Apple has a Google problem — in education, that is. Google has won over a large portion of the education market in the US, something that can be credited to both the cheapness of web-based Chromebooks and the accessibility of Google’s apps. Apple knows this, so yesterday, it hosted a “field trip” — that’s actually what it was called — for press, teachers, and student journalists at a magnet high school in Chicago.
The event may as well have been called “Sorry you can’t make a cool video with a Chromebook.”
That’s the point Apple seemed to want to underscore as it presented another iPad and a new and slightly updated suite of apps for teachers and students. The new, $329 9.7-inch iPad ($299 for students) supports Apple’s fancy Pencil, as well as a new stylus from Logitech called Crayon. Need to scribble some notes or use a fine point to edit a photo? You can do that on a cheap iPad now. The school iPad also supports ARKit, which means it can run sophisticated AR apps. One example is an app that lets you dissect a virtual frog. (You don’t even need to Google “formaldehyde.”) And there’s a new Apple-designed curriculum called Everyone Can Create, which joins Everyone Can Code as part of a suite of apps for, well, making things: music, art, videos.
Apple even cited examples of students using the Clips app to make videos. Never mind that I haven’t seen many real people using Clips in the past year, outside of people at Apple.
“We’ve been at this for 40 years, and we care deeply about education,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said onstage at the event. “We believe that our place at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts makes it possible for us to create powerful products and tools that amplify ... creativity.”
There’s no question that Apple has a long history of appealing to creative types with its technology. The bigger question is whether that approach will help it grab some of the education market back from Google, which partners with a variety of manufacturers for Chromebooks and has emphasized the utility of apps like Docs and Gmail.
Google’s occupation of classrooms has been a swift one. Last year, Chromebooks were estimated to have won half of the market share for personal computers and tablets in the US education market, up from a mere 9 percent in 2013.
A large part of this is cost; Chromebooks sell for as low as $149. Another reason is device management. It’s pretty easy for teachers and students alike to sign in and out of web-based Chromebooks as needed, whereas Apple didn’t introduce multi-user features for iPads in classrooms until 2016. And Chromebooks run on Chrome OS, Google’s always-up-to-date operating system.
But another big factor is Google’s software-centric approach. “Apple is fundamentally a hardware company, so they want people to fall in love with their devices and their user interface,” says Trace Urdan, a managing director at Tyton Partners who follows the knowledge and education market. “Google has been playing the long game, which is to get all of these kids into the Google apps. They’ve created enough utility and made it easy enough so it’s become the defacto document-sharing, collaboration tool in schools.”
“Google’s goal is to get everyone into Google,” Urdan added.
And it’s working: more than half of the students in primary schools and secondary schools in the US use Google apps like Gmail and Docs, which means more than 30 million kids use them. This is a number that was first shared in a New York Times report last spring; a Google spokesperson told The Verge that data is still accurate.
Apple’s own collaboration apps and cloud-based features weren’t ignored at yesterday’s event. Apps like Pages, Keynote, Numbers, were all shown onstage and are getting fresh updates, along with Clips and GarageBand. A spokesperson confirmed that Apple’s new Schoolwork app, which lets teachers assign and manage homework and projects, will be easily accessible through the web at iCloud.com. And students will get 200GB of free iCloud storage.
Apple also said that Schoolwork will keep all student data private.
But the overall theme of the event was about making things, not just writing them. After the main stage event, press and other attendees — who were given “class schedules” at the start of the day — were guided through robot-programming, music-making, anatomy-sketching demos in large garage-like rooms. Ditch the fuddy-duddy clamshell, Apple seemed to say, and use touchscreens and high-resolution tablet cameras and stylus pens instead. And it’s obviously an appeal the company is making not just to administrators and teachers, but to students themselves.
“They are creators of content, rather than consumers of information,” Cassey Williams, a teacher from Woodberry Down Primary School in London, said about her students during the morning’s presentation. Williams was one of four teachers that Apple brought onstage to show how her students are using iPads in classrooms.
Of course, a lot of people still like laptops with keyboards. And when you’re a school district facing a giant deficit — as is the case for Chicago Public Schools, the district where the event was held — both upfront costs and operational costs for new technology are still a large consideration. Even with the student discount, Apple’s new iPad, keyboard, and stylus combo exceeds $400.
But, Urban says, the tide could also turn in Apple’s favor as younger kids, who are quite literally growing up with iPads, get further into the education system.
“When you get up into the older grades, that’s where Chromebook comes on strong because then they have the ability to use the keyboard. But that’s not as much of a barrier anymore,” he says. “When you’re talking about little kids and educational content, you’re talking about videos and gaming and a market that extends from the school world into the consumer world.”