Gone are the days when computers in schools were housed in small rooms and tended to by enthusiasts and hobbyists who formed their own social grouping: computer nerds. If you were born in the late sixties or early seventies you might remember using an Apple 1 in elementary school, usually one per class.
Steve Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak saw, early on, the promise that the use of computers in education presented, and donated Apples through giveaway programs, not to hook young users on the machines, but with truly altruistic intentions of complementing teachers’ traditional set of tools–black board, text books, lectures, maybe an occasional 35 millimeter movie, slide show or overhead projector presentation.
The Apples performed these tasks as they morphed into Macintoshes and it wouldn’t be long before computers moved out of the gulags of computer labs into the hands of students and teachers.
Oddly, secondary schools seemed to regard Apples as toys and used “real ” computers, DOS-based, then Windows-based PCs.
Back then, people could not foresee what became known as multimedia computers, with Apple once again leading the way with its graphical user interface, and the development of CD-ROMs, which contained multimedia presentations devoted to subjects to a degree that had had no precedent.
No longer were computers used as robotic drill and practice machines, they became purveyors of knowledge in a totally new way–a non-linear, student controlled information dispenser, but then something remarkable happened. This development was the birth and unforeseen rapid growth of the World Wide Web, which radically altered the use of computers in the classroom and put a fast growing amount of an enormous amount of information at students’ fingertips.
The nature of the Web, aptly named, was the interconnectedness of the information, with hot links to related articles or embedded multimedia presentations. Suddenly the computer was capable of providing, once search engines were born and matured, all the information a student would need to research a paper or supplement textbooks with newer, in many cases more in-depth, accurate and timely facts.
As the Web grew faster than anyone could have foreseen, there was another use of computers becoming more prevalent, a new way of organizing, sharing and presenting the information now made so accessible to students, and their teachers. Instead of written reports read to the class with maybe some hand-drawn visual aids, presentation applications allowing the student to incorporate sound, video and the visual display of data became common, simple to learn, and forever changed the nature of the old fashioned school report.
Microsoft, too little too late
Truth be told, Microsoft, which was preoccupied lording it over businesses and the enterprise, was rather late to the game in taking an active role in pre-college education. Even today, they are touting their Office software and even their new OS8 as tools for helping children achieve, whereas Apple has taken an active role in forming partnerships with educators and textbook publishers to develop apps and digitize textbooks, offering their hardware and software at steep discounts to students and schools through their iTunes U online store.
They have made pioneering agreements with textbook publishers in the K-12 market with McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson to develop and distribute dynamic textbooks for $14.95. (A fraction of the cost of physical textbooks). They are distributed through their iBooks online market. Lost books can be redownloaded at no cost.
Apple has developed a free tool for teachers called iBooks Author, which allows educators to virtually create their own interactive textbooks subject by subject.
In fact Apple has made great strides through a new, revamped iTunes U, offering full college-level courses delivered straight to an iPad or Mac.
Admittedly, Apple has a built-in advantage over Microsoft in the education market, since Microsoft cannot control the hardware companies that use their operating system, thus they can’t offer discounts on computers they don’t make, nor do they have a coherent education marketing strategy.
Brave New World
But Apple is not in this for the money. They truly believe in their products’ abilities to usher in a new era of computer-enhanced learning. In fact they have met resistance from several large textbook publishers, who charge hundreds of dollars more for standard textbooks than Apple’s multimedia versions, with its $14.95 per text price tag, and who stand to lose millions sticking to the old paradigm.
The great transition
This is not to say that Apple completely dominates the education market. Most people have home PCs and often can’t afford to buy laptops or Macs for their kids, so they use the family machine. But with falling prices and educational discounts they are all becoming more affordable, and indeed many schools require that a student have a computer or tablet for use in the classroom as well as homework.
And PCs are by no means out of the running altogether. For this article I interviewed my 14 year-old daughter Madeline, a freshman high school student who has been assigned a PC for two years now, though she also owns a MacBook Pro and an iPad. She breaks down the advantages of using technology in school thus.
- Innovative learning.
- Easier to read (for people with messy handwriting).
- Organization of classwork and assigned readings.
- Ease of locating documents because of the search function built into computers.
- Distractibility (“I really should check my Facebook page or follow that hot link in the text”).
- Unreliability of rode hard and put up wet PCs, which are lugged around daily and not too gently and are used in nearly every class.
- They are nontraditional, meaning teachers and students must learn and adapt to the technology.
The clear winner
Best technology tool for all levels of education in our opinion? The iPad. She has talked to people who have used iPads in school, and they all agree it is more efficient than a PC or even a Mac because of the compatibility with and availability of the large number of educational apps, its simple organization, and maybe most importantly, reliability. All three are used in her school, with different grades being assigned the different platforms in a random fashion.
She tells me that there are IT personnel assigned to the mix of PCs, Macs and iPads owned by the students at her school. On a typical day, the iPad guy answers a few questions from students regarding apps or how to best accomplish an assignment.
The Mac guy shows a few students how to get the most out of the content the school has developed.
But meanwhile there is a waiting line outside the PC guy’s office who is faced with trying to fix everything from broken latches, swivels and keyboards, to solving complex software failure issues.
Special needs, special solutions
The iPad is also a pioneer in special education, designed to meet a wide range of the specific needs of challenged children. It is important, when considering new ways to educate children, to remember there are many students in special education. There are many ways iPads can be used in these cases, addressing a wide variety of needs.
Guided access can be used for students with autism or other sensory or focus challenges. A teacher can disable the home button as well as areas of the touch screen so as to reduce the distractions that are part of the iPad user experience.
Speak Selection reads aloud text from the device for blind students.
The revamped and much improved Siri personal organizer and all round helpmate aids with reminders and organization.
Dictation can be helpful with students with dyslexia or other neurological conditions, with the iPad’s accurate speech to text conversion function.
There is an entire section of the iTunes app store dedicated to apps for those with special needs.
Facetime videoconferencing helps students on extended absence from school due to illness.
Abrasive touch helps students with limited motor ability who cannot press the physical buttons on the device.
In her opinion, Macs have a clear advantage as well. File organization is much easier. They require far less maintenance than PCs. Many textbooks are already available on the Mac and iPad.
iMovie not only helps students create multimedia projects, they bring a new perspective to the subject they are learning.
And lastly Keynote is a superior presentation program to its PC counterpart.
The only con is that Macs are expensive.
In her school computers are mandatory, and they are not cheap. The school decides on the specific hardware, and the parents must purchase those devices. But the iPad not only is much cheaper than a Mac or PC, it seems that Apple is focusing on that platform as its primary educational device.
So guided by her opinion (as mentioned, she owns one of each, though her grade was assigned PCs, a decision which is under reevaluation).
I see the iPad taking the lead among educational devices in the future. Indeed it already is the platform of choice in higher education and the initial cost is not too onerous.
Once again Apple has shown itself to be a forward looking company ahead of the rest and though it has earned its huge profits by selling the best hardware at high profit margins, it has done its best to not only be the most innovative technology company in education, it has foregone its high markups for the education market. It offers deep discounts across its product line for students and teachers individually and entire school systems buying in bulk for all their staff and student bodies.
And given the attention and innovation Apple is capable of and for which it is well known, I have no doubt it will dominate, in a benevolent fashion, the education market for years to come.
Editor’s Note: Technology has come a long way. The Walkman turns 35 this year, and in the ’80s this $200 device transformed the way people listened to their music – sort of like the iPod.