Apple has 94% of the classroom tablet market–Why that’s a scary stat

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“Apple is making substantial contributions to society,” by “reinventing education,” CEO Tim Cook said during Monday’s quarterly earnings call. Celebrating their “highest September quarter revenue ever,” and their “best education quarter ever,” Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer highlighted global education more than any other growth market for the iPad specifically. Here are some of the examples they cited:

  • Over $1 billion in the education category specifically for the first time ever, out of $37 billion in total revenue.
  • Education sales were up 8% year over year.
  • In the U.K., the number of iPads sold to K-12 schools has more than doubled year-over-year.
  • In Latin America, over 70,000 iPads in use across 800 schools.
  • The Coachella Valley School District in California is currently distributing over 19,000 iPads to its student body.
  • Horry County School Districts in South Carolina will distribute 10,000 tablets to middle school students this year with a goal of providing all students in grades 3-12 with their own devices within three years.
  •  iBooks textbooks are now available across the U.S., U.K. and Australian national high school curricula.
  • Apple’s share of tablets in education is 94%. 

“It’s sort of unheard of,” crowed CEO Tim Cook. “I’ve never seen a market share that high before. So, we feel like we’re doing really well here and feel great to be making a contribution to education.”

The rise of the iPad in education has been impressive but not uncontroversial. As documented elsewhere on this blog, the devices have both passionate fans and passionate detractors among educators. Notably, Cook and Oppenheimer did not mention the ongoing $1 billion iPad rollout by the second largest school district in this country, LA Unified. Perhaps that’s because the rollout has been delayed due to security concerns and other implementation problems, a “fiasco” that led to resignation rumors for Superintendent John Deasy.

As I see it there are three major problems with one company having a 94% market share in a particular kind of classroom device. The first one is price and competition. In response to a question on the call about competition from the more modestly priced Google Chromebook, Tim Cook said “We do see Chromebooks in some places, but the vast majority of people are buying a PC/Mac or an iPad.”

Even with high-volume discounts, iPads can cost over $600 per student. Apple has consistently resisted making truly budget versions of its devices even when that meant losing market share to competitors, to say nothing of its purported social mission in an area like education. Not only are iPads expensive, they require monthly data plans for most applications, their components are near-impossible to repair or upgrade, and like most Apple products they are designed to be replaced every few years.

The second problem with massive iPad adoption is control of curriculum. The star iPad educators I’ve talked to are masters of the remix. They use dozens of different apps in their classrooms daily, most of which put students in an active role as content creators and communicators. It takes careful scaffolding and professional development to make teachers confident in applying this kind of technological creativity. In large scale iPad adoptions, especially those motivated by the transition to the Common Core, what we’re far more likely to see is Apple subcontracting out to providers like Pearson for an all-in-one, off-the-shelf curriculum solution that is little more than an automated textbook. As we’ve seen in LA, this can simultaneously disempower and confuse teachers, taking them out of the drivers’ seat, as well as lead to subpar experiences for students.

Finally, compared to bona fide computers, iPads are far less hackable. You can’t reprogram them without jailbreaking. Using them to write code is unwieldy. You can’t even open them up to change the battery. This puts an entire technological world off-limits in tablet-based classrooms.

Here’s a blog post by a friend of mine who is building a PC out of parts with his two school-aged daughters, using free videos found online as their coach. The girls will use the computer to play the wildly popular educational game Minecraft. The total cost is well under $300. Imagine if our public schools took this DIY approach to provisioning classrooms with computers.

What Apple, IBM, Microsoft and LinkedIn Want with K-12 Schools

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There’s an ever-expanding universe of ed-tech startups out there, alongside the massive incumbents in textbook and educational materials that have moved aggressively into digital products and services. But to get a true picture of the direction of innovation in K-12, it is also helpful to look at how the big technology companies are tackling this market. They view the needs of the marketplace of students, teachers, administrations, governments, and families differently than other players do, through the lens of their core offerings. Four of these companies, Apple, IBM, LinkedIn, and Microsoft, had news this week.

1) IBM: Data infrastructure.

In a thoughtful piece in Next City, my Fast Company colleague Greg Lindsay looks at “P-TECH”, an early college/vocational-technical public high school in New York City established with considerable input and support from IBM. The model, which aims to graduate each student with a technical associate’s degree and a place “at the head of the line” for IBM jobs, and which has IBM engineers mentor each student, is seeing early success and has already spawned five more schools in Chicago.

“Big Blue has taken it upon itself to reinvent one of any city’s pivotal institutions: public schools,” Lindsay writes. But this isn’t just a philanthropic effort. It’s an expansion of Smarter Cities, IBM’s attempt to rejigger itself into a provider of technical consulting, support services, and cloud infrastructure to cities as well as to companies. “P-TECH and its descendants are seen within the company as test beds for the next plank in its Smarter Cities effort, which is to build for schools what its operations center is for cities: A single system for collecting, aggregating and analyzing data from students and teachers alike, then writing algorithms to prescribe how to cope with a troubled student just as one might try to reroute a traffic jam.”

2) Microsoft: Search and hardware.

Microsoft seems to view schools as a handy way to build brand loyalty and differentiate its second-place search engine, Bing. Like IBM, they are leading with philanthropy. Bing for Schools, currently piloting, is a free, ad-free, safe-filtered search engine with extra privacy controls, exclusively available to schools. It comes bundled with lesson plans and a rewards system that allows schools to earn free Microsoft Surface tablets just by using the search engine. These tablets are also available at a discount to schools.

3) LinkedIn: Connecting to college and jobs.

LinkedIn, the professional social network, announced this week that it will open up membership to 14-to-18 year olds. In a related move, they also announced “University Pages” as a way to encourage colleges to maintain a presence on the site for recruitment and alumni networking.

Getting teens to take control of their social media footprint, and leverage it in positive ways, is a hot topic, as surveys show teens are sharing more than ever online.  LinkedIn has reportedly low usage among young people, and obviously this is a market the company would like to be in. But merely opening the doors doesn’t mean that the kids will show up.

4) Apple: Brand awareness and mystique.

The final education announcement related to a large tech company this week didn’t come from the company itself. A private foundation in the Netherlands announced the opening of seven “Steve JobsSchools” focusing on self-paced, iPad-based learning. This on top of an announcement last month that the LA Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, would have 100% iPad adoption by late next year.

iPads are far from the cheapest computing devices for classrooms, and they fall short on other practicalities. Students and teachers complain abut their lack of a keyboard, lack of a USB drive, inability to support Flash, inability to keep several windows open at once, and to easily highlight or take notes on a text. But iPads are sleek, beautiful, versatile little devices that represent the future. And this may be their ultimate attraction from the educational market.