Using Digital Tools in the Music Classroom


Apps and tools are changing the way students learn to play an instrument, but there’s no getting around the need for lots of practice.

©Caia Images/500px

At the beginning of a recent band class, students took out their phones to use them as tuners, and then put them away. A director started to rehearse a new piece of music, and I saw a trombone player in the back of the ensemble with his phone still in use on his music stand.

I walked over, thinking through the exact variation of the phrase “What on God’s green earth are you doing?” that I’d use, but just before I opened my mouth I looked at his screen. He had searched online and found the conductor’s score for the piece of music we were reading—this score shows all the musicians’ parts, not just one instrument—and he was following along and taking notes on what occurred in his rests. He was able to see that the clarinets played two measures before he did, so he didn’t miss his entrance.

This was a great moment both for the student, who had enhanced his own learning through the self-directed technology integration, and for me, as I got to see another use for technology in the music classroom.


In some ways, what we do in music classes is cutting edge: Differentiation, interactive learning, student-generated content, and performance-based and project-based learning were all standard parts of the music experience for students long before they were identified by researchers as best practices. The push in education for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programs and makerspaces speaks to the increasing realization of the positive impact these practices have on student learning.

These practices can be augmented with the treasure trove of cool technologies available today; my students can connect with artists all over the country for a masterclass using Skype, write music for class on free notation programs like MuseScore and Noteflight, create their own playlists of listening examples for a piece of music on Spotify and YouTube, and work collaboratively on music projects through Google Suite’s Flat extension. Flat has a ton of potential: It can link to Google Classroom and allows kids to turn in assignments and work with you and their peers on creating or editing music. The downside is that it’s a paid subscription program.

Courtesy of MuseScore

MuseScore is one of many apps that are changing music instruction.

Yet in other ways, music classrooms are dinosaurs. Learning to play an instrument has periods of physical and mental tedium, and success has no shortcuts—students must invest their time. Finding ways to help students take the arduous but necessary steps to succeed—i.e., getting lots of practice—is tough. I can encourage them to practice their long tones and scales, but at what point do they take ownership of those fundamental skill-building exercises and really make them their own?

Some of my kids are finding ways to do just that: They practice together through FaceTime, play along with computer music programs like SmartMusic, and create backing tracks on Garage Band. Some have even started scheduling practice time through Google Calendar and have sent me recordings through the Google Classroom we’ve set up.


Where I struggle with including technology is in getting students to realize that the three minutes spent setting up their instrument, two minutes signing on to the computer, five minutes listening to themselves on these applications, and the inevitable 10 minutes they divert into Facebook do not count as practice time.

I’m finding that the combination of cutting-edge pedagogical practices and the time-honored tedium of physical skill learning is increasingly difficult to navigate. The importance of what we teach resides in the process: Students who understand how to reverse-engineer a problem to create a working solution will find success in other avenues of life. I’m still figuring out how to use these educational technology tools to connect my kids with the act of learning, which is ostensibly the goal of an education.

I have no idea what the world will look like in five years, let alone 50. I don’t know what technology will be in vogue then and what songs will be hip. But I do know that helping my students engage meaningfully with the world around them is lasting. Teaching this engagement in today’s classroom has to include digital media because it is the conduit through which students are prepared to receive information, and their ownership of content is what will make life lessons stick.


iPhones and Children Are a Toxic Pair, Say Two Big Apple Investors

The Wall Street Journal

Two activist shareholders want Apple to develop tools and research effects on young people of smartphone overuse and addiction

Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1.
Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

The iPhone has made Apple Inc. AAPL 1.03% and Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars. Now some big shareholders are asking at what cost, in an unusual campaign to make the company more socially responsible.

A leading activist investor and a pension fund are saying the smartphone maker needs to respond to what some see as a growing public-health crisis of youth phone addiction.

