A Critical Look at GAFE

I met with one of my colleagues this week and mentioned my plans to formulate an action plan to implement Google Apps for Education (GAFE) at a school I’m working with. She listened intently, but then quietly said, “I don’t think it’s a great idea for students to only use one platform, isn’t that what happens when you jump on the Google Apps for Education bandwagon?” I left that conversation wondering: Is there a right answer? Don’t all choices come with challenges and successes? How does a school make implementation decisions with all of these things in mind?

As I move forward in my examination of GAFE,  a suite of productivity applications that Google offers free to schools, I am going to look at the pros and cons and how those nuances might play a role in the adoption of this learning tool. With that being said, this is not a review of GAFE, it’s not a comparative list between GAFE and Microsoft. It’s a question of whether or not this specific tool can meet the specific needs of my faculty and students. In his article, Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, Seymour Papert argues that when evaluating a new tool, it’s not about the tool itself, but the cultural effect that tool has on the learning (1987). What learning goals are hoping to be met with the assistance of GAFE? After all, without the goals, the students, and the teachers, there is no need for the tool: “Using the computer not as a ‘thing in itself’ that may or may not deliver benefits, but as a material that can be appropriated to do better whatever you are doing (and which will not do anything if you are not!)” (Papert, 1987).

Like many emergent technologies with a plethora of early adopters, there is no shortage of positive literature regarding GAFE at your fingertips:

  • “No software to install, no hardware to buy!” (MediaAgility).
  • “Students and teachers are familiar with the tools outside of school, using them in a school setting comes as second nature to many” (EdSpire).
  • “Google Apps is a wonderful free resource for educators to create engaging lessons, activities and assessments” (Backupify).

One school even claims that Google has saved their school:

Not quite as readily accessible are those users, like my colleague, who express their trepidations of GAFE. Fortunately, those that have published their concerns have articulated their apprehension in a very clear and approachable way. Education blogger, Anya Kamenetz talked with several teachers who were a bit more cautious in jumping on the GAFE train (2014); some of those concerns included:

  • Emphasizing the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.
  • Opening opportunities for the commercialization of students.
  • Jeopardizing teacher and student privacy.

Kamenetz goes on to note that there are far more significant problems with not only GAFE, but the adoption of all educational technology: “Teachers and districts are being asked to make significant decisions about, and investments in, technology use without much help” (2014). It was also argued that tech companies don’t build products based on the technical, pedagogical and content needs of the classroom: “Rather than understand needs and build a holistic solution, Google has the ability to throw stuff out and see what happens” (Kamenetz, 2014).

How Do I Use This Information?

My next steps will be taking these two perspectives and determining what will help me formulate an action plan. There is not a cut and dry answer. There is not a ready-made solution. There is simply an examination of the unique challenges and the cultural shift that will (hopefully) happen upon implementation in order to address those concerns. As I move forward, my primary concern will be maintaining a pragmatic approach and adhering to the needs of the learners. Philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin argues that when authenticity is no longer at the heart of a critical eye, it looses its value and simply becomes a political hoop to be jumped through (1936). My job is to provide teachers and students with the best possible learning experiences, if that remains my focus, I can help to make the decisions that best fulfill those needs.


Benjamin, W. (1936).  Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction.  Illuminations, 219-226. http://www.berk-edu.com/VisualStudies/readingList/06b_benjamin-work%20of%20art%20in%20the%20age%20of%20mechanical%20reproduction.pdf

Kamenetz, A. (2014, August 28). What do schools risk by going ‘full Google’? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Mind/Shift website: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/08/28/what-do-schools-risk-by-going-full-google/

Kraaijenbrink, J. (2011, April 26). How Google saved a school [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xn9nSMypWxk

Papert, S. (1987).  Computer criticism vs. technocentric thinking.  Educational Researcher, 16(1)


4 thoughts on “A Critical Look at GAFE

  1. Becky, I commend you! You are asking the difficult questions and researching core pieces that lie beneath of the iceberg of implementing something such as GAFE. You are not in a fun position, but your intentionality will not go unnoticed and will provide students, parents, teachers, and administrators with a robust history of why you did or did not go with a specific solution. Simply put, companies who provide these services–especially when “free”–are not in the business of education, but in the business of technology commerce. While Google (and others) produce many apps and services that meet and even enhance the educational learning environments, we must ask–as you are–what do we sacrifice? Just this week in our #ed1to1 chat I tweeted something along these lines. I was inspired by Audrey Watters prophetic and, unfortunately, true revelation regarding educational technology. NOW! I am not saying we should go back to pen, paper, and such. But, you are well equipped to analyze this debate with your experience and education. I look forward to hearing more about how it goes. Thanks for asking the tough questions and allowing your colleague to send you down another path!

