Victims Of The “Googlification” Of The Classroom

As we must all do our part to heal the partisan divide, this California family’s spring break was a road trip through Texas. We spent a week enjoying barbecue and swimming holes from the Metroplex to the Alamo. And at every opportunity, we stopped at Buc-ee’s, gas station superstores with mountains of freshly made barbecue sandwiches and fudge alongside America’s largest (and apparently cleanest) bathrooms. It was at Buc-ees that 13-year-old Zev learned a valuable lesson. Against my advice and counsel, he used his own money to buy a half-pound of fudge. Regret and a trip to the large, clean bathroom followed hard upon. I also insisted on some history and marched my three teen boys through the 1960s via stops at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (i.e., the Book Depository), LBJ’s birth place, and the LBJ Presidential Library at UT Austin. By the end, they were as sick of the 60s as your average Fox News viewer.

There was some respite from political history at the LBJ Library where a traveling exhibit on the history of American music had set up shop. Zev’s response to the exhibit was to head to the gift shop to buy a harmonica. (I reminded him of his errant fudge impulse. When that didn’t work, I told him we had one at home. But germophobe Zev said he’d seen his brother use it.) So for the rest of the road trip, the family had the pleasure of listening to harmonica learning-by-doing from the backseat. Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Within a few days, he sounded like a mini Bob Dylan. We’d think of songs featuring harmonica, put them on, and in seconds Zev would be playing along like he’d been blowing harp for years.

When we returned to our home state, bereft of Buc-ee’s, we went out to dinner with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. As we sat down at the table, Zev – harp in hand – launched into a pitch-perfect version of Piano Man, drawing looks from surrounding patrons. Impressed but wary of being ejected from a favorite spot, his tactful uncle replied: “Great job, Zev. We were talking about that song today. We were saying how odd it was that in a song called Piano Man, the harmonica player won’t shut up.” And with that, for the first time in a week, Zev put his harmonica away.

Just as you’d expect Piano Man to be all about piano, you’d expect colleges ostensibly preparing students for jobs to deploy the same software used in those jobs. But they don’t. Because while 85-90% of private and public sector employers utilize Microsoft Office (i.e., Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook), the vast majority of colleges and students are on Google Docs (i.e., Docs, Sheets, Slides, Gmail).


The great Google-Microsoft divide opened in the 2010s when Google began marketing Chromebooks to K-12 schools. The Chromebook was pitched as the first laptop built for the Internet: no hard drive, all data stored online. Schools loved Chromebooks because they were fast, cheap (priced at $249), secure, and simple. As they came configured with security and virus protection, students could boot up – which Chromebooks did quickly – and begin work straight away. Based on Writely, a browser-based word processor acquired by Google, Docs became Chromebook’s built-in apps and were just what schools wanted. The New York Times described the frenzy as the “Googlification of the classroom.” Within a decade, some 50M students and teachers around the world would be using Google Docs.

Before 2012, the vast majority of students at higher education institutions used Microsoft Office. Faculty had become accustomed to requesting assignments in Microsoft .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats. I remember using Word and Excel in Law School and paying $150 for the privilege. But as Chromebooks and Google Docs began to take over K-12 education, faced with freshmen familiar with Chromebooks and Google Docs, what did colleges do? Very little. As far as I can tell, there was no deliberation on the impact of becoming Google campuses. What was to debate? Students wanted Google Docs and it was free.

This laissez-faire approach proved short-sighted. Because while Chromebooks were fast, cheap, secure, and simple, Google Docs (or G Suite, now rebranded Google Workspace) has some drawbacks. Compared to desktop applications, it’s not as fast. And outside the education market where Google continues to provide Workspace free to schools and colleges, it’s not cheaper: Google charges between $6-18 per user per month, about the same as Microsoft. But the biggest problem – the reason the real world never left Microsoft Office – is it’s too simple.

As PC Mag noted in its most recent review of Google Workspace, “Google has a long tradition of minimalism in its apps and web pages.” Consequently, its “apps are spare compared with desktop-based suites like Microsoft Office… Compared with other office suites, Google Docs ranks last in power for creating traditional documents.”

