I am not a Google Fanboy. I promise this. I am not crazy about any transnational corporation poised to redefine the way we organize information. However, in using Google Plus, I'm thinking that we could learn a few things in terms of rethinking and redesigning public education:
User Interface: Form
It finally feels like Google has a "look," with the new Google search pages and Gmail user interface. It's clean and minimal in an online world filled with slick, shiny icons. Unlike Facebook (which has become a cluttered Wal-Mart-style mess), Google Plus makes use of a balance between negative and positive space. The result is both a calm and active ethos, creating a "place" where I want to hang around.
I'd like to see schools pay better attention to this. In my dream school, we have space, open space, negative space. We have murals. We have art. We have bold colors, but also places where things are calm. We have windows. Instead of looking slick and professional, school would look like a place where students want to be.
User Interface: Function
I like the use of muted icons, as if any color chosen is intentional alongside the bold green, blue and red that gently guide me toward what I'm looking for. The end result is a user interface that is intuitive as much as it is logical. Google Plus is easy to navigate from within the system and easy to access from outside (adding the plus one button, seeing the red update box next to my name, the share box, etc.) The result is a system that has a ton of integrated features while still feeling simple.
Schools could learn from this by designing curriculum that allows for fluid integration while still creating a sense of natural boundaries between subjects. Both in physical and in intellectual space, schools wouldn't have to be free of walls, but rather open to half walls, open doors and open windows. Schools wouldn't have to be entirely project-based or independent work, but they could be open to a balanced, nuanced approach of integration and specialization.
Language reshapes the way we define reality. The unspoken metaphors create a semantic environment that both create and reflect our values and norms. Google chose human metaphors. Instead of using "video chat," they have "hang outs." Instead of saying "customized search," they use sparks. Even the emotive, harmonious symbol of a circle (and the common use of spheres and circles to describe relationships) has a much more human sound to it than "lists."
Schools could learn from Google as they push reform. It has to be real, though. We can't use "common" and then create "standardized." Nor can we speak of "learning" and simply mean "achievement." However, if we begin to move toward more human, organic metaphors, our values, norms and structures will eventually change.
School could function as a flexible community while still allowing students to engage with the outside world (plus one approach). Students could engage in community with concentric circles while personalizing their learning according to their own interests (sparks). Students could meet based upon shared social status (age-based, ability levels) while also letting them share in interest-based formats (multi-age classes based upon interests). We could recover recess (hangouts) and we wouldn't have to depend upon third-party apps invading our curriculum and forcing us to interrupt real learning with incessant testing updates. We could learn from Google in some of the smaller features, too. Maybe wait a little longer in student response time and in discipline.
Google Plus allows users to interact in a way that resembles both Facebook and Twitter. Thus, it's easy to embed media, but it's not cluttered with media updates. I can choose to follow you, but you can choose to limit your updates to specific circles. In addition, while social media often defines relevance for the users, Google Plus lets the users define relevance for themselves. Instead of being differentiated, it's truly personalized. Instead of offering choice, it offers freedom. I can sort by medium, by interest or by social communities.
Schools need to shift from differentiation to customization/personalization. They need to allow students to define relevance and meaning, to sift through multiple media choices, to organize information according to the meaning they create rather than the teacher-driven transmission of conceptual systems. Schools could also learn to create fewer options and provide more freedom, relying on the power of freedom and simplicity to generate creativity and authenticity.
Google learned from the failures of Wave and Buzz as well as the structural problems with Twitter and Facebook. The response was a certain humility that education reformers could learn from. They worked toward creating a social network that feels more social than networked. In designing an online community, they seemed to ask, "How can we humanize this?" rather than "How can we get people to follow this format?"
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero and he's working on Sustainable Start, a book for new teachers. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer