Apple started out with the idea that the iPad is the PC of the future and should be the student’s first exposure to computers. Is it working?

iPad and kids

Back in 2010 when Apple first introduced the iPad, it was hard to be confident of its future. It certainly seemed like it was the answer to PCs that were too hard to use and had too many security issues.

To that end, the iPad seemed like the perfect instrument to put in the hands of youngsters in K-12 education. As they grew older, they’d remember their first experiences with iPads, and that affection would carry them though their college years and early career.

Road Blocks

In general, I must point out, an iPad is a very good device to expose to young children. It’s secure and it’s fairly hard to break from an OS standpoint. Even physically with one of those really good MIL-STD 810G cases.

However, I’d like to take a broader look, in historical perspective, at the ongoing use of the iPad in K-12 education. In that restricted sense, several things have gone wrong. Plus our technical perspective of the iPad has changed since 2010.

For example, when the iPad was first introduced, the idea of an on-screen keyboard seemed awfully cool. It smacked of a sci-fi future.
However, over the years, we’ve learned that there remain important uses for a physical keyboard.

Next, programming is an essential skill nowadays for young students. Even so, I don’t think anyone predicted the small number of serious programming environments on the iPad seven years after launch. Apple has worked to fix that with Swift Playgrounds. But that environment, while terrific, likely has teachers wondering if this is the universal tool that can achieve their broader programming skills.

Finally, the iPad’s technology didn’t develop at the pace that was expected. As a result, sales declined as schools (and consumers) realized that their very old iPad still functioned as needed. As a result, the iPad didn’t evolve into a suitable replacement for, say, a Mac notebook. There is, as a result, a discontinuity in skill sets at senior high school and college levels.

Apple’s Perspective

From Apple’s perspective, and it’s a decent one, the standard iPad is in roughly the right price range and has the right capabilities for K-12 education. There’s never going to be a MacBook Air 2 for education priced at $199. At least I don’t think so. That ties Apple’s hands when it comes to pricing.

The new 9.7-inch iPad (left) and 9.7-inch iPad Pro (right) are more similar than different.

The standard 9.7-ich iPad is Apple’s only weapon in K-12 education.

I’m fairly certain that Apple was thinking about education when it introduced the refreshed but standard. 9.7-inch iPad in March. The MSRP of $329 can easily end up in the mid-high $200 range for high volume purchases by schools. Moreover, it isn’t missing any of the key pedagogical elements. iOS 11 will carry that load, and the absence of True Tone, ProMotion and Apple Pencil support, pro features, don’t seem problematic. Apple seems to have thought this out.

And yet, even at that price, the iPad must compete with low cost Windows and Chrome notebooks, Chromebooks. So far, so good, however, in that the “iPads are the dominant tablet in U.S. K-12 schools.” That article points to a Simba Information Education Group report that says:

“Tablets, e-readers and smartphones are being purchased by schools for teacher and student use and are being brought into classrooms as part of bring-your-own-technology initiatives…. However, tablet penetration in schools has slowed because of the growing popularity of Chromebooks.

The Future

Going forward, Apple’s competitors seem to latched on to one key idea. Low cost can sway many school districts because few school districts can claim that they have oodles of funds for $300 iPads. Secondly, notebook computers with their physical keyboards and opportunities for building programming environments and access to more adult tools, such as MS office, are the stuff of grownups. And what kid, starting in high school, doesn’t want to be seen as using a more grown-up tool instead of an iPad?

Apple has a fix for this, and it’s the very respectable capabilities of iOS 11. In the iOS 11 future, more K-12 students will be learning about files, drag and drop, a macOS-like Dock, better multi-tasking, and document scanning. Those fixes have been a long time coming.

In the end, I have some nagging questions. Can iOS 11 and its successors bring the iPad, at the current educational pricing, into a more sophisticated and capable era of personal, educational development? Is Swift Playground just the beginning of an initiative that will take students to the desired programming level and get them ready for college? Will the iPad physical design and remaining OS limitations prepare students for the next level of learning, that is, MacBooks of some kind (and PC notebooks) in college?

I sense that Apple is wrestling with all this. But it remains to be seen if Apple’s incremental approach will hold off the competition indefinitely. Apple’s commitment to always building the very best seems always at odds with K-12 funding levels where “good enough” carries the day.

I’m sure that Apple executives, on the firing line for educational sales, keep asking themselves: “What more can we do? How can we win, hands down? What’s the next breakthrough that will get us there?”

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