The relative simplicity of Google’s productivity applications is an intentional tradeoff for its online/Cloud-first approach. Because you need to be online to work, Google sacrifices some of the offline functionality of office suites like Microsoft. In fact, if you want to work on Google files offline, you need to install a Chrome extension and select “edit offline” for each document. That’s not something college students need to worry about on campuses with omnipresent Wi-Fi. But it’s a challenge in the real world where there may not be Wi-Fi or even mobile reception, or on planes where the network’s down, or where you don’t want to pay $20 for a two-hour flight. (I’m offline as I write this; thank you, American Airlines.)

While Google wins on collaboration – up to 100 users can make edits on a Google doc – in trading features for simplicity, Google Workspace lacks the following functionality found in Office:





All this may sound like nitpicking, but start with Docs. Don’t underestimate the differences between Google Docs and Word. Because when you do, you make the mistake these lawyers did in preparing a response brief in the Gohmert v. Pence lawsuit where Arizona Republican congressmen sought to force Vice President Pence to hand the 2020 election to Donald Trump. Counsel had to make an embarrassing motion in court to file their brief late because: “During the course of preparation, Plaintiffs' counsel have encountered numerous technical incompatibilities in the software versions between Google Docs and Microsoft Word resulting in editing difficulties and text problems.”


Google minimalism doesn’t play in most enterprises. Employers want Microsoft Office. Sticking with law, take the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. Its site reads that it is “a Microsoft Word-only court. All documents required to be submitted to the court… must be submitted in Word format (.docx).” As one commentator noted on LinkedIn: “future lawyers still need to master MS Word. And by master, I mean know it cold.” She continues:

And do not — !!! — call yourself proficient in MS Word in the Skills section of your resume if you’re still hitting the space bar to align up those dates along the right margin. The “ruler” in any word processing software is a very basic formatting tool, and if you don’t know how to you use it, you are far from proficient in that software or in word processing more generally.

The same is true of Excel. Said one financial planner, “if Excel were a language, it would be one of the world’s largest, with close to 1 billion speakers.” It’s the industry standard. And lots of employers worry that Sheets-only candidates will be hung out to dry. They know what Coursera knows: “Excel can be intimidating. Since it has so many complex features, it can be daunting for a beginner to use.”

Then there’s Outlook. Being introduced to Outlook’s powerful email and calendaring functions for the first time on the job means greater risk of mistakes, which means loss of productivity or – at a minimum – aggravated co-workers and supervisors. Or maybe hiring managers simply won’t bother with candidates who’ve never used Outlook before.

The great Google-Microsoft divide isn’t one thing, it’s the summation of all the above plus lack of familiarity with how to navigate Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook; even if Docs devotees have used a feature in Google, they won’t know where to find it or exactly how it works in Microsoft. As many entry-level workers spend most of their time in Microsoft Office, Google schooling adds to an already steep learning curve for new and recent graduates who’ve never worked in the industry or role.

Higher education’s go-along, get-along attitude to the Googlification of the classroom is yet another example of colleges doing the easy thing rather than the right thing for students.


It’s no small irony that the company that ostensibly cares most about closing America’s tech skills gap has done more than any other to widen that gap. Google-parent Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has called the tech skills gap “one of the important areas for society to figure out.” So while the “Grow with Google” initiative proffers ten different inexpensive ($49) asynchronous online certificates in data analytics, cybersecurity, digital marketing, IT support, project management, UX design, and now AI, and Google set up a $100M fund for Merit America and Year Up wraparound services (providing low-income students with a fighting chance to complete said certificates), the Company’s schools strategy has opened a gap on tech skills that are the most fundamental of all.

It’s understandable why cash-strapped public schools adopted Google Docs so quickly. Open, collaborative, and free are a good combination for K-12. What’s less understandable is why colleges haven’t made any effort to push students back to the software used by employers. College is the time and place to make the shift from open and free to proprietary. (It would help if Microsoft tried to out-Google Google on caring about tech skills by making Office free for college students.) If they don’t want to mandate Microsoft, colleges could at least urge students to shift or raise awareness of the downside of growing only with Google. Failure to do any of these things is tantamount to sending students to sea without first teaching them to swim. It’s an abrogation of responsibility.

It should be eminently clear by now that higher education institutions need their grads to land and keep good jobs. A big part of this is ensuring students have some experience with the fundamental software used every day in those jobs. Otherwise, when college development offices reach out to alumni, they’ll be:
Talkin’ with Davy
Who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life
(Hit it, Zev).