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares, sent a letter to Apple on Saturday urging it to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

The Apple push is a preamble to a new several-billion-dollar fund Jana is seeking to raise this year to target companies it believes can be better corporate citizens. It is the first instance of a big Wall Street activist seeking to profit from the kind of social-responsibility campaign typically associated with a small fringe of investors.

Adding splash, rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, will be on an advisory board along with Sister Patricia A. Daly, a nun who successfully fought Exxon Mobil Corp. over environmental disclosures, and Robert Eccles, an expert on sustainable investing.

The Apple campaign would be unusual for an activist like Jana, which normally urges companies to make financial changes. But the investors believe that Apple’s highflying stock could be hurt in coming decades if it faces a backlash and that proactive moves could generate goodwill and keep consumers loyal to Apple brands.

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” the shareholders wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”

Obsessive teenage smartphone usage has sparked a debate among academics, parents and even the people who helped create the iPhone.

Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017.
Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017. PHOTO: ROBERT ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Some have raised concerns about increased rates in teen depression and suicide and worry that phones are replacing old-fashioned human interaction. It is part of a broader re-evaluation of the effects on society of technology companies such as Google and Inc.and social-media companies like Facebook Inc. and Snap chat owner Snap Inc., which are facing questions about their reach into everyday life.

Apple hasn’t offered any public guidance to parents on how to manage children’s smartphone use or taken a position on at what age they should begin using iPhones.

Apple and its rivals point to features that give parents some measure of control. Apple, for instance, gives parents the ability to choose which apps, content and services their children can access.

The basic idea behind socially responsible investing is that good corporate citizenship can also be good business. Big investors and banks, including TPG, UBS Group AG and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.are making bets on socially responsible companies, boosting what they see as good actors and avoiding bad ones.

How the iPhone Was Born: Inside Stories of Missteps and Triumphs
On the iPhone’s 10th birthday, former Apple executives Scott Forstall, Tony Fadell and Greg Christie recount the arduous process of turning Steve Jobs’s vision into one of the best-selling products ever made. (Originally published June 25, 2017)

Big-name activists increasingly view bad environmental, social or governance policies as red flags. Jana plans to go further, putting its typical tools to work to drive change that may not immediately pay off.

Apple is an ambitious first target: The combined Jana-Calstrs stake is relatively small given Apple’s nearly $900 billion market value. Still, in recent years Apple has twice faced activists demanding it pare its cash holdings, and both times the company ceded some ground.


Chief Executive Tim Cook has led Apple’s efforts to be a more socially responsible company, for instance on environmental and immigration issues, and said in an interview with the New York Times last year that Apple has a “moral responsibility” to help the U.S. economy.

Apple has shown willingness to use software to address potentially negative consequences of phone usage. Amid rising concerns about distracted driving, the company last year updated its software with a “do not disturb while driving” feature, which enables the iPhone to detect when someone is behind the wheel and automatically silence notifications.

The iPhone is the backbone of a business that generated $48.35 billion in profit in fiscal 2017. It helped turn Apple into the world’s largest publicly listed company by market value, and anticipation of strong sales of its latest model, the iPhone X, helped its stock rise 50% in the past year. Apple phones made up 43% of U.S. smartphones in use in 2016, according to comScore , and an estimated 86 million Americans over age 13 own an iPhone.

Jana and Calstrs are working with Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, who chronicled the problem of what she has dubbed the “iGen” in a book that was previewed in a widely discussed article in the Atlantic magazine last fall, and with Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, known as “the mediatrician” for his work on the impact of media on children.

The investors believe both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act. They point to research from Ms. Twenge and others about a “growing body of evidence” of “unintentional negative side effects,” including studies showing concerns from teachers. That is one reason Calstrs was eager to support the campaign, according to the letter.

The group wants Apple to help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response—before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act.

The investors say Apple should make it easier and more intuitive for parents to set up usage limits, which could head off any future moves to proscribe smartphones.

The question is “How can we apply the same kind of public-health science to this that we do to, say, nutrition?” Dr. Rich said in an interview. “We aren’t going to tell you never go to Mickey D’s, but we are going to tell you what a Big Mac will do and what broccoli will do.”

