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5 Reasons Why Google's 20% Time Fails Higher Ed
July 10, 2011 - 10:15pm

Gmail, Google News, Google Talk, AdSense - all the fruits of Google's policy of reserving 20% of the developer's time for self-initiated projects. Great policy, but one that has completely failed to make Google an innovative or disruptive player in higher education. Google's higher ed failures would not be so disturbing if higher ed was not so critical to the company's core mission and belief system.

"Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Does this mission not count all the knowledge being created within higher ed? The lectures, the student projects, the syllabi, and all the insights and information being generated within our courses? The fruits of the vast knowledge production engine (our colleges and universities) remains un-collected, un-indexed, un-organized, and unavailable.

Google might put "don't be evil" directly into its code of conduct, but a better and more meaningful statement might be "own up." Own up to shortcomings. Own up to missed opportunities. Own up to not having all the answers.

In thinking about Google's failure to influence, disrupt, or ad value to higher ed, I think one of the culprits is Google's 20% policy. Why?

1. Education is a process, not a product - and therefore perhaps not a good candidate for an engineering driven culture. Education can't be "solved" with a more elegant application, access to more data, servers or bandwidth.

2. Solutions to education problems must come from educators, not engineers. If the 20% time is to be effective then the engineers must spend that time hanging out with educators. Ask us what we need, and what we think can solve our issues. Then you can code.

3. Building something new might not be the best answer. Google does some acquisitions, but as far as I can tell has not been active in the higher ed tech space. Acquisitions would allow integration with Google's assets.

4. A culture of experimentation and fast failure is necessary, but not sufficient. Long-term strategic goals, and leadership around these goals, needs to be in place. If disrupting higher ed is not a strategic priority then any efforts will be disorganized and ineffective.

5. Stanford. Don't get me wrong. I love Stanford. And I love that the Google culture mirrors the chaotic and free intellectual life of Stanford. But Stanford, or my wonderful institution, or any other expensive residential education provider is not the model we need to disrupt higher ed. A better model is what India has done with phones, bypassing landlines for cell phones. The emerging economies have the opportunity to leapfrog past our campus centric, aggregated, bundled and expensive education models for something more agile, modular, unbundled, disagregated, personalized, and mobile. I'd base the Google EDU team in India. This can't be done at 20 percent.

Everything in this post might be wrong. How can we initiate this conversation with Google?


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