Coronavirus

These former Google employees reunited to help families figure out distance learning during lockdown

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Key Points
  • Several ex-Google employees spoke to CNBC about reuniting with each other to help families conduct remote learning amid school closures.
  • One of them, Jonathan Rochelle, spent more than a decade at the company, where he led some of the company's education efforts.
  • In true Google fashion, the ex-Google employees have been fielding deeper questions about the future of education.
Ex-Google executive Jonathan Rochelle jumped into action to help families with Google's classroom products he helped create.

Jonathan Rochelle has been fielding questions from parents wondering how to help educate their kids from home, helping them with Google's education products and talking with Google staff about how to make their products better for remote learning.

But he doesn't work at Google. He left his job running Google's education efforts eight months ago to become chief product officer at task automation company Zapier.

Since Covid-19 hit, he's spent the majority of time observing his own kids' learning practices and helping others trying to navigate the change.

"Parents and teachers were and still are struggling to teach this new world," Rochelle told CNBC in a phone interview. "They weren't given any time. They were just told, 'Tomorrow, you will not be teaching the way you've been teaching for the last 10 years.'"

As soon as the shelter-in-place mandates came down, Rochelle connected with Christopher Fong, another former employee. The two first met after Google bought Rochelle's company 2Web Technologies, which was the technology behind Google Sheets. Today, Fong runs the Google alumni group known as the "Xoogler Network."

In March, Fong flew to Sydney where his family lives and began running live online math classes for students between the ages of 5 and 12. He even updated his LinkedIn title to "parent support specialist" with the description, "Supporting parents who are now homeschooling their kids due to the coronavirus." 

He then invited Rochelle to give an impromptu virtual discussion about learning from home. "Chris was like, 'hey can you talk to some folks who are sort of daunted in this new world?' Rochelle recalled.

Rochelle and Fong are just two of many former Google employees who jumped in to offer home-learning resources for families who were suddenly — for the first time — learning from home as schools closed across the world during the coronavirus pandemic.

So why are so many Google employees focused on this space? Fong and Rochelle think it's because education and curiosity are core values that helped many employees get hired at Google -- one of the most prestigious (and best-paid) places to work in the world. Now, they feel a natural urge to pay it forward.

"Many know that access to work at companies like Google begin at the youngest levels and are passionate about using their background and abilities to help others get there." Fong said.

"Also, many are now having kids so it's also a personal interest area and they can understand the customer (parents and kids)."

Helping each other

Many former employees have leaned on each other for help in the process.

Jessie Jiang, Founder and CEO of Create and Learn, has tapped into the Xoogler network for support and business mentoring. "I personally have learned a lot about tools from Chris," she said about Fong. "The Google community has been so big in our journey."

Jessie Jiang, founder and CEO of Create and Learn began offering free classes to students, which teaches them about technical skills and how to apply them in the real-world.

Jiang, who spent nine years at Google, has hosted other industry professionals like Pixar animators to offer virtual learning lunches, and offered 50 percent off all courses. Jiang is also helping other education organizations go online and offer their own classes, she said.

"There are teachers whose lives are interrupted by this whole thing," Jiang said.

Former Google software engineer Prathima Rao left Google last year to start an online resource website for parents called Kin Parenting. A mother of a 10-year old, Rao said she didn't find good parenting resources in the San Francisco Bay Area, and with the pandemic, there are even fewer options for things like events and online learning courses, she said.

CEO and founder of Kin Parenting Prathima Rao added resources for parents who are conducting home learning.

"People don't give parenting credit, but it's a tough job — especially now — we are program managers to our kids," Rao said. "When the shelter in place happened in the Bay Area, we started doing lite tutoring on our Facebook page and connecting moms with each other to virtual teaching jobs if they lost their jobs."

Rao said she's still in touch with her former manager, who helps her make the site better.

"He's one of our customers too so he gives us feedback," she said. "The way communities are coming together -- I think you would not see this in a normal time but it just shows how everyone is coming together and helping each other out."

When the pandemic started, Quizlet CEO Matthew Glotzbach began offering premium teacher products for free and quickly retrofitted his company's tools to enable small group learning settings and allow parents to participate. The start-up has over 400 million study guides on every imaginable subject.

Glotzbach, who held various roles at Google and YouTube, joined Quizlet in 2016. But he still stays in close touch with Google's education team.

"We are staying in regular contact through this," he said. "Google bought a company Socratic, an educational resource with Laura Holmes who I know pretty well from Google, so we've been in touch to talk about what we can do in this time."

Ex-YouTube executive and current Quizlet CEO Matthew Glotzbach retrofitted his company's learning tools for families navigating remote learning.

To Rochelle, the collaboration feels like an extension of the Google Education products he helped build, beginning when he started the Google Apps for Education product team in Jan. 2013. 

He credits current Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who at the time was in charge of leading Google's Chrome, with steering him toward education.

"If you want to do the education thing, I'll fund it," Rochelle recalled Pichai telling him. "Sundar agreed we should start helping solve educator pains and was confident we could find innovative ways to do that -- especially since real-time collaboration we introduced with [products like] Sheets and Docs had been clearly gaining acceptance," Rochelle said.

"We've all had a lot of time to think and I thought through what it would be like to have this pandemic hit 15 years ago -- before I joined Google, before cloud apps -- there'd be so many things that would be different," he said. "It would be so devastating."

Broader discussions about education

Some of the ex-Google employees' conversations with parents look a bit different from the average parent-teacher discussions.

Not only are they engineering new products and evaluating technicalities of remote learning, but they're also diving into larger questions such as the future of education.

"There's a ton of differing opinions of how to go about the learning models," Rochelle said. "This kind of forced the issue to put technology front and center and ask what is the best method. The conversation can get very deep very fast."

An example is the difference between real-time ("synchronous") learning, where a student interacts directly with a teacher or parent during a lesson, and "asynchronous" learning, where work can be accomplished on the student's own time without interaction.

"Ultimately, I've found that there is no single, better way," Rochelle said. "It's all about how a student is compelled to engaged in class because every student and teacher is different."

Fong said he's been hearing lately that parents — even those who love online learning — want to cut down screen time, spurring fresh debate about how much is too much.

"How do you balance it?" Fong said. "Sure, companies are offering courses and products for free but will parents keep using them and, if so, will children get fatigued?"

Both Fong and Rochelle said they've also heard discussions about education that go beyond children, such as adults considering new skills in the era of remote work.

"As a result of this, people are pivoting their career choices and thinking about what ways they can better society," Rochelle said.

"People are considering career changes to something that doesn't rely on potentially putting themselves at risk and in more digital or remote work settings," Fong added.