(We’d like to hear from you: Is smartphone addiction among young people a public-health concern? Should companies like Apple be held responsible for tackling the issue? Email us at with your comments.)

Write to David Benoit at


Think Differently About Kids

January 6, 2018

Board of Directors
Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, California 95014

Ladies & Gentlemen,

JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (“we” or “us”) collectively own approximately $2 billion in value of shares of Apple Inc. (“Apple” or “you”).  As shareholders, we recognize your unique role in the history of innovation and the fact that Apple is one of the most valuable brand names in the world.  In partnership with experts including Dr. Michael Rich, founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Professor Jean M. Twenge, psychologist at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.  By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.  As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.  In fact, we believe that addressing this issue now will enhance long-term value for all shareholders, by creating more choices and options for your customers today and helping to protect the next generation of leaders, innovators, and customers tomorrow.

More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences:

  • A study conducted recently by the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta found that 67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased. In the past 3 to 5 years since personal technologies have entered the classroom, 90% stated that the number of students with emotional challenges has increased and 86% said the number with social challenges has increased.  One junior high teacher noted that, “I see youth who used to go outside at lunch break and engage in physical activity and socialization.  Today, many of our students sit all lunch hour and play on their personal devices.”[i]
  • Professor Twenge’s research shows that U.S. teenagers who spend 3 hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely, and those who spend 5 hours or more are 71% more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.[ii]
  • This research also shows that 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk.  Experiencing depression as a teenager significantly increases the risk of becoming depressed again later in life.[iii]
  • Also, teens who spend 5 or more hours a day (versus less than 1) on electronic devices are 51% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep (versus the recommended 9).  Sleep deprivation is linked to long-term issues like weight gain and high blood pressure.[iv]
  • A study by UCLA researchers showed that after 5 days at a device-free outdoor camp, children performed far better on tests for empathy than a control group.[v]
  • According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey of over 3,500 U.S. parents, 58% say they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health, 48% say that regulating their child’s screen time is a “constant battle,” and 58% say they feel like their child is “attached” to their phone or tablet.[vi]

Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children.  These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point.  The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10vii and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking).viii  78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones.ix It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.  It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.x  According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.  Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.

To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach.  While expert opinions vary on this issue, there appears to be a developing consensus that the goal for parents should be ensuring the developmentally optimal amount and type of access, particularly given the educational benefits mobile devices can offer.  For example, Professor Twenge’s research cited above has revealed peak mental health levels among teenagers who use devices 1 hour or less a day, with teens engaging in this limited use happier than teens who do not use devices at all.  According to a study of more than 10,000 North American parents conducted by researcher Alexandra Samuel, the children of parents who focus primarily on denying screen access are more likely to engage in problematic behaviors online than the children of parents who take an active role in guiding their technology usage.xi  Likewise, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health have found that while using a high number of social media platforms daily is linked to depression and anxiety in young adults, using a limited number does not have the same impact.xii

While these studies (and common sense) would suggest a balanced approach, we note that Apple’s current limited set of parental controls in fact dictate a more binary, all or nothing approach, with parental options limited largely to shutting down or allowing full access to various tools and functions.  While there are apps that offer more options, there are a dizzying array of them (which often leads people to make no choice at all), it is not clear what research has gone into developing them, few if any offer the full array of options that the research would suggest, and they are clearly no substitute for Apple putting these choices front and center for parents.  As Apple understands better than any company, technology is best when it is intuitive and easy to use.  More importantly, technology will continue to evolve as time goes on and play a greater and greater role in all of our lives.  There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility to an app designer, or more accurately to hundreds of app designers, none of whom have critical mass.

This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:

  • Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
  • Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
  • New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users.  For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
  • Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
  • Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.

