iPads for education – good idea or bad idea?

Apple held an education event on March 27th, which is probably not a surprise to anyone reading this, nor is it any sort of breaking news that the biggest thing to come out of the event was a new 6th generation iPad with Apple Pencil support aimed at the education market.  This iPad is very similar to the low-cost, $329 iPad that was introduced last year, with a bump from an A8 to an A10 (not A10X) processor in addition to the aforementioned pencil support.  This new iPad still has a non-laminated display (which means there’s a small air gap), lacks ProMotion (Apple’s adaptive refresh rate technology that goes up to 120Hz), and doesn’t have the smart connector to snap a keyboard on, but for half the price of an iPad Pro, I do think it’s quite a bit more than half of the iPad Pro.

I don’t think a review of this iPad is super necessary, because anyone that buys one knows exactly what they’re getting – a really good iPad at a much easier to digest price point.  Again, it’s not the best iPad experience, just a really good one.  But this event wasn’t targeted to consumers, it was targeted to education, the market in which Apple (and Microsoft) are losing serious ground to Google on thanks to low-cost, easy to manage Chromebooks and Google Education offerings.

Apple’s sell on this new iPad was to this specific market.  For educators, the new iPad is discounted to $299 and the Apple Pencil to $89 (because of course, it’s not included).  There was a host of updates to iWork, including some fancy new annotations with the Pencil, announcements of 200GB of iCloud storage per student account, and a few other creative-type things relating to AR and eBooks, but the main takeaway here is that Apple wants to make their offering clear to the education market.

This is an opportunity to not only sell iPads, but to get kids in front of iPads that may otherwise not have been exposed to them, which could create a positive brand association down the line, ensuring future sales.  If that sounds dumb, my elementary school had Apple II’s and old Macintosh desktops, and when my parents bought my first computer (a Packard Bell running Windows 3.11), I was a little upset that it wasn’t one of the ones we had at school.  Granted, many kids today grow up with tablets, whereas kids from my generation probably didn’t have a computer at home until the late 90’s.

From a school’s perspective, there’s very little doubt that Chromebooks are still a cheaper option.  For the price of an iPad alone, you can get a pretty decent Chromebook with money to spare.  It may or may not have a touchscreen, but what it will have is a keyboard, and it won’t be nearly as fragile, which means it’s ready to go.  Apple’s big sell was pretty heavily reliant on the Pencil (or the $49, education-only Logitech “Crayon” that will be launching soon), and that still doesn’t include a Bluetooth keyboard to type on (since this iPad lacks a smart connector) or a protective case.

Speaking on terms of price alone, the Chromebook clearly wins, but Apple’s vision for the product goes quite a bit beyond the traditional idea of a computer in the classroom (and of course, Apple simply doesn’t compete on price).  I’m quite sure there are some really cool merits to giving kids the ability to create eBooks in their classroom, introduce them to coding with Swift Playgrounds, and maybe give them the ability to create music with GarageBand.  I would never downplay the importance of these tools, and if the iPad came with a keyboard, this entire blog post could basically be deleted from existence.

However, that’s a major issue from my perspective – this new iPad targeted to education does not come with a keyboard.  If we could somehow pretend that keyboards aren’t important anymore and that kids won’t break an iPad without a case, that would knock $99 off the total cost of these devices.  See, besides the $49 Logitech Crayon I mentioned earlier, Apple also announced a $99 Logitech-created rugged keyboard case, which brings the total up to $447 minimum to give students an iPad with a stylus and keyboard/protective case.  That’s more than double the price of many Chromebooks.  Education is a very price-sensitive market, and Apple’s offering is not just double the price, but double the price at education scale.  We’re talking $447 times hundreds of students instead of $200-250 times hundreds of students.  For a school of 500 kids at $250 a pop, that’s a difference of nearly $100k, and there are cheaper Chromebook options to make that rift even larger.

Keyboards are important.  Yes, touch is incredible, and it’s captured and redefined the world via mobile, but most kids will get jobs doing work that is still done with keyboards.  Really, the only job I can think of offhand that you can do entirely with a touchscreen is cashiering at a fast food place.

The eBooks Apple wants to help kids create, the coding they’re hoping to inspire kids to learn about – just try doing either of those things on an iPad without a keyboard.  You will drive yourself crazy.  Kids need to be taught how to type because content creation is severely restricted without a physical keyboard.  I like to think I’m a pretty forward-thinking person, and I can’t imagine a 12 year old kid today getting an office job in 10 years that doesn’t require them to create reports, type up long emails, work with spreadsheets, or a whole host of other things that are just incredibly difficult on a touchscreen and oftentimes impossible (read: unavailable) on iPads.

I know how slow corporate adoption can be, and even for the organizations that upgrade quickly, many are bound by the vendors that make the software.  Specialized software for niche markets is notoriously bad at updating, which is why so many machines out there still run Windows 7 and even Windows XP.

By not providing kids with keyboards, we’d be setting them up for failure, so these $299 iPads don’t cost $299, they cost $398, which at that point is already double the price of a Chromebook before you tack on the Crayon or Pencil.  Yes, Apple doesn’t compete on price, but this is not a market than can absorb Apple’s strategy for competition, save for some of the wealthier private schools (it should be noted that Apple held this event at a public school in Chicago).

Quite frankly, I have some concerns about Chromebooks for a similar reason – that kids aren’t getting exposed to the actual operating system they’ll be using once they get a job (most likely Windows, sometimes MacOS).  Hopefully this is an unfounded concern, or I’m underestimating the ability today’s kids will have to adapt from ChromeOS to a similar-but-very-different system, but this same adaptation simply doesn’t apply to my concern about using a real keyboard.

I suppose you can argue that there are plenty of successful people who employ the hunt-and-peck method of typing, but at least this method was honed on a physical keyboard.  Maybe they type one third or even half as fast the average WPM of a person that knows how to type properly, but the reality of that situation is still that they are not as prepared or equipped for the real world.  Heck, I even shudder to think of trying to take notes in college without the ability to type.  I suppose you can handwrite notes with an iPad and a Crayon/Pencil, but personally, I type about three times as fast as a I write.

This isn’t to say that Apple’s education strategy will be a failure for their business, but rather that I hope it’s not a failure for kids or schools.  Only time will tell in that aspect, but I guess on the bright side, the new iPad does seem like a solid purchase for consumers.


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