Apple’s ‘Field Trip’ Education Event Used an Obsolete Formula

iPads in education - girl in classroom with an iPad
iPads in education - girl in classroom with an iPad
The new Apple tools look great. But can they influence school financial decisions?

Apple’s event in Chicago on March 27 generated a lot of excitement. Apple addressed some fundamental problems with new capabilities for schools. Most notable in my opinion are:

  1. Apple School Manager which allows the bulk creation of Apple IDs by teachers.
  2. Schoolwork App. Allows teachers to manage assignments and handouts.
  3. iCloud free storage has been increased, for education, from 5 to 200 GB.

A more complete list of all the new tools was published by CNET. This is all good stuff, but there remains an important issue, not addressed.

Changing Behavior

This event used, in my experience, a well-tested but increasingly obsolete strategy.

  1. There are elements in the Apple media that would like to see Apple compete more effectively in education.
  2. Apple develops some very cool, capable technologies that showcase a great vision for modern education.
  3. Then Apple holds a special event and invites selected media.
  4. The media gets all excited (as they should be), in awe of Apple’s terrific tools and vision. It all gets reported in glorious detail.
  5. Omitted is any analysis of whether it will change the behavior of educators because that’s not possible to foresee. The jazzy technology itself is the star. The news.
  6. Apple hopes that educators, reading all the high-spirited articles, will think themselves: “Wow, this is really cool stuff. I should reconsider what Apple has to offer when I make plans.”

This technique, born of an earlier time when computers were new in the classroom, fails in the modern era. In times past, progressive schools were eager to get computers into the classroom. (Of course, many teachers weren’t so generally eager, having inadequate computer skills. But that’s an aside.) The eventual choice was between PCs and Macs.

Even though Macs were more expensive, the Mac did well in many cases because its higher initial cost was offset by lower support costs. PCs were nightmares to secure and maintain.

Today, the overwhelming driver is initial cost and pedagogical requirements that Apple can’t change or address. And so, if a Chromebook breaks, it’s easy to replace. Nothing is lost because students work in their own accounts in the cloud. There is no offsetting cost benefit by purchasing a relatively expensive iPad. (Here’s a sober summary of the iPad pros and cons.)

Because Apple didn’t address the fundamental issue of hardware cost, the technical influence of the media, cool as the new tools are, will fall on deaf ears. The new iPad is US$299 for education. The Apple Pencil is $89. And that doesn’t include, in most cases, a obligatory keyboard. As one person said on Twitter,

Tweet - iPad priding for education.

Blame Game

What has to happen next is that these initiatives and tools need to be “sold” to schools by the field education force with general success. The case has to be made that students will be more inspired and better educated. Teachers will be able to work more efficiently, be less burdened by old techniques.

The problem is that, in many cases, schools have already learned how to achieve those goals with less expensive Chromebooks. Unable to compete on price and pushing glitzy corporate stuff not meeting the school’s specific requirements, the sales force hands will be tied. Most educators, excited as they are, will see no reason to suddenly change course.

What happens next is that, as in times past, senior Apple executives blame the sales executives for being ineffective in their ability to excite and change the behavior of school decision makers.

Then there’s a long period of soul searching while the competition continues to make inroads.

Final Thoughts

I think Apple rolled out some impressive and valuable tools. Time will tell, however, whether these initiatives will reinvigorate Apple’s educational efforts. In many cases, I suspect, there will be some showcase schools that already embrace Apple for their own reasons and will make a splash with these new offerings.

I also expect Tim Cook will highlight those schools as influencing evidence that Apple has done the ‘right thing.’ Even so, the real metric is significant market share gains in the long run. Are these tools and technologies both necessary and sufficient to reverse Apple’s losses of late? Are these new tools the result of deep understanding of educator needs, designed to broadly convince? Can Apple compete at the chosen price points?

Sensational news about an inspiring Apple event is one thing. Actually turning the tide of the war will be long, hard, frustrating, roll-up-the-sleeves work.