It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products.  However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology,xiii which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above.  In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse,xiv and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.  As one of the most innovative companies in the history of technology, Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do.  Doing so poses no threat to Apple, given that this is a software (not hardware) issue and that, unlike many other technology companies, Apple’s business model is not predicated on excessive use of your products. In fact, we believe addressing this issue now by offering parents more tools and choices could enhance Apple’s business and increase demand for its products.

Increasingly today the gap between “short-term” and “long-term” thinking is narrowing, on issues like public health, human capital management, environmental protection, and more, and companies pursuing business practices that make short-term sense may be undermining their own long-term viability. In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked, and thus the only difference between the changes we are advocating at Apple now and the type of change shareholders are better known for advocating is the time period over which they will enhance and protect value. As you can imagine, this is a matter of particular concern for CalSTRS’ beneficiaries, the teachers of California, who care deeply about the health and welfare of the children in their classrooms.

While you may already have started work on addressing the issues raised here, we would nonetheless appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter further with the board to bring in a wider range of voices. We also encourage you to discuss this matter directly with Dr. Rich, Professor Twenge, or any member of JANA’s board of advisors for our new impact investing fund, which includes Patricia A. Daly, OP, Professor Robert G. Eccles, Sting, and Trudie Styler. In the meantime, should you wish to contact us we can be reached at (212) 455-0900 or (916) 414-7410.


Barry Rosenstein
Managing Partner
JANA Partners LLC

Anne Sheehan
Director of Corporate Governance
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System

The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students

 December 20, 2017

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.

This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country.  It was written by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” She also serves on the Mozilla Foundation board of directors,  and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.

By Cathy N. Davidson

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.



By Matt Simon

HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.

The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.

There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.


Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”

So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.

Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”

There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.

Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”

Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”

Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Next Phase of the Maker Movement? Building Startups


The Next Phase of the Maker Movement? Building Startups
Zainab Oni, speaking at the Mouse 20th-anniversary event

“Everything that is old is new again!” Daniel Rabuzzi exclaims, his eyes light up with excitement that seems to match the glowing, handcrafted flower pinned on his vest. He’s talking about the next wave of the Maker Movement, big news buzzing amongst makers in the inner circle.

Rabuzzi is the executive director of Mouse, a national nonprofit that encourages students to create with technology. The organization, now celebrating 20 years in operation, is part of the worldwide Maker Movement, encouraging students to get creative (and messy) when using technology to build things. Rabuzzi calls his work at Mouse “shop and home economics for the 21st century,” and his students “digital blacksmiths.”

Mouse students showcasing green energy ideas

Rabuzzi, like many experts within the Maker Movement, believes the heavy emphasis on standardized testing in schools, which has pushed the arts, shop and home economics into the shadows, is what spurred outside groups like Mouse to begin hosting alternative makerspaces for students. Throughout the years, Rabuzzi has seen the movement evolve. Most recently, he’s seen technology become more directly integrated with making, along with an uptick of women in leadership.

“It can’t just be the boys tinkering in the basement anymore,” says Rabuzzi, pointing to women in maker leadership, like littleBits founder Ayah Bdeir, who encouraged more young girls to enter the space.

Now Rabuzzi, along with makers, investors, and journalists, are buzzing about what they describe as the next wave of making: the Maker economy, which many believe will transform manufacturing the United States by integrating with the Internet of Things (IOT), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“There is all this talk about bringing back manufacturing to America, and I feel like this is going to come back on a local level,” says Juan Garzon, former Mouse student, who started his hardware company. He believes that personalized goods designed and manufactured by Makers through mediums like 3D printing will drive the return of domestic manufacturing.

“The future of manufacturing is not a big plant, but someone designing what they want and developing custom made things. It sounds so sci-fi, but it is within my lifetime,” continues Garzon.

News reports from Chicago Inno show that custom manufacturing designed by makers might be an active part of the domestic economy sooner than Garzon realizes. Inno reports that several Maker-entrepreneur spaces are popping up in the city with hopes to develop places where creators can build scalable products to be manufactured, creating new businesses.

