You can tell a lot about how we value spaces—and the people who use them—by how well we design them. Google Classroom, which I’ve come to use with my kids on a daily basis since remote schooling began back in March, is as good an example of this as I’ve seen. It’s a virtual space, of course, but in a quarantined world it’s become a vital space, one that millions of children and parents are entering daily, usually for hours at a time. And it sends an unmistakable message about how it values the students who use it.
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.
Upon reflection, I came to realize that this is no accident. Google Classroom’s lackluster design is actually perfectly in line with the way we’ve always thought about the spaces we build for learning. Schools have by and large been conspicuously if not chronically underfunded, especially in comparison to spaces for work. Most school buildings are fashioned from cinder blocks, institutional steel doors and wire glass, and piped with pre-digital HVAC systems. Children sit at decades-old, fixed height tables and chairs, share access to donated and/or outdated computer hardware, relieve themselves in archaic bathrooms. Their exercise and play time are segregated to large multi-purpose rooms or outside on blacktops or poorly tended fields.