(Bloomberg) -- One weekend in March, Javier Soltero, a Google vice president, got an email from his team in Europe. Italy’s Minister of Education needed to move the country’s entire school system online, right away, and wanted to know if Google’s software could handle it.
Soltero, who leads G Suite, Google’s set of productivity tools, called his technical staff. “Is this even something we can do?” he recalled thinking. Several sleepless days and nights later, millions of Italian kids were learning from home through Google services.
As the month wore on, Soltero’s division faced similar surges in country after country. Schools and universities across the globe have rushed online as the coronavirus shut down public life. Many turned to the world’s largest internet company.
“We have seen incredible growth,” Soltero said in a recent interview. “It actually mirrors, unfortunately, the ramp up and spread of the disease.”
Alphabet Inc.’s Google has jumped ahead of its big technology peers in the education market in recent years by giving away software and aggressively courting teachers. The pandemic is entrenching the tech giant even further. Google Classroom, a free service teachers use to send out assignments and communicate with students, has doubled active users to more than 100 million since the beginning of March. That’s boosting other products. Meet, a videoconferencing app is being used 25 times as much as it was in January, and the broader G Suite for Education offering has 120 million users, up from 90 million a year ago.
Google doesn’t charge most schools to use Classroom. The real prize is the millions of young people learning how to use its software. When those students enter the workforce, they’re likely to keep using paid versions, and encourage colleagues to adopt the tools, too.
Google Classroom was already popular in the U.S., but demand is now coming from places with few customers before the virus, such as Italy and Indonesia, according to Avni Shah, Google’s vice president for education. “All these places were really lighting up in the last month,” she said.
The company’s foothold in schools began around 2014. In the U.S., a new educational standard, called Common Core, was gaining steam and required online assessments. Google flooded schools with Chromebooks, laptops that run on the company’s Chrome operating system. They were cheaper than rival products from Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp., and came with pre-installed Google apps including Gmail, Docs, Slides and Drive. Last year, Google commanded 60% of the market for education computers in the U.S., according to consultant Futuresource.
Chromebooks were among the first in schools to connect to the cloud, making it easier for teachers and students to work and keep in touch from anywhere. That helped spread adoption, according to Mike Fisher, a Futuresource associate director.
Google Classroom, similarly, is taking off because it’s relatively simple to use and flexible. It competes with dozens of other learning-management systems including Canvas and Edmodo, which let schools upload and track coursework. Classroom syncs with those systems and integrates with other school apps, which, like Google’s, are now booming. And crucially, Google’s product is free, while most competitors charge money for premium features.
Makers of e-learning tools rely on portals like Classroom to get inside schools. Quizlet Inc., maker of software for studying, saw new signups jump as much as 400% in China and Italy as the coronavirus spread, said Chief Executive Officer Matthew Glotzbach. About 150 million of Quizlet’s study sessions last year came from Google Classroom, he noted.
Google’s offering is also intuitive. Teachers new to remote learning are usually able to upload assignments quickly and launch video calls with little fuss, according to Fisher. “That solution, for the situation we’re in, is perfect,” he said.
As schools around the world started closing over the first two weeks of March, Luke Craig, a teacher at Britannia Village Primary School in east London, saw what was coming. Craig and his colleagues used Google Sites, a web page-building tool, to set up a hub for their school and started practicing running classes through Google Classroom. A few days later, schools across the U.K. shut down.
Now, Craig’s first-grade students open their Chromebooks and log into Google accounts for lessons. The Google Sites page lays out the plan for the day, and, depending on the subject, they use a variety of apps made by different companies, including Microsoft. Google Classroom is the central hub, allowing students to submit assignments and teachers to track progress. Another Google product, Jamboard, lets teachers create interactive lessons. Some of the kids, as young as 6 years old, have become so proficient they’re making their own videos detailing their assignments, Craig said.
Google has experienced some problems bringing millions of students online so quickly. When schools first jumped on its Meet video-conferencing service, some kids figured out they could boot other participants from a call.
“Students were kicking the teachers out and carrying on,” Craig said. Google heard the complaints, and fixed the issue quickly. The company has been rapidly building new features, thanks to hundreds of employees who volunteered to help the education team when the coronavirus started spreading widely, Shah said.
Craig also warned that students who don’t have as much support from parents, or access to computers and the internet, could fall behind. “Without the face-to-face contact, it’s likely some kids will slip through the cracks,” he said.
Google recently pledged to provide internet connections to as many as 100,000 households in California and distribute 4,000 Chromebooks to kids in need. That’s nowhere near enough resources to fill a growing digital divide in education, and doesn’t help Craig’s students in East London.
In Italy, Google partnered with telecommunications companies so students can use a regular phone line to at least listen in to video conference calls with their teachers. The company designs its apps to work on cheap smartphones and to be used without a wireless connection, Shah said.
There are also privacy concerns with so many more children getting online. In February, New Mexico’s attorney general sued Google, claiming the company was breaking child privacy laws by collecting data on students. When kids merge their school Google accounts with their personal ones, data could be synced and logged by Google for commercial purposes, the lawsuit argued. Google disputed the claims. A spokesperson for the company said it never uses student data to target ads, even after kids graduate and become adults.
But it’s unlikely privacy concerns will hobble Google’s success during this crisis. Most school districts are desperate to get any online system up and running, ignoring some standard protocols for vetting services, said Douglas Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting company. “Those have been thrown out the window for expediency’s sake,” he said.
Google may even benefit from the privacy failures of other companies. Zoom Video Communications Inc., maker of a suddenly popular video chat service, is now seeing some schools drop it after internet trolls started interrupting online meetings and broadcasting offensive content to participants.
Craig has been spending the hours in between classes helping other schools get online. He’s one of thousands of teachers certified by Google to train others how to use the company’s software. The certification program has been a keystone of Google’s expansion, netting the company a group of people who use its products and encourage others to do the same.
When schools finally re-open, the education world will be very different. Tech holdouts who resisted internet-based products like Google Classroom will have been forced to use them and adapt. Many schools without a home-learning system will have one. Students lucky enough to have internet at home will have months of experience learning online.
“All those technology-phobic people will be no more. They will not go back to their pencil and paper,” said Melissa Matthews, a technology program specialist for the school district of Palm Beach County in Florida. “I don’t foresee Google Classroom getting any fewer users come August when everyone goes back to school.”