Audience members viewing Mouse student’s VR projects

For many, talk of 3D printing and merging Making with AI are bleeding edge topics, far away from today’s realities. But for technologists supporting Mouse, this the world they want to prepare students to be a part of.

Mouse students at the 20th-anniversary party are already getting started. At the event, some students proudly showed off projects they designed in 3D spaces that can be viewed and altered in virtual reality. Many of the projects students worked on required a mixture of creativity, technical skills and awareness of the societal needs. Displays showcasing green energy projects along with digitalized wearable technology for persons with disabilities were all throughout the room. Still, Rabuzzi imagines more.

He hopes that through making, students can test the limits of new technologies and do good for the society. “How do we use Alexa and Siri in the Maker Movement?” Rabuzzi wonders aloud. He describes his idea of using AI to support students in designing, prototyping and creating new learning pathways in future, but admits that he doesn’t have the funding or technology for such ambitious projects now. He hopes that some of Mouse’s corporate funding partners are interested in supporting the endeavors.

“We are preparing today’s young people for a cyber future,” he explains. “In the old days if you had a clever idea you had to go into a big company to get it done. Now you can make it yourself.”

How Google Took Over The Classroom

Cover Photo

Students at Newton Bateman Elementary School in Chicago use Google-powered laptops and Google education apps for classwork. More than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps, the company says. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

CHICAGO — The sixth graders at Newton Bateman, a public elementary school here with a classic red brick facade, know the Google drill.

In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, and began composing essays.

Looking up from her laptop, Masuma Khan, then 11 years old, said her essay explored how schooling in ancient Athens differed from her own. “Back then, they had wooden tablets and they had to take all of their notes on it,” she said. “Nowadays, we can just do it in Google Docs.”

Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the United States, with about 381,000 students, is at the forefront of a profound shift in American education: the Googlification of the classroom.

In the space of just five years, 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. And it has outmaneuvered Apple and Microsoft with a powerful combination of low-cost laptops, called Chromebooks, and free classroom apps.

Today, more than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.

“Between the fall of 2012 and now, Google went from an interesting possibility to the dominant way that schools around the country” teach students to find information, create documents and turn them in, said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”


Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, decided in 2012 to adopt Google’s platform. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

In doing so, Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.

The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.

Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable.

Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so. This month, for instance, Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo., sent out a notice urging seniors to “make sure” they convert their school account “to a personal Gmail account.”

That doesn’t sit well with some parents. They warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.

“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”

Mr. Rochelle of Google said that when students transfer their school emails and files to a personal Google account, that account is governed by Google’s privacy policy. “Personal Gmail accounts may serve ads,” he said, but files in Google Drive are “never scanned for the purpose of showing ads.”

Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.

Google captured these next-generation users so quickly by outpacing its rivals in both educational product development and marketing.

In 2013, while other tech firms seemed largely content to sell their existing consumer and business offerings to schools, Mr. Rochelle, a co-developer of Google Docs, set up a team at Google to create apps specifically for schools.

SLIDE SHOW|10 Photos

At School With Google

At School With Google

CreditSasha Maslov for The New York Times

To spread those tools, Jaime Casap, Google’s global education evangelist, began traveling around the country with a motivational message: Rather than tout specific Google products, Mr. Casap told educators that they could improve their students’ college and career prospects by creatively using online tools.

“Teachers really helped to drive adoption of Google in the classroom, while Apple and Microsoft continued to leverage traditional sales channels,” said Phillip DiBartolo, the chief information officer of Chicago Public Schools.

But that also caused problems in Chicago and another district when Google went looking for teachers to try a new app — effectively bypassing district administrators. In both cases, Google found itself reined in.

Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data. Questions about how Google might use data gleaned from students’ online activities have dogged the company for years.

“Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid,” said Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group, who vets the security and privacy of classroom apps.

Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.”

Mr. Bout said that student data in Google’s core education services (including Gmail, Calendar and Docs) “is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email.” These services do not show ads, he said, and “do not use personal data resulting from use of these services to target ads.”

