The NEN Interview: Gráinne Reitveld, Head of Google for Education, EMEA
As previously, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
I’ll be doing one of these interviews every fortnight during 2021 with key players from across Nordic EdTech. As always, your feedback is really valuable, so please email email@example.com or comment below.
Best regards, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hi Gráinne and congratulations! Can you start by telling me about your new role and responsibilities?
Gráinne Rietveld (GR): Thank you! So it's an interim role at the moment, but obviously I hope it will continue longer term. I’m replacing Liz Sprout who left Google in early December to join Lego Education. I am very sad that she has left, but it’s an amazing opportunity for her.
This role is across a huge geographic region and I’m focused on helping to expand learning for everyone and working to support education through our products and programmes.
Our key focus is on G Suite for Education, Google Cloud and Chromebooks. Google Classroom is obviously also at the core of everything that we do.
JV: How is the Google For Education EMEA region structured?
GR: It’s changed a lot over the last 10 years when our focus was on the UK, Ireland, the Nordics, the Netherlands and some limited activity in Spain and Italy. We’ve invested significantly to have a local presence across the Nordics - we now have teams based in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and have just hired someone in Norway, which we're really excited about it.
Across the rest of EMEA, we now have two people in Spain alongside colleagues in Italy and the Middle East. We’ve also built quite a substantial team in Germany and are growing our team in France too.
Google have also built hubs in key locations, particularly London, although some of the team there also work in EMEA roles. This includes supporting technical development or running our larger programmes such as Certifications or the Google Educator groups.
JV - Are there any plans to extend this presence into the Baltic countries?
GR: Not at the moment, but my colleagues in Finland and Denmark are proactively looking at how we can best support those territories.
It’s very definitely a region of interest and one we’ll be looking more closely at. We’re also driven by our partners and know that these are important territories for partners like Acer and Atea.
JV: What does success look like in your new role?
GR: So it's about making sure that any school or education leader, who is looking to explore Google tools, can find the help or support they need. That might be through someone at Google directly, but more probably it will be via a Google partner. Lots of whom have been with us for many years.
For me, the most important thing is that anybody who wants to learn more about Chromebooks, for example, can find a pathway to do that. My role is to make that as easy as possible and to remove any friction.
JV - Do your teams across the Nordics have a particular focus or target?
GR: We always want to make sure that we're helping schools to adopt our products in the first place, but also to use them well. What we don’t want is to see devices going into schools that just sit at the back of the classroom unused in a box.
So when customers choose Google or Chromebooks, we (and our partners) want to help them to deliver their education technology plans. We’re focused on ensuring that there’s a network and a pathway to make the best use of that technology.
JV: How does Google For Education view the Nordic countries?
GR: The Nordics are world-leading and absolutely critical in leading EdTech.
They have always been a front-runner in terms of digital education and digital technology. It’s also always really refreshing to work with Nordic customers because a lot of thought goes into their plans and it's never just about throwing budget at a problem.
One great example comes from Asker kommune in Norway, who worked with a local university to research their investment. This helped highlight the impact of technology on their students, on their staff and the importance of investing not only in EdTech but also in building up the digital skills of the population.
JV: How did that approach help Nordic customers respond to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic?
GR: We’ve obviously seen huge growth in the usage of our products in recent months. In some countries globally we did see a bit of a scramble to get digital tools up and running and it was a big challenge to respond. But in the Nordics, most of our customers had a plan in place with a digital platform and devices ready to use.
So while it was a chaotic time last March with everybody figuring out how to adjust, it was notably less chaotic in the Nordics. The Nordic countries have been on a digital journey for such a long time that most of the basics and most of the hard work had already been done - that really worked to their advantage.
JV: The Covid pandemic is, of course, a global problem that really requires a global solution. Where is the balance for Google between tackling global education problems and responding regionally to the needs of, for example, Nordic customers?
GR: Certainly ten years ago the products we developed were very much more US focused but since then we've been on a huge journey. And that’s part of the rationale behind having our teams dispersed across the EMEA region - it enables us to tap into local markets and find out what schools in Denmark or Finland, for example, are really looking for.
Through this, we've been able to surface specific local issues and take those back to our global product teams. So a lot of the recent developments that we've seen in Google Classroom, for example, have been generated at round tables held between Nordic customers and our product teams.
At the same time, Google have also pulled together all of the various education groups globally. We also now have an overall education leader who has a holistic view of what we can / need to offer to support education globally.
