Apple's 'field trip' event aims iPad at Chromebook territory

The company will host an education event on Tuesday to talk up its efforts in schools. Will it be enough to stop the rise of Google and its Chromebooks?

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
8 min read

Apple wants its iPads to be used in even more schools. 

Stephen T. Shankland/CNET

Five years ago, Apple appeared to own the education market.

Its iPad was selling like crazy, and Apple partnered with major publishers to digitize their textbooks. Many schools bought the tablet — most notably, Apple won a $1.3 billion deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District to provide nearly 700,000 iPads bundled with Pearson curriculum for every student and teacher in LA.

At the time, Apple touted the partnership with the nation's second largest school district as a "massive rollout" and a "major initiative." Phil Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, noted that "education is in Apple's DNA." Delivery of the iPads started in the fall of 2013.

Then everything fell apart.

The LA partnership reportedly was plagued by curriculum delays and technical glitches, as well as security problems and other issues. Those problems made it difficult for teachers to do their jobs, and a year later, the school district canceled its contract.

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Los Angeles wanted a refund from Apple and Pearson. The district ultimately received a $4.2 million settlement from Apple.

Fast-forward to today. Apple's iPad sales fell for 13 quarters in a row before finally edging up again in mid-2017. The company has had success pushing its Swift Playgrounds coding software in schools, but digital textbooks didn't exactly revolutionize education. At the same time, Google's Chromebook has taken over the US education market, with nearly three out of every five machines used in schools running the Chrome operating system in 2017, according to researcher Futuresource Consulting.

"When Apple launched the iPad for education [push], for the first year or two, it got a lot of really good traction," said Michael Horn, an education expert who started the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think tank. "But Google has just really taken the market by storm."

Apple's struggles in schools — as well as with its iPad — mark a sharp contrast with its dominance in smartphones through its iPhone franchise, underscoring the fickleness of the tablet business. But Apple has no intention of giving up, since getting children hooked on its products early helps ensure future generations of loyal customers. 

Indeed, no other company has been as successful at getting consumers to buy not just a single product, but a family of interconnected devices including iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs and Macs at home. Once someone buys into that Apple ecosystem of devices, apps and other services, it's tougher to switch to a competitor like Android or Windows. But Apple still needs to figure out where its iPads fit as its computers become even more portable and its smartphones get bigger. 

So it's taking another shot at education.

The company on Tuesday will host an event at 10 a.m. CT (8 a.m. PT/11 a.m. ET) at the Lane Tech College Prep High School on Chicago's north side. "Let's take a field trip," the invite said as it asked reporters to "join us to hear new creative ideas for teachers and students." You can tune into CNET's live blog here.

Apple declined to comment ahead of its event, but it's expected to introduced new iPads and update its software that caters to schools. That could include updated iPad Pro tablets that borrow the Face ID technology found on the iOS-powered iPhone X, as well as a likely refresh of the entry-level 9.7-inch iPad. And its iPads, which also run iOS, are expected to get cheaper. Apple also has a cheaper MacBook in the works, according to Bloomberg, though that probably won't be ready in time for Tuesday's event.

Chrome incursion

Apple has a long history in the education market. Macintosh computers have been used in schools for decades, and Apple still gives students and teachers discounts on its products. In 2007, it launched iTunes U to provide free content such as lectures, language lessons and lab demonstrations from US colleges including Stanford University and MIT.

In 2012, it hosted an event in New York to unveil a new iTunes U app that would give educators and students "everything they need on their iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch to teach and take entire courses." It also introduced its second generation of iBooks and tools for publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill to digitize their textbooks. Apple envisioned students across the country using their iPads to access curriculum that was more interactive and cheaper than print textbooks.

Google Pixelbook is pretty and powerful for a Chromebook

See all photos

The LA school district was intrigued and became the first major school system to jump on board. 

It took only a year before those plans fell apart. The district still offers iPads in some classes but not the one-iPad-per-student model it had originally intended, a school district spokesman said.

Other schools followed suit, ditching their iPads for Google Chromebooks. Many students and educators appreciated having a built-in physical keyboard, and the schools liked the ease of setup and other features.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the Chromebooks — which run web apps and require an internet connection for full functionality — was the cost. Schools typically buy them for about $250 to $300 apiece, including access to Google's cloud services and management software, like its Classroom education technology.

By comparison, the LA Unified School District paid nearly $800 apiece for its iPads, more than the device's selling price at the time because of the included Pearson curriculum.