Some parents, school administrators and privacy advocates believe that’s not enough. They say Google should be more forthcoming about the details it collects about students, why it collects them and how it uses them.

“If my daughter came home and logged on to Google Docs on my computer at home, they’ll know it was now coming from this address,” said Mr. Barsotti, the Chicago-area project manager. “If this is truly for educational purposes, what is their business model and why do they need to collect that?”

A Campus Marketing Machine

Mr. Casap, the Google education evangelist, likes to recount Google’s emergence as an education powerhouse as a story of lucky coincidences. The first occurred in 2006 when the company hired him to develop new business at its office on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Mr. Casap quickly persuaded university officials to scrap their costly internal email service (an unusual move at the time) and replace it with a free version of the Gmail-and-Docs package that Google had been selling to companies. In one semester, the vast majority of the university’s approximately 65,000 students signed up.


When Google’s education strategy proved successful at the college level, Jaime Casap, the company’s global education evangelist, decided to apply it to public schools. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

And a new Google business was born.

Mr. Casap then invited university officials on a road show to share their success story with other schools. “It caused a firestorm,” Mr. Casap said. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and many others followed.

This became Google’s education marketing playbook: Woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.

The strategy proved so successful in higher education that Mr. Casap decided to try it with public schools.

As it happened, officials at the Oregon Department of Education were looking to help local schools cut their email costs, said Steve Nelson, a former department official. In 2010, the state officially made Google’s education apps available to its school districts.

“That caused the same kind of cascade,” Mr. Casap said. School districts around the country began contacting him, and he referred them to Mr. Nelson, who related Oregon’s experience with Google’s apps.

By then, Google was developing a growth strategy aimed at teachers — the gatekeepers to the classroom — who could influence the administrators who make technology decisions. “The driving force tends to be the pedagogical side,” Mr. Bout, the Google education executive, said. “That is something we really embraced.”

Google set up dozens of online communities, called Google Educator Groups, where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech. It started training programs with names like Certified Innovator to credential teachers who wanted to establish their expertise in Google’s tools or teach their peers to use them.

Soon, teachers began to talk up Google on social media and in sessions at education technology conferences. And Google became a more visible exhibitor and sponsor at such events. Google also encouraged school districts that had adopted its tools to hold “leadership symposiums” where administrators could share their experiences with neighboring districts.


Jonathan Rochelle (with glasses), director of Google’s education-apps group, at a party the company gave for teachers attending an education technology conference last summer.CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.

“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”

Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.

“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”

Dethroning Microsoft

At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.

In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.

“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.

Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.

Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.

A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.

Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.

Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and the values of a major school district.

In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.

Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”

Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.

Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.


Bram Bout, the director of Google’s education unit. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.

Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.

Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He did not earn a fee for the blog post, he said.)

“We were always enthusiastic to tell the Google story,” Mr. Tidmarsh said. “I would like to think dozens of school districts switched, based on our success.”

Ms. Magiera, now the chief innovation officer for another district, also helped Google’s cause. In 2012, as part of her effort to become a Google Certified Innovator in education, she said, she came up with the idea of having Chicago Public Schools hold a free conference — called Googlepalooza — to train teachers on Google’s tools. The annual event, co-sponsored by Google, now draws several thousand educators from the Chicago area, as well as a few from neighboring states.

(Ms. Magiera has since occasionally worked as a paid speaker for education technology organizations that train teachers on Google’s tools.)

“You can see it radiate out from certain geographic hubs, and that is very deliberate,” Mr. Bout said of Google’s growth strategy for education. “We are taking a very geographic approach because we know it works.”

Chromebooks Find an Audience

By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.

Although Google had a business audience in mind for Chromebooks, reviewers complained that the devices were of limited use without internet access.

But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet Mr. Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.

Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.

In the audience, Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., was converted. Students in his blue-collar district near O’Hare International Airport faced similar struggles. On the spot, Mr. Markey said, he abandoned his previous plans to buy Microsoft Windows laptops for 3,500 high school students. Now he wanted Chromebooks for them instead.