JV: From those roundtables, do you think that Nordic customers are demanding different solutions to customers in the U.K or in the US?
GR: I think Nordic customers are generally a little bit ahead of the curve. That’s why our product teams are really interested in hearing from Nordic customers - they often surface questions and feedback that just haven't been run into yet in other markets.
JV: In a recent Nordic EdTech News, I included a story about the Danish Data Protection Authority who are looking at how half of the country's municipalities are using Chromebooks without securing data. How do you respond to those stories and the accusation that Google is just interested in collecting student personal data?
GR: We recognise that these issues are super, super important and invest a lot in educating and helping our partners / customers to address these issues.
The majority of our customers are frankly, really well educated on this. But ultimately, there’s a huge amount that they need to do in setting up restrictions, for example, including allow lists and block lists for students confirming where they can go and what they can access. Customers are now more aware than ever of their responsibilities as data controllers.
We acknowledge that it’s been a process since GDPR was introduced in 2018. We’re continuing to listen to customers as well as doing regular audits and releasing new features. These are designed to help administrators understand what data flows are happening in and out of their domain or even between organizational units within their domain.
JV: Linked to that, I reported recently on the recent Tech DK report that accused US tech giants (including Google) of wanting to squash Danish education. What’s your response to that criticism?
GR: Our focus is about providing the platform and the infrastructure that allows collaboration with amazing local partners. Companies like Wizkids in Denmark, who have used our platform to build amazing tools for accessibility, reading and writing or Online Partner in Sweden whose Chrome Ex solution makes it really easy for schools to take exams digitally.
Our partners have been able to build massively successful local business by integrating with Google. They’ve been able to focus on being super innovative and spending their time building tools that schools are really crying out for. We always try to be very open with our APIs, so that other companies can integrate with our products.
JV - You identified in a recent virtual event with the Helsinki Education Hub that your video and admin tools were a real priority last year. Are they still important for the business in 2021?
GR: Yes and we’ve obviously put huge focus on what teachers need right now. So, acting on feedback from teachers, we’ve added features such as hand-raising, breakout rooms and polls which became critical for remote education.
We’ve also prioritized showing more student faces from each class in Google Meet. I think this taps into a Nordic feeling of democracy rather than just focusing on the teacher or whoever is presenting.
JV: To your point around democracy, what role does Google have to play in ensuring that all students and teachers are easily able to access and use technology?
GR: I think our first step was ensuring many years ago that G Suite for Education was available for free. We felt very strongly that everyone should have access to a solid platform, wherever you live or go to school.
Chromebooks then came in on top of that as a really cost effective solution to democratise access to devices. We’ve seen lots of municipalities moving towards a device per pupil model and that’s down to the work our OEM partners like Acer, Dell and Lenovo have done to make great quality devices at affordable prices.
Google is also working with policy makers in many countries, advocating for an improved WiFi and broadband roll out. Our Digital Garage Learning Space in Helsinki (and new online course equivalent) also provides digital skills training for job seekers, students, entrepreneurs, children and families.
JV: What’s the biggest challenge that you’re wrestling with at the moment?
GR: I guess the big challenge for me at the moment is prioritization: making sure that we're focused on the right things and that we're focused on those initiatives where we can actually make a difference.
It’s really important therefore that we tap into the local EdTech networks in every country and work with local partners to create joint plans for our customers. Otherwise we risk spreading ourselves too thinly by trying to do a little bit of everything and not actually achieving very much.
JV: What do you most enjoy about your job?
GR: That’s easy! Absolutely without a shadow of a doubt, it’s working with my team!
The entire global education team is a wonderful group of super smart, super professional people who are really passionate about what they do. They’re focused on helping their partners and customers in their regions and always doing their best work.
JV: What can we expect from Learning with Google later this week?
GR: I can't give too much away but I think it’s really significant Sundar (Sundar Pichai, CEO, Alphabet) is opening the event. This sends a very strong message about the importance that Google puts on education and the continued importance that education will have for Google as a business.
Some of the other things we'll be digging into are about highlighting where we want to take our products in the future. Our ultimate goal is always to make the technology invisible and to demonstrate how Google products can be helpful to teachers, students and administrators.
2020 was very much focused on Covid-19 and helping teachers deal with the immediate challenges around virtual learning. Moving forwards, our focus will be on helping them to build and grow using the learning they’ve gathered during this chaotic period.
JV: Thanks very much for your time Gráinne! It’s been a great conversation and a pleasure to talk to you.
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