iPad's Biggest Problem in Education is iPad

Apple has a storied history in the education market with a long-standing goal of transforming the way students use technology to learn. In recent months, the rise of Chromebooks and the "Cloud" and a few well-publicized iPad initiative failures have raised questions if Apple is approaching the education market with the correct strategy or if competitors' offerings are squeezing out Apple products from the classroom. I don't look at Chromebooks as competing with iPad in education and I'm rather baffled at why the education market is being labeled as a zero-sum game for computing devices. Instead, I view the iPad's biggest roadblock in education is the iPad. With a rather limited range of functionality in a strict learning environment, instead of appealing to the education mass market, iPad may be better suited serving niche learning environments where a higher-priced, specialized learning tool is desired. 

Education and Technology

Unlike the consumer market, education and technology are guided by different principals including elected boards, budgets, studies, and mandates. When discussing technology adoption in education I think it is important to recognize this different structure compared to the consumer market. Even within education, there are different environments for how technology is adopted as private, parochial, and charter schools determine technology prerequisites differently than public schools. While the economy may have improved, many municipalities continue to run with very tight budgets, and education is often the largest expense line item for most cities. With such a backdrop, school districts are looking to make each technology dollar go as far as possible. Price matters in education and that dynamic can not be stressed enough. Two weeks ago, the NYC Department of Education approved Chromebooks due to two reasons: familiarity and low-price.   

Chromebook Advantages

Along with price, school districts are buying Chromebooks for various reasons, including the fact that the computer serves student's needs really well. With many teachers and administrators relying on Google Apps for daily tasks such as attendance, grading, and scheduling, not to much more student-facing apps like YouTube, a Chromebook is an obvious way of utilizing Google's services and cloud infrastructure. Concerning affordability, deployability, and supportability, Chromebooks check off many prerequisites that schools are looking for to expand technology in the classroom. 

iPad Disadvantages

While people love iPads, teachers and administrators have run into issues with iPads in the classroom, including logistical bottlenecks and usability.  When compared to how schools use Chromebooks (sharing is a key tenet), iPads' single-user framework embraces the idea of the iPad remaining with the same student in school and at home. While this program has been adopted in smaller schools where families buy the iPad themselves, for larger school systems, this computing method is impractical, and may represent one of the biggest roadblocks for widespread iPad usage in education.  Looking at iPad in the upper grades, lack of usability begins to stand out with no dedicated keyboard and lackluster curriculum offerings.

The Cloud

The argument is pretty straightforward: With everything moving to the cloud, hardware will turn into a commodity. In some ways it's simply taking a page from Christensen's 'Innovator's Dilemma'. What's missing? Brand and design. However, in education, school boards aren't looking at brand and design when considering what can be purchased to fit within a certain budget. Instead, design is largely pushed to very specific needs, such as gadgets for science labs or music halls. I suspect there will still be strong demand for differentiated, personalized hardware going forward, and the specialized education market is no different. 

L.A. School District iPad Program Embodies iPad's Issues in Education 

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a $1.3 billion technology initiative that included purchasing 605,000 iPads. Then-Superintendent John Deasy applauded the program and said the launch went smoothly. Fast forward to yesterday, and the FBI seized 20 boxes of documents related to the way the iPad bidding process was handled with accusations that Deasy rushed the iPad initiative through because he wanted to partner with Apple. As of today, the district has purchased "only" 91,000 iPads with plans on buying an additional 14,875 units, but along with laptops and 4,000 Chromebooks. What went wrong? Were Chromebooks to blame for iPad's misfortune? Not quite.

Rushed Rollout and Improper Training. Teachers complained of a rushed iPad rollout, where iPads were delivered, but the underlining curriculum was either not available or not even in existence. 

iPad Misusage. Students deleted security filters exposing them to the full internet. Anecdotal evidence points to widespread misusage, including students stealing or hiding iPads in school with no proper protocol for tracking where each iPad was at all times. 

In both of those cases, the iPad and any underlying infrastructure, or lack thereof, was to blame for iPad's failure. While price did play a role as well, there is little evidence of Chromebooks and laptops replacing the need for iPads altogether, but rather the iPad was simply never up to the broader initiative.

Apple's iPad Strategy in Education 

Apple's biggest problem in education is iPad, not the Chromebook. In many cases, where Chromebooks are being bought in bulk, the iPad was never positioned as a viable competitor or option to begin with. A few things Apple may do to address this current dilemma include:

Embrace Niche. Not trying to be everything to everyone. Instead of shipping a product geared towards widespread education adoption, Apple would focus on what makes the iPad stand out: the seamless intersection of hardware and software. The iPad may be more appropriate for lower grades where touch has a bigger impact on learning and there seems to be a more vibrant curriculum available, while the iPad can be used for more specific uses in the higher grades such as in the sciences and arts.

Infrastructure. I think one of iPad's issues in education is the lack of support for teachers and administrators in terms of apps and device management. Whereas Chromebooks give students the bare necessities (which is all that is desired); iPad educational software, especially with higher grades in mind, has been disappointing and unable to tap iPad's potential. Apple's grand vision for interactive textbooks has flatlined due to much larger complexities beyond just iPad and Apple.

Apple's goal in education has always been to foster new ways of learning. Over the years, as technology costs have come down and schools embraced the cloud, cheaper opportunities have ushered in more widespread technology usage in schools. Meanwhile, Apple continues to sell millions of higher-priced iPads into education annually, despite school boards trying to meet budgets, and various mandates adding layers of bureaucracy to purchasing decisions. In this context, iPad's ultimate goal in education is to provide specialized hardware and software for fostering new ways of learning, and I suspect there is a healthy market for such a product.