“I went up to Jaime immediately after the presentation and said, ‘Are you guys ready to ship these?’” Mr. Markey said.

Then Mr. Markey went back to his district to inform administrators and teachers that he wanted to order an unproven device that most of them had never heard of. “It was a tough announcement to make,” he conceded.

It was an opportune moment for Google to pitch lower-cost laptops to schools. Districts administering new online standardized tests needed laptops for students to take them on. And Google offered a robust way for school districts to manage thousands of computers online: They could lock Chromebooks remotely so that students could not search the web during tests, or disable missing ones.

Another attraction: The Chromebook’s cloud-storage approach made sharing among students easier. They could gain access to their documents no matter which Chromebook they used.

“That is one of the big reasons we took off in education,” said Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running.”

The Chromebook’s price and usability fit neatly into Mr. Casap’s argument that, for students, access to technology was an issue of fairness. “I didn’t want us to be vendors in the space,” he said of Google’s education philosophy in an interview last year at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Tex. “I wanted us to be thought leaders, to have a point of view.”

As he spoke, a group of students trooped past wearing purple superhero capes emblazoned with the logo for Microsoft OneNote, a rival classroom service. Spotting the capes, Mr. Casap said, “We don’t do things like that.” He added dryly, “I love gimmicks.”

Some critics, though, 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.

“It centers learning on technology, not students,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the learning app analyst. “It is a very narrow lens on equity that leaves out things like student-teacher ratios.”

(Mr. Casap said he would not advise school districts with deficiencies in areas like teaching or student support services to invest first in classroom technology.)

Mr. Markey, the East Leyden High School principal, had another equity concern. About 20 percent of his students lacked home internet access, he said. How would they do their homework on a Chromebook, which required a connection?


A student at Newton Bateman Elementary in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.

Soon, so many educators were visiting Leyden to see its technology setup that the school district started an annual conference to host them. Last summer, Mr. Casap gave the keynote address. And Mr. Markey now occasionally works as a paid speaker for EdTechTeam, a company that holds Google boot camps for teachers.

In 2016, Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States, up from less than 1 percent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, the research firm. Google does not make money directly from Chromebooks — which are manufactured by Samsung, Acer and other companies — but it does charge school districts a management service fee of $30 per device. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks.

“I don’t think I can ever remember when a specific device and platform has taken off so quickly across different kinds of schools,” said David Andrade, a K-12 education strategist at CDW-G, a leading Chromebook dealer.

A ‘Mission Control’ App

In 2014, Google’s education juggernaut hit a speed bump in Chicago Public Schools. The culture clash illuminated profound differences between Google, a build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later Silicon Valley company, and a large, bureaucratic school district with student-protection rules to uphold.

Google had hoped that Chicago would become an early adopter of Google Classroom, its new app to help teachers take attendance, assign homework and do other tasks. In August 2014, a Google team flew to Chicago to demo Classroom at Googlepalooza, the school district’s annual teacher conference.

But Google had not anticipated Margaret Hahn.


Margaret Hahn, former director of technology change management for Chicago Public Schools, oversaw the district’s yearlong pilot test of Google’s Classroom app.CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

At the time, she was the school system’s director of technology change management. Early on, she said, Google had invited teachers to try an initial version of Classroom, without first contacting the school district’s technology administrators — effectively making a district policy decision from the outside. Now Google wanted Chicago Public Schools to switch on the app districtwide, she said, before determining whether it complied with local student-protection policies.

“You can’t just hand out product and hope it will work in the classroom,” Ms. Hahn said. “You have to work with the districts to make sure that you are keeping the kids and the teachers safe.”

Jim Siegl, technology architect for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 10th-largest school district, reported a similar experience.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

Mr. Siegl added that Google did not tell him which, or even how many, Fairfax teachers the company had enlisted to try out the Classroom app. And by the time he was able to shut off the app, Mr. Siegl said, teachers had already set up virtual classrooms on the service and started using it with their students.

