But of all the efforts made by tech companies to digitize the classroom, Google has built the biggest game-changer, said Ryan Carson, co-founder and CEO of Treehouse, a site that provides online classes for building websites and apps. While Google hasn't opened Classroom to third-party developers, Carson said it's the platform that has the best shot of creating an education app store on top of its own services, similar to the Play store on Android. More than 1 million Chromebooks were sold to schools in the second quarter of this year, according to Google, and Carson said he's seeing "school after school rely on it."
"They're going to be almost unstoppable, because they're willing to throw away so much money on Chrome OS and Chromebooks," said Carson, whose Portland, Oregon-based start-up currently serves over 86,000 students and companies. Though Carson has no knowledge of Google's strategy beyond what it's announced publicly, he sees the push as getting students signed on with Google credentials at the earliest possible age. "If that becomes central to your learning experience, they've got you."
Google is quick to point out that its approach is device agnostic. Classroom is designed to work just as well on iPads, Windows-powered gadgets and in any browser as it is on Chrome, said Zach Yeskel, product manager for Classroom, and a former high school math teacher. And within Classroom, teachers aren't restricted to just using Google's software. They can import files from programs like Microsoft Word and Excel as well as Adobe Acrobat.
"We tried to make it as generally applicable as possible," said Yeskel, who is based in Google's New York office along with the Classroom team. It was created to "work as well in kindergarten as in a special seminar in a college class."
Google says that seven of the eight Ivy League colleges use its education software, called Google Apps for Education, introduced about seven years ago to let schools utilize its small business programs for free while also blocking advertisers. Across all levels of education, that product now has more than 30 million users. Student accounts are provided by information technology departments at the district or school level, where devices are also registered and secured.
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Last year, Google piloted Classroom, the newest part of the education suite, with about 100 teachers, including those at Fontbonne, to get early feedback from educators and students. Since inviting a wider swath of teachers into a product preview in May, over 100,000 educators from more than 45 countries have signed up. Classroom takes the education tools Google already had and adds the ability to create and collect assignments, communicate directly with students and let them see what's due and when.
Heidi Bernasconi, a high school biology teacher, has been using Google's education apps for seven years and was part of last year's pilot for Classroom. Prior to the start of classes last week, Bernasconi trained 103 teachers at Clarkstown High School North in New City, New York, as the school prepares for a wider rollout.
Like Google, which has a well-known practice of encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their time on independent projects, Bernasconi has her own version of 20 percent time. In her Marine Biology class for seniors, she had students last year spend the equivalent of one day a week on a project tied to their desired career as long as it was related to the ocean.