Samsung Chromebook Pro 17

One thing schools like about Chromebooks is the built-in physical keyboard. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Bloomfield School District in New Jersey initially offered iPads to students six or seven years ago, but about three years ago went all-in on Chromebooks. In the coming years, every student in grades three and above -- nearly 5,000 students -- will have a Chromebook.

"When we looked at the numbers financially of iPads versus Chromebooks, it was a staggering difference," said Joseph Fleres, director of elementary education for the district. "And with our curriculum, the Chromebook, being more in the traditional laptop sense, was more conducive to what we wanted to do."

Students still use iPads, but they're mostly in lower grades where kids don't yet know how to type. And there's not one device per student, Fleres said.

iPad pricing has come down since LA and Bloomfield made their initial purchases. Today, the cheapest iPad costs $329. (That model hit the market a year ago. Its heavier and thicker casing made it $70 cheaper than the 2.5-year-old iPad Air 2 that it replaced). The least expensive Pro version starts at $649 and has an optional $159 Smart Keyboard case and a $99 Pencil stylus. Apple knocks $20 off the iPad prices (but not the accessories) for students and teachers.

iPad love

Not every school turned away from Apple. The Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota have handed out iPads to students since the second generation of the tablet. What started off as a small program with about 400 students soon expanded to include nearly 7,000 students from grades five through 12.

A year ago, the district evaluated whether it could save money by moving to Chromebooks. But it found out that "it was pretty much a wash," said Michael Dronen, executive director of technology at Minnetonka Public Schools. Students hold onto their new iPads for three years, and the school can sell them to other businesses when they've reached the end of that time. But Chromebooks, Dronen said, "didn't have much, if any, resale value."

Watch this: Apple's new iPad Pro takes baby steps towards the future

Minnetonka isn't alone in being happy with its iPads. String Theory Schools in Philadelphia saved $100,000 a year by replacing traditional textbooks with iPads, and Drayton Hall Elementary School in South Carolina found that all of its kindergartners were reading above grade level after using iPads, compared with only 35 percent before.

"There really is an explosion of interest in the ways tech can help teachers," said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, a nonpartisan research and policy analysis organization tasked with looking at ways to personalize learning for students. 

But she cautioned that it can be overwhelming for teachers to evaluate all of the options and know what can actually help their students. And if the technology isn't implemented well, other schools could end up like LA with its iPad program.

"iPads or Chromebooks can be really powerful learning tools, but unless educators really have a coherent plan about how to put them to good effect, they may not work out well," she said.

Swiftly coding

Apple's biggest education push of late has revolved around coding. The company created a free curriculum called Everyone Can Code, which includes the iPad app Swift Playgrounds, offering people simplified instructions for how to use Apple's popular programming language. Swift Playgrounds can even be used to create apps for robots and drones, not just iPhones and iPads.

Community colleges around the US use Apple's yearlong App Development with Swift curriculum to teach students how to code and design functional apps. This school year, more than 30 community colleges are offering the course, and the city of Chicago plans to offer App Development with Swift to all of its nearly 500,000 students.

"At Apple we believe coding is an essential skill, so we've designed Everyone Can Code to give everyone the power to learn, write and teach coding," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a December press release.

Apple's stores offer classes for students and teachers to learn new skills (not just coding), and hundreds of thousands of teachers participate in the Apple Teacher program, which helps build iPad and Mac skills.

Despite all of Apple's efforts, Google and its Chromebook momentum will be tough to slow down. Even if Apple drops iPad pricing further, makes the Apple Pencil cheaper and introduces other changes, it could be hard to convince some schools to give its products another try. That's especially true as teachers and students become more used to the Google technology they already have.

Many elementary school students and all middle school students in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Northern California, for example, use Google's education apps. By the time they get to high school, they know exactly how the devices work. When it came time to launch a new college prep-focused high school, called College Now, in 2016, the district chose to give each of the students a Chromebook instead of an iPad or other device. 

Having to transition to an entirely different platform now would be "a little daunting," said Erica Shaw, a social studies teacher at the College Now school that currently has 41 students.

"The first couple of years of teaching students how to use a program takes a lot of time away from teaching content," she said. "I couldn't foresee switching over to iPads at this point even if they were less expensive."

On Tuesday, it's up to Apple to make its case for switching back.

Originally published March 23 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated at 5:54 a.m. PT: Added information from a Bloomberg report.

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