Students in the United States and much of the developed world use Google all the time. 2 or 3 of them actually know how to do an effective search and evaluate the vast amounts of data that the GOOG happily spiders for them. OK, maybe more than 2 or 3, but even if that's the case, a whole lot of students use Google's free tools, whether through a Google Edu Apps deployment at their school or through a blog they write on Blogger.
Interestingly, in the United States we worry a great deal about losing our competitive edge, particularly to China and other Asian nations. And while the general state of our STEM education makes this threat very real, our students largely have unfettered access to powerful Web 2.0 (and 3.0) technologies as well as nearly infinite stores of information, often thanks to Google. That information and the tools that accompany it, can be harness and turned into knowledge in really powerful ways, ways that won't be realized in China any time soon if the country's policies don't change and Google exits the country.
There's no doubt that we need to transform many aspects of education in this country. However, the ability to access and use information freely provides us with our own competitive advantage.
Google Apps access in China is spotty at best, as are countless tools like YouTube and Blogger. I'll have more information Thursday on the state of Edu Apps in China once Eastern Standard Time catches up to Pacific Standard Time and I can return a call from the good folks at Google. However, it's quite clear that the tools we take for granted in most developed countries just aren't available behind China's great firewall.
Government agencies don't get hurt by these restrictions. They protect their positions by preventing access. Many businesses don't feel the pain since cheap Chinese labor markets and Western appetites for inexpensive consumables put Chinese businesses into a uniquely strong position.
Students, on the other hand, are the big losers in this mess. If Google pulls out of the country and stops censoring search results (meaning that the Chinese government will block Google entirely), and Yahoo follows suit, Chinese students will be left in even more of an information vacuum. And those wonderful free tools that build collaboration skills, writing prowess, and exercise creativity in schools around the world with only a web browser needed to tap their potential? Not gonna happen.
There isn't much doubt that Google is doing the right thing here. It makes sense both from a principle point of view and from an enterprise security and business standpoint. And frankly, we can use every advantage we can get. However, as long as the Chinese government drives out companies like Google with its Draconian policies, the real losers won't be the companies; the real losers will be Chinese students who lack the tools, experience, and worldview that an open, connected society can provide.