concept resonates well with educators.

Google has taken a lot of heat lately for its privacy policy [that states that activity across Google products is available to advertisers], and obviously when you are dealing with schoolchildren, it’s a very important and touchy subject. Have you done anything to assure these school districts that if they are using Google Apps, that the privacy of the student will still be protected?

That’s an important question. The Berkeley National Labs post is a great explainer for this. [This is a blog post from the U.S. Department of Energy office of science website.] I am not the privacy expert at Google. I tend to focus more on education.

Do you get questions about it, and how do you answer them?

I don’t get a lot of questions about it because usually when I’m working with schools, I’m working with folks who already get the concept and have bought into the models. The question has already been answered for them before I get to the classroom.

[At this point, Jessica Kositz, a Google spokeswoman, interjects.] Just to be clear, as we always have done, we have a separate contract with all of our enterprise customers [which includes education customers]. So that’s sort of separate.

[Mr. Casap resumes.] I don’t want to sidestep the issue, and there’s been a lot of information on it and I haven’t gotten through it all. When I get questions, I check on it with the right people to answer the question. There’s a lot of misconception out there, and I want to make sure we’re all on the same page.

[Jessica Kositz] The contract we have with each school that signs up for Google Apps or Chromebooks supersedes the privacy policy.

You mentioned low-income students—making sure everyone has access to a good education. What has been the reach of Google Apps and Chromebooks into low-income and minority school districts?

If you look at the digital divide, it’s getting worse and worse. We want Google tools to be used by all schools. What I’m excited about is all the different ways teachers are using our tools, not only in wealthy-income areas but in low-income areas.

There are very few school districts I come across that don’t have a fair percentage of students [receiving free or reduced-price meals] in the system. The programs for Google Apps and Chromebooks apply nicely for both areas. Let’s say in a school system you’ve done a survey, and you realize 90 percent of kids have access at home and 10 percent don’t. If you let the kids take the machines home, if they have the Wi-Fi-only machines, they might not be able to access the Web. Schools are getting Wi-Fi machines and creating lending libraries of the Wi-Fi-plus-3G machines.

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Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Google’s Jaime Casap Evangelizes on Education

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