He said he complained to Google.

“Because of who they are and how sprawling the ecosystem is,” Mr. Siegl said, “they are held up and need to meet a higher standard than any other vendor schools deal with.”

In an emailed statement, Mr. Bout said of the company’s core education services, “In all cases, the use of these services is tied to the approval of an administrator who is responsible for overseeing a school’s domain.”

Classroom was the brainchild of Mr. Rochelle, who started Google’s education apps group, and Zach Yeskel, a Google product manager and former high school math teacher. They said they envisioned the app as a kind of “mission control” dashboard where teachers could more efficiently manage tasks like assigning and correcting homework, freeing teachers to spend more time with students. To create the app, they collaborated closely with teachers.

In May 2014, Google posted an announcement online, asking for volunteers to beta-test Classroom. More than 100,000 teachers worldwide responded, the company said, illustrating Google’s power to rapidly stoke demand among educators. That August, Google made Classroom available to schools.

“They developed a real momentum with teachers,” said Mr. Fisher of Futuresource Consulting. “Google Classroom was key to that.”

That was too fast for Chicago Public Schools.

Administrators there wanted to test Classroom first to make sure it complied with district policies and fit their teachers’ needs. So they set up a pilot program, involving about 275 teachers and several thousand students, to run for the entire school year. Every month, Ms. Hahn said, she collected teachers’ feedback and sent it to Google.

“We wanted to help them do it right,” Ms. Hahn said.

One immediate problem administrators identified: School board policy required employees to keep records of cyberbullying and other problematic comments. But Classroom initially did not do that. If a student wrote something offensive and a teacher deleted it, there was no archive.

“It took us a long time to get them to do it,” Ms. Hahn said. She added, “Unfortunately, there were things that a district of our size needed that Google did not understand.”

Google eventually added an archiving feature. The next fall, the Chicago district switched on Classroom. Teachers there later vetted other Google products, effectively becoming a test lab for the company. “We have said to Google many times, ‘If it works in Chicago, it will work anywhere,’” Ms. Hahn said.

Mr. Bout of Google agreed, saying that Chicago Public Schools often made more stringent demands on Google than other school districts did.

“If you can get it in Chicago, it’s sort of like you have passed a lot of tests,” Mr. Bout said, “and then you can probably get it into any school in the country.”


At an education technology conference last summer, a student tried out Google’s virtual-reality field-trip app — software that Chicago Public Schools helped to test. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

The relationship has benefited Chicago Public Schools, too.

In 2015, the district was reeling from a scandal: The Justice Department charged the Chicago Public Schools former chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett with steering more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to two school vendors in exchange for kickbacks. Ms. Byrd-Bennett later pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced in April to four and a half years in prison.

The fact that Chicago schools were vetting Google products, like the Classroom app, gave administrators a welcome counternarrative of the district’s altruistically helping Google debug its products for schools across the country. And it remains a good story even as the district now faces a financial crisis.

Today, about 15 million primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Classroom, Google said.

Google’s ability to test its products on such a monumental scale has stoked concerns about whether the tech giant is exploiting public-school teachers and students for free labor. “It’s a private company very creatively using public resources — in this instance, teachers’ time and expertise — to build new markets at low cost,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Rochelle, the Google executive, said that it was important for the company to have large, diverse sets of educational users giving feedback — otherwise it might develop products that worked for only a few of them.

“Our goal is to build products that help educators and students,” Mr. Rochelle said. “Teachers tell us they appreciate the opportunity to get involved early and help shape our products to meet their needs.”

Ms. Hahn, who now works for the same health care company as Mr. Tidmarsh, agrees. She said that schools were getting something substantive in return from Google, something they had rarely received from other tech companies: quick product improvements that responded to teachers’ feedback.

After the Chicago schools tested Classroom, she said, members of Google’s education team started directly contacting her when they were seeking educators to try out the company’s innovations. “They no longer just turn stuff on,” she said. “They come to us first.”