    This is the best quote:

    “We have convinced ourselves, for example, that we can trust Google with its mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I call “bullshit.” Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think much more critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.”

  2. I like this Becky -“With that being said, this is not a review of GAFE, it’s not a comparative list between GAFE and Microsoft. It’s a question of whether or not this specific tool can meet the specific needs of my faculty and students.” !! I think we (myself included!) get stuck in these debates and it is helpful to see you address it. You also mention it is important to think about the cultural shifts at play. Maybe these shifts aren’t one we should be scared of but comfortable playing with. Haven’t we already had huge cultural shifts in our personal lives with tech? Our students have already experienced this too. So, how do we find what is most important to the learning within the shift without resisting it because of concerns? Aren’t we poised to play a role in figuring this out alongside our students? I like that Ryan mentioned the concerns with privacy and the collection of personal information because I personally fear this and worry about it. As such, I want to be in an environment where it is being discussed and considered and grappled with, not avoided. Thanks for working through. We will all benefit from your exploration!

  3. Hi Becky, thank you so so much for your very thoughtful and open wrestling with GAFE and what that means for an *action plan*. I am glad you found Anya Kamanetz; she is probably the best education reporter right now, and her work is quite strong (when you have free time which is likely never, her books DIY U and The Test are must-reads in edu policy and happenings).

    Something to consider — the *ideal learning environment* is kind of your theoretical and foundational basis for an action plan. Our purpose in 6104 is not for you to walk away with an action plan, but to really have an understanding of the uniqueness of digital learning environments not merely as spaces of technology but as confluences of teaching, learning and technology. I say this because I do not want you in any way to stress about an action plan. Your process is evident, your effort is evident, your willingness to ask tough questions and consider the readings is impressive. Keep doing this. Trust the process. Our goal as instructors is to help here, not to mark up an action plan. When you are ready to move you will know it and we will be there to move with you. Until then, you are right on path with exactly what we see as the objectives of this course. Take your time in critiquing GAFE and what that means.

    To riff on Kamanetz & GAFE…the critique you pull is about Google as a massive solution; while some schools and districts are willing to raise high the roof beams in celebration of Google, there are problems in an approach to roll-out as Google proposes (think about how Classrooms has rolled out while you’ve been in this program) and what that means for those on the implementation side (admin to some extent, but that usually means teachers). It’s possible your ideal learning environment is open source integrated solutions, and at this point you have to run with GAFE because it’s what is out there but you recognize its limitations. So you could thus be providing a critique of GAFE in a way to advocate for something better (and is that critique political, technological, developmental, etc.). Perhaps your action plan is asking larger questions for others as baseline rather than focused on the schools you work with. That is beneficial too.

    With Benjamin, he celebrates the digital while also the tangible. I’m not sure how that fits with what you are saying, but you are wanting to keep integrity in what you do while working with GAFE which in no way is perfect. Your ideal thus might be illusory to some extent, but there is a test environment out there that rather than celebrating and going hog-wild over you are taking an earnest look at and providing criticism while looking at what it could do to better your situation. In this case, looking at it from 10K feet might be the best space for your action plan.

  4. You have asked some very thoughtful questions about Google Apps for Education. I appreciate the statement, “After all, without the goals, the students, and the teachers, there is no need for the tool: “Using the computer not as a ‘thing in itself’ that may or may not deliver benefits, but as a material that can be appropriated to do better whatever you are doing (and which will not do anything if you are not!)” (Papert, 1987). From my perspective, the goals are the most important piece- finding the tools that help meet the needs of students and teachers.
    As you know, technology is constantly changing and it’s a challenge to “keep up” with the changes. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our district uses GAFE and it was implemented last summer. Throughout the year, the technology dept. provided hour long sessions on how to use the Google applications and provided ideas on how to implement it in our classes. This summer, the technology dept. designed a Google training for teachers by using a camp theme. Teachers may earn “badges” and clock hours from the district’s Technology Camp by fulfilling the requirements for each activity. This is a unique learning experience for us because it’s online. The district has moved one step closer towards personalizing the learning for teachers!
    I look forward to reading the next phase of your project. Thanks for sharing, Becky!

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