As students around the world continue to study from home as a result of the pandemic, Google’s Classroom software has fast become an invaluable remote learning tool. But as many are discovering, Google’s software is far from perfect. Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh has used his blog to weigh in on where he thinks Google’s software goes wrong. It’s fascinating and well worth a read.
As you’d expect from someone who works at Adobe, a lot of Vinh’s arguments are about the software itself. Vinh describes obvious design missteps in Classroom like its lack of customizability, its poor integration with Google’s other services, and its general sluggishness.
When I saw Google Classroom for the first time, my immediate thought was, “This is clearly an under-funded product that ranks fairly low on the list of Google’s priorities.” Our kids use the iPad version and, setting aside the inconvenient fact that it’s at least a few steps behind Google Classroom in the browser, the product as a whole is slow, inelegant and unappealing. It works but just barely, and it lacks nearly every modern user experience affordance commonly found in most contemporary productivity software.
However, Vinh’s core argument is that the service’s biggest problems reflect how broader society undervalues education. While modern offices are designed to be “a kind of work-resort, where play is interleaved with productivity,” Vinh argues that schools have a more old-fashioned approach.
When you walk into most schools, you immediately get the sense that the machinery of educational administration takes precedence over the students, despite the often valiant effort of teachers and staff to counter that bias. All of this speaks volumes about how we value students and children.
These differences, Vinh says, can now be seen in the world of software and apps. The workplace productivity app Slack is incredibly feature rich, and filled with small features that let people express themselves. Gifs, polls, and quizzes make Slack “a hub for each company’s culture, a repository for workplace sentiment, and a place for employees to hang out, even when they’re not on the clock.” But Google Classroom is a different story.
The bigger context of this poverty of common user experience affordances, though, is Google Classroom’s utter lack of humanity. The app isn’t just spare, it’s barren; it’s task-oriented and optimized for assignments, not learning-oriented and optimized for people.
In Google Classroom, students are an afterthought and their experience of using the app amounts to little more than a formality.
I don’t think Vinh’s argument is without its flaws. It’s telling that he compares Google Classroom to Slack, rather than a workplace productivity app made by Google itself (probably because the company’s haphazard approach to messaging means that one doesn’t exist). But it’s still absolutely worth a read, and we can’t help but hope Google takes his constructive criticism on board.
Arizona sues Google over claims it illegally tracked location of Android users
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has filed a lawsuit against Google over allegations the company illegally tracked Android users’ location without their consent and even when the location tracking features had been manually disabled, according to a report from The Washington Post.
The suit argues Google kept location tracking running in the background for certain features, like weather and for web searches using its search engine and Chrome browser, even after the user disabled app-specific location tracking. Only when a user dug further into the Android system settings and turned off broader system-level tracking did Google stop surreptitiously siphoning location data, the complaint argues.
Google has found itself in similar controversies in the past over location tracking of Android users. The company has responded to privacy concerns over the years with various stopgap measures like making it easier to auto-delete your location data, and cracking down on offending third-party apps that do so without consent. But its efforts to improve privacy protections and the various settings you need to monitor to ensure you’re not being overly tracked remain complex and confusing to average users, and it can often seem impossible to keep tabs on just how much Google knows about you and what sources of data it maintains.
Brnovich is asking a court force Google to pay back profits it may have earned from monetizing this data through ads served to Arizona residents. The Post says Arizona’s anti-fraud laws also might subject Google to $10,000 per fine violations. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“At some point, people or companies that have a lot of money think they can do whatever the hell they want to do, and feel like they are above the law,” Brnovich told The Post in an interview. “I wanted Google to get the message that Arizona has a state consumer fraud act. They may be the most innovative company in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re above the law.”
Google and its YouTube subsidiary, as well as the other major tech companies, are facing a number of regulatory and legal quagmires right now, following antitrust and privacy enforcement in the European Union that resulted in multi-billion fines against Google over the last decade.
Now, US politicians and regulators are following suit and have begun engaging in a broad and coordinated effort across the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and state legislators to reign in Big Tech and enforce antitrust, privacy, and other laws. These are rules Silicon Valley has largely flouted over the last couple of decades as lawmakers failed to keep up with the pace of technological change and the scale of Big Tech’s ability to exploit loopholes and skirt regulation for monetary gain and market consolidation.
YouTube settled with the FTC last year for violations of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), while Google is currently under investigation by all 50 state attorneys general and the subject of a broader antitrust probe led by the Justice Department.
Gmail’s latest update makes it easier to change the look of your inbox
Accessing the plethora of settings hidden in Gmail can be a pain, but it’s about to get a little easier. Google is rolling out a quick settings menu, which offers a sampling of options that let you adjust the look of your inbox without leaving the page. Once this new tweak arrives on your account, it will activate automatically, and you won’t have to leave the page to see the visual changes you make to your inbox.
The quick settings menu contains an option to change the density of information displayed (between default, comfortable, or compact). It also lets you choose which emails you want to have prioritized in your inbox. Another option lets you add a reading pane so you can see an email’s contents without actually opening it. Lastly, you can adjust your Gmail theme from the quick settings menu.
You’ll still need to drill into the full list of settings if you want to, say, make a vacation response for some out-of-office time. Google’s putting a link to all of those options right at the top of the quick settings menu, and it mentioned in a press release for this feature that no new features are being added to Gmail. This is simply a nip and tuck of previous features to make its email service a little easier to use.
The rollout has begun for personal Gmail accounts as well as G Suite users who work at corporations on Google’s rapid-release track. If you don’t notice the quick settings menu soon, your workplace might be on Google’s scheduled release track. If that’s the case, the quick settings menu won’t begin rolling out until June 22nd.
Google now lets businesses clarify what services they offer during the pandemic
Google will soon let businesses add additional descriptors to their listings that appear in Google Search and Maps results to better help potential customers understand what a business offers at a glance. The company is adding these new descriptors and announcing a number of other features today to help businesses better surface important information for customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new descriptors, which Google calls “attributes,” are short notes that show up under other business information on a listing. A yoga studio that offers virtual lessons could add an “online classes” attribute, for example. Business owners can add one attribute, though their businesses will have to be verified by Google to use the feature. Here’s a screenshot from Google to give you an idea of what attributes may look like:
Google is also expanding a tool called Reserve with Google that lets people book appointments directly from a listing. Google previously offered integrations with more than 100 service-booking partners for in-person services, but now businesses can offer appointments for online services via those partners. Businesses will also be able to specify how to attend the online appointment or class right from the listing.
There are a few new features for restaurants, too. Restaurants will soon be able to specify their preferred delivery or takeout partner company in their business listing, and Google is now letting restaurants that are takeout- or delivery-only (sometimes called virtual or cloud kitchens) apply to become verified businesses.
Google is also letting more businesses across the globe add links to direct donations or buy a gift card right in their business listings. Google first said these links were available to businesses in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand on May 11th, but Google is rolling out the feature for businesses in 18 more countries, including Italy, Spain and Japan, starting today.
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