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.