In today’s Apple event at Lane Tech High School, Apple CEO Tim Cook reminded the audience that Apple has been in the education business for 40 years. I can’t speak to the 1978-80 timeframe, but I do remember showing up for my sophomore year of high school in the fall of 1981 and walking into the computer lab to find that my beloved Challenger 2P computers, nine-inch black-and-white TVs, and cassette players were gone. In their place were a handful of Apple ][ computers with green-screen monitors. After messing around with them for a day or so, I decided they were an improvement.
That has been the hook for Apple in the education market for the last four decades: it’s an improvement. Back when Microsoft was struggling to put together a polished Graphical User Interface, Macintoshes offered a lower barrier to entry for students and teachers. Unfortunately, that lower barrier generally came with a higher price tag.
Despite that, the combination of a dedicated education sales force, less-expensive hardware created for and targeted at the .edu market—like the eMac, and before that, the Power Macintosh 7500/75—and software tailored to the needs of teachers enabled Apple to make serious inroads in the school system. Apple’s reputation as a secure platform likely helped in the 1990s and early 2000s.
A very Google public school system
Even today, when I walk into my son’s middle school, I see iMacs in the library and music lab. But the education landscape has changed immensely in the past couple of years, thanks to Google.
Because I live in Illinois, which has the largest number of units of local government in the United States, my children are in two separate school districts: Maine 207 for high school and Maine 64 for K-8. Both of them are using Google’s Chrome OS, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
In District 64, students are exposed to computers starting in kindergarten. It’s primarily an iMac in the classroom or library or maybe some iPads. That continues to around third or fourth grade, where they transition to Chromebooks. Once students begin middle school (6th grade), they are issued a Chromebook at the beginning of the school year, and it’s theirs for the whole of the academic year. It’s a cheap, $ 200-or-so Dell, and we’re charged a $ 30 “Chromebook maintenance fee” by the school each year.
When students finish 8th grade and move on to high school in District 207, their parents must purchase a Chromebook for around $ 260, and they are used for just about everything. District 207 was an early adopter of Google Apps for Education, touting itself as Google’s “first K-12 partner,” and it has “worked closely” with Google on the development of Google’s G Suite for education ever since.
Google offers G Suite for Education for free, sans some features. Adding the full suite of enterprise features costs only $ 4 per user per month, compared to $ 25 per user per month for other kinds of organizations.
Papers are typed in Google Docs. Presentations are done using Google Presentations. Each student has a Google email account assigned through the district. Homework is handed out and done entirely on Chromebooks in many classes. In so many words, Google has spread its tentacles throughout the entire school district at every level, and Maine Township District 207 is not unique in that regard.
Apple drops prices
That’s the landscape Apple is facing—school districts using inexpensive, commodity hardware with an OS that relies on the cloud and collaboration. And it’s made by a company, Google, that has turned browser-based apps into a platform you can do Serious Work on. It’s a top-to-bottom, integrated experience that students, teachers, and administrators have become familiar with. And again, it’s inexpensive—even more so when you require families to purchase the hardware (there are waivers for families who cannot afford a Chromebook).
Apple made a highly visible effort to seize this market with the iPad previously. Starting in 2013, Apple worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to supply that district’s 640,000 students with iPads. By partway into 2015, the program was terminated, and Apple was paying the district settlement money to help cover the losses. LA schools found that iPads were too easily broken by students, that students had trouble typing on them, and that it was too hard to control students’ use of the devices.
That failure didn’t stop Apple from dreaming, though; in January, it released an ad featuring a young girl using an iPad for various aspects of life and learning. The ad concluded with the girl asking, “What’s a computer?” when an older woman asked her what she was using her computer for. Apple is still pitching the notion that the iPad can replace a computer for young people.
Apple deserves praise for today’s announcements. First, it essentially gutted the iPad Pro lineup. The new $ 329 iPad offers a Retina display and Apple Pencil support paired with an A10 Fusion processor. That’s several hundred dollars cheaper than the least-expensive iPad Pro. There are still technical differences, including screen refresh rate and brightness, but is it worth $ 320 to jump from the new iPad to the 10.5-inch iPad Pro if you’re not a very specific type of creative professional?
Apple has also made itself more comparable with Google on price. The new iPad costs just $ 299 for schools, not much more than a Chromebook. But kids drop stuff (my daughter is on her second Chromebook of her high school career, and my son’s Chromebook has made a couple of stops at the Lincoln Middle School Chromebook Depot), and iPads are just as fragile as a laptop, if not more so. Ask the Los Angeles School District about that. So the iPads need cases, which adds to the cost. Apple highlighted a keyboard+case combo from Logitech during the presentation, and that adds another $ 99 to the cost. Throw in an Apple Pencil ($ 99), and the $ 299 iPad is now a $ 499 educational device and not so cost-competitive with Google hardware.
But Apple has some other enticements, including 200GB of cloud storage for students and Schoolwork, an app that lets teachers track grades, create handouts, and assign homework without leaving the app. And the tech looks really polished. All you need is a display in your classroom, Wi-Fi, and an Apple TV to beam iPad screens to the classroom display. After Tim Cook’s presentation, Apple sent the press to classrooms for hands-on time with the iPads. A teacher guided us through a math and history project in which we used our iPads to insert video, music, and text via Everyone Can Create. It was very slick, and I imagine students of the appropriate age level getting sucked in by the immersive experience in a way that results in increased mastery of the subject at hand, while having fun.
Today, Apple fired an impressive, multimedia salvo across the bow of Google. But sinking the Google education armada is a tough task—all but impossible at this point. Many school districts are locked into contracts, and, with HP and Dell selling Chromebooks for as little as $ 160, the price advantage for buying into Google’s educational ecosystem remains. There is now a generation of school IT admins that has cut its teeth on Android, Chrome OS, and G Suite. And although Apple has dropped its prices a little, it still has the cachet of a premium brand. Public schools rely on taxpayer money, so I can see pushback from parents at school board meetings on the costs of going with Apple versus Google.
That said, the American educational system is vast, and there’s room for everyone. I could see private schools jumping back on the Apple bandwagon with iPads, along with some public school districts and charter schools, especially in the early grades. But once you get into the land of labs and term papers, laptops will continue to reign supreme, so I don’t see much changing in high schools. And maybe Apple doesn’t, either: the kids in the videos shown at Lane Tech today all looked to be in elementary school.
No matter where the great education battle ends up for Apple, Cupertino can content itself with one small consolation: all of the recent high school graduates I know are ditching their Chromebooks upon graduation in favor of Apple (and Windows) hardware. Now, if Apple could only get that transition to happen several years earlier.