We’ll all be watching and rooting for Apple.

11 thoughts on “Apple’s ‘Field Trip’ Education Event Used an Obsolete Formula

  • Apple needs a toaster fridge to compete in EDU. They talk about coding in the classroom and show a freak’n MacBook. So their strategy for EDU is get a useless iPad AND a MacBook, if everyone wants to code. Since they will not do a touch screen MacBook, their only other chance to compete is to finally let the iPad have mouse/touchpad controls and sell it with a keyboard (that has an integrated touchpad). They could sell that for $199 if they wanted and eek out a small profit for EDU, if they wanted.

    But they are cheap and stupid. That’s the problem.

    1. There’s a lot going on here, so I’ll just grab onto one thing: Coding on an iPad … that’s probably good for introducing the idea, and it is very important to introduce the idea (I got shown Logos, a programming environment for turtle-based drawing, in 5th grade, I think on an Apple ][e but I’d have to double-check that), but you don’t need to make an iPad a full-blown development environment. Programming is a real engineering discipline that needs real tools. It is possibly one of the last things that would switch away from more traditional computers to an iPad form factor because it is the “truck” that Steve Jobs talked about. Yes it can be cool and useful to do a quick bit of programming or systems admin work on an iPad. Very cool. Also many developers these days use a laptop instead of a desktop. But the extra monitors and screen space are helpful when available, as is the extra processor power. The laptop to iPad jump additionally loses the full sized keyboard and mouse. I think a new generation might be able to learn to program efficiently in new form factors, but I’m not convinced that the current programing languages and development environments are right for that form factor. Once you get StarTrek programming (talk to the computer to tell it what algorithms and logic you want, then it puts together a program for you) then you can lose the keyboard. Or design something that works with an Apple pencil maybe. So if Apple’s strategy when they talk about coding is to show a MacBook, yes absolutely because you can’t sell an iPad as a serious coding tool yet and probably not for quite a while. (I don’t even think it is inevitable that iPads could do it.) Showing tools like Swift Playgrounds on an iPad is good as the way to get kids interested, but then they will have to move on to a MacBook or iMac to really dig into it.

  • Their formula hasn’t changed at all. They used to make the case that Macs even with their higher cost were a better education experience. They made the same case with the iPad. Every my daughter comes home after using her chromebook at school and the first thing she does is goes straight for the iPad. Chromebooks are cheap, functional, and basic. There is nothing about them that promotes creativity or fun or love of learning. Yes, Apple won’t succeed in winning the market. But they will stay true to their values of delivering a better user experience and product.

    1. What do you think the profit margin is on a $299 iPad that includes all of the software and 200GB of storage?

      How cheap would it have to be for you to not make this statement? Had they delivered an iPad with a keyboard case using an A7 processor and a much lower quality set of cameras, no pencil support (but dumb stylus aka touch screen) for $229 would that have hit the mark? Because I can tell you that would not have been less expensive over 5 years.

  • In our rather large school district, all of the kids have Chromebooks. Well, the little kids have iPads, I believe 1st and 2nd grades. Makes sense, with the younger kids not yet typing, but the older kids typing away (and using trackpads).

    As a student (computer user in general), I’d get rather frustrated using a iPad/keyboard without a trackpad. I tried blogging with my iPad on travel and it was rather frustrating to want to quickly highly text using the touchscreen, on an iPad sitting somewhat precariously in a keyboard stand. With a trackpad, right away you’ve got excellent control and its a massive time saver over touching a screen to edit documents.

    Not sure if Apple really cares about education outside of colleges where they can sell a student a MacBook Pro and an iPhone and maybe iPad and make hefty profits.

    1. Not sure if Apple really cares about education outside of colleges where they can sell a student a MacBook Pro and an iPhone and maybe iPad and make hefty profits.

      Apple is a business, they probably ran the “Numbers” on selling to, and supporting, K-12 education.

