The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect.Esther Dyson
There’s an idea from Austin Kleon about books that suck you in and books that spin you out. As I read his thoughts, I had the same about technology. Specifically, about all those wonderful tools categorized as “educational technology” that we use almost every day.
Put simply, there are technologies we used in schools that suck us in (centripetal) and technologies that spin us out (centrifugal). The centripetal technologies force us to come inside their walls and don’t really let us leave (with some exceptions). Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times not so much.
Let’s look at the Microsoft Office suite as an example of a centripetal technology. Throughout most of the lifespan of Office, it has sucked us in. I mean, really sucked us in. It didn’t play well with others but for any number of reasons we were forced to use Office tools. They were the big game in town.
Office didn’t play well with others. We had to live in the Microsoft world. For many of us, even now we still live within the confines of a Microsoft world as we use their authentication tools to sign into our accounts and access any number of services. Microsoft allowed other tools to connect with it (again, sucking us in) but didn’t really find ways for their tools to “spin you out” to something else.
Everything came back to Microsoft.
Which is where, I think, Google was able to gain such a large foothold in the education space. Google education tools (no, I’m not going to type the real name because they’ll change it again in six months) were made to spin you out to other tools. In the beginning, it was just a spin from one of their tools to another. But now, so many other things spin out and back from Google tools.
I think of Dropbox in the same way (yes, I’ve been a paying Dropbox customer since 2008). Dropbox didn’t care what device you worked on. They would happily spin you out to the device of your choice, provided you used their service. A service that works nearly flawlessly on any device you choose to access it.
I know, I know. You’re saying to yourself, “but those two examples are still sucking me back in!”
And you’re right. Which is what they best tools will do. They will allow you the freedom to choose what tools you want to work with them. They let you wander and explore. But they’re so good at what they do, they keep you coming back.
They’re used by so many other tools that you can’t help but come back for more. These are the tools that can connect us with others.
Ever tried to edit a file with other people in Microsoft’s OneDrive? Yep, it’s as bad as you think it would be.
Meanwhile, cooperatively editing files in Google Drive is pretty darn pain-free. They spin you out to spin you back in. Brilliant.
Of course, this is where things can get really dangerous. When we depend so heavily on one tool or suite of tools and then, without warning, things change. We’ve already seen Google increase the price of licenses and set up new tiered offerings for their education services that didn’t exist in the past. Let’s also mention that pricing for storage in Google Drive is going to change when there was previously an unlimited amount of storage for education accounts. This is the one that is most confusing for me as storage prices keep getting cheaper and storage capacities keep increasing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, our usage of these tools became almost necessary to keep students and teachers connected. With Chromebook purchases up to 29.6 million units in 2020 from 17 million units in 2019 and projections of some 40 million units to be sold in 2021, I wonder if we’re now dependent on these technologies to make our classrooms function.
So, what do we do about the technologies that spin us out to spin us back in?
As the old saying goes, everything in moderation. Technology isn’t the magic solution to all education woes. At the most basic level of usage, technology can make many tasks in education more efficient but that is a narrow perspective.
Technology can provide pathways for many students who do not have the same level of access as others. The Internet continues to be the great equalizer, provided we can do the right thing and provide the same level of access to every student every where, including at home.
It’s our job as educators to ensure equal access, purposeful usage, and to remember that our ultimate goal is not to serve the tech but to serve the students.