    2. I curious how much your school pays for chrome books? Are they touch capable? And how long are they used.

      My curiosity comes from people (including those on this podcast) who said Apple missed the mark because iPads are more expensive than chrome books and I have to believe that it is not likely that is true or at least we certainly don’t know yet.

      My understanding is that most schools are buying $250-$300 chrome books with rather low resolution displays and very poor processors. Systems like these in the android world last about 2 years with updates and become increasingly unusable after that time. Chrome books might be better about such things but performance buys longevity and functionality. The A10 chip is a beast and I doubt even a $300 chrome book is close to it’s performance. Combine that with iOS 11 still running on iPads that were released in 2013 (iPad Air and iPad Mini 2) and you have reason to believe that these systems will last 5 or more years and still have value for trade in or resale. (current price for an iPad air 32gb on woot is $250.

      I’m just saying that I hope school administrators are not as short sited as the host of this site, because I think there is some real value in these systems, but time will tell.

      1. Our district probably pays about $300 if I recall for a Chromebook. If the iPad is meant to be a laptop replacement, then its has missed apple’s mark.

        Look, it’s best to try one out. I’ve been using laptops for over 25 years. 2 years ago I bought a used, bottom of the barrel C710 Acer Chromebook off eBay for $90 that was probably 3 years old. It was FANTASTIC. It was on par with my 12″ MacBook in speed. The Chromebook is a fantastic device. When my MacBook stops working, I’ll probably go back to a Chromebook (I gave mine to someone who needed a computer.)

        Who cares about resale on a $300 computer that’s going to be sold off on eBay?

        I pay a lot of money in taxes and a lot of my property taxes go to schools that buy Chromebooks and they have 100% of my support. The iPad is a fail as a productivity device for students.

      2. I don’t know about your schools but at mine there are very few in class lessons designed around typing. I’ve tried to do math with a keyboard and it just doesn’t work. There may be certain activities (like learning to type) where a keyboard would be useful, but as a tool for in class work, pencil input makes just as much sense or frankly more!

        I don’t know how old you are, but I’ve been around for a while and there are things that kids are comfortable with that freak me out! Like watching kids touch type on an iphone keyboard with two thumbs. Or playing first person shooters with virtual joysticks. You may be imposing your needs on students that don’t share them.

        Now I don’t believe that the things we saw on screen from the event (you did watch it right?) are going to work as well as they showed. But having a teacher have access to every devices screen simultaneously with summary information on where the students are in their progress would absolutely amplify the number of students a teacher can help.

        As for speed? Crack open a virtual frog on that chrome book of yours or even a new chrome book and tell me that performance doesn’t matter. Google was smart to make a stripped down OS to allow lower end hardware to satisfy basic needs but Apple has done the same thing with iOS and they are throwing vastly more powerful hardware at the problem for a small price premium. Arguing that this platform is DOA due to price is way beyond short sited.

        Oh ya, and if you pay $300 for an iPad, use it for 2-3 years, sell it for $150 (keeping your keyboards and pencils) to keep up to date and within warrantee for only the $150 difference, that changes the real cost of iPads. Making them much lower than the chrome book that you throw away after 3 years.

  • I was a bit disappointed that the new iPad wasn’t introduced with a new lower price as was rumoured. The rumors were that the price would be dropped by $50 US, but the iPad retained the same $329 US price as the previous model.

    But then I realized that the new iPad is basically the 9.7 inch iPad Pro that was introduced just 2 years ago in March 2016.

    The differences are:

    iPad Pro 2016
    Apple A9X (2 cores @ 2.16GHz)
    2GB Memory
    12MP camera
    9 hours battery life
    $729 (32 GB)

    iPad 2018
    Apple A10 (4 cores @ 2.3GHz)
    4GB Memory
    8MP camera
    10 hours battery life
    $329 (32 GB)

    So Apple is selling the iPad Pro from just 2 years ago, with much faster performance and a slightly smaller camera, for just 45% of the price!

    When you look at it that way, it’s really not a bad price for what you get. 👍

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