Is Apple Still a Game Changer in Education?

Posted on April 30, 2013


The words "Apple" and "innovation" often go hand in hand, but the tech giant has been less dominant in education than it has been in other areas. While the iPad has continued to change the way many classrooms function, Apple's once-leading online education platform, iTunes U, is now left out of most discussions about online learning and OpenCourseWare.

In the 1970s, when mainframe computers had a monopoly on academic research, Apple started donating Apple 1 computers to schools. This allowed more students than ever to use computers and led to the rise of computer instruction and technological developments in education.

Today, though, the field is so varied that Apple has had a harder time making the waves in education it once did. Google and Apple have been in an innovation arms race, and small companies that specialize in ed tech are popping up every day. Without a singular focus on education, and faced with trying to keep up with (or ahead of) Google across the board, can Apple still be a game changer in education? Or will schoolchildren someday be saying "Apple who?"

Apple's Bright Spots

One of the biggest things to come out of Apple in the last few years is the iPad. It has opened up the new world of tablets, giving people more convenience than a laptop and more ease of accessibility than a mobile phone. It has also changed the possibilities found in the classroom. In a one-year period in 2012, Apple sold 3 million iPads directly into education in the United States. Worldwide, that number is 8 million, and it will likely keep growing as prices of older versions of the tablet fall, making it more affordable for schools.

Many schools across the nation have implemented one-to-one programs where each student is provided with an iPad to use for their schoolwork. At Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Calif., where one of the first one-to-one pilot programs in the country was created in 2010, administrators were looking for a way to incorporate technology into the curriculum and learning methods. "We weren't necessarily sold on the idea of laptops," Mark Silver, head of Hillbrook, said in a promotional video. "It involved a lot of equipment; it needed a lot of support. And, at least the models we had seen, seemed to be kind of working. So we were kind of in a holding pattern, and along came the iPad. We saw an opportunity."

Hillbrook Director of Technology Don Orth — who is now an Apple Distinguished Educator — said the open-faced concept of iPads made them great tools for collaboration. There's no physical barrier between students and their peers or teachers like there is with a laptop. Hillbrook, an Apple Distinguished School, now provides an iPad for each of its students in the 5th through 8th grades and shared iPads for 1st through 4th grades.

Students can download apps for each class, create presentations, and access information from anywhere. Apps are available for almost anything — studying with flashcards, taking notes that won't get thrown out with the day's love notes, and helping students keep track of assignments when their brains are filled with more important things, like lunchtime and new crushes.

"Students who struggle with organization have been helped by having their work and resources all in one place," Orth says. "It's a one-stop shop for a lot of their assignments and notes, and there are no crumpled-up things in the bottom of their backpacks."

Teachers can design textbooks for the iPad, make learning more engaging, and get feedback from students on curriculum development. While teachers help struggling students, other students can be independently learning or practicing on their iPads. Orth says that in this way, it had really decentralized the classroom. Students rely less on the teacher to deliver the materials, and can instead research independently or watch demonstrations on the iPad.

Language teachers can give students the tools to improve verb conjugation, pronunciation, culture lessons, and more. History teachers can incorporate current events; English teachers can develop writing skills with brainstorming apps and videos of them annotating a student's essay live.

These programs have not only changed the way lessons can be taught. They have eliminated the need for computer labs at schools where bulky machines are only used for research and word processing. Students can do it all through their iPad.

While many other tablets have been introduced by competitors since the iPad was first brought to market, the iPad is still one of the best, if not the best, for ease of accessibility, engagement, and resources available. Apple's wide range of other products also makes it easy to create a streamlined network. Hillbrook uses Apple TVs in the classrooms, allowing students to instantly show their work on the iPad to the class without having to plug into the TV.

Schools are starting one-to-one programs in droves, sharing ideas for how the iPad can revolutionize the classroom. There are dozens of conferences across the country on iPads in education, including Hillbrook's own conference series coming up. It's no longer just the most innovative educators that have access to the technology; schools and teachers can share the best practices for integrating iPads into their curriculum.

Funding, though, is still keeping iPads from dominating the education sector. At $400 or more apiece, low- and middle-income schools can't afford to implement one-to-one programs. Just supplying 100 students with the device would cost a school $40,000. Grants are available for many districts, but there aren't enough to make it feasible for the majority of schools in the country. This entry cost into the world of the iPad's benefits may be slowing its growth in the education market, though some schools continue to find room in their budget for the technology.

The iPad, the variety of apps, and even the vast wealth of knowledge available through podcasts on iTunes have kept Apple in the education game. With Apple's purported watch on the horizon, it's yet to be seen if another Apple product can have a huge impact on learning like the iPad is having.

Falling Behind

The talk in the edtech world recently has largely revolved around massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their providers, like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. But not that many years ago, Apple's iTunes U was stirring things up in the online education world. While the service has been growing its audience, its pace is slower than necessary to keep it competitive in the rapidly growing online education sector.

Launched in 2007, iTunes U allows professors to build lecture-based courses. It bills itself as the world's largest online catalog of free educational content, including files from top schools, libraries, and museums. Apple recently announced that its content had been downloaded more than 1 billion times.

Universities can create their own page on iTunes U and post lectures and resources from professors and other content. Many prominent schools have pages, including Stanford University, Harvard University, MIT, and UC Berkeley.

Ohio State University uses iTunes U, with 16 public courses available currently. One course has been particularly successful: Ohio State chemistry lecturer Dr. Matthew Stoltzfus, or Dr. Fus as he is often called, has a complete General Chemistry course available on iTunes U that has built more than 108,000 subscribers since it was posted in May 2012.

Stoltzfus has had incredible success with his course, praising Apple's marketing, ability to get his content out globally, and analytics to help continue to improve. Using analytics on uploaded content, teachers can see which of their files are being downloaded the most, making it easier to know which subjects to invest further time into. For Stoltzfus, this is part of the process of bettering the quality of his content, an attitude that carries over into his opinion of iTunes U and all edtech. "We just have to keep continually improving. It's not one and done. There will be several iterations," he says. "If we keep that mindset, we'll continue to make progress."

And there is certainly progress to be made with iTunes U. While other online course providers have user-friendly interfaces, interactive content, and ways for users to test themselves, iTunes U has fallen behind. To access content, users of course need the iTunes program, and the most useful interface is only available through the iTunes U app, which you need an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to download. This leaves people without these products to download and use the video or audio files without some of the more exciting features of the app, such as being able to take notes within the app.

And of course, accessing these features means shelling out anywhere from $199 to $929 to buy a device if you don't already have one. For many online students or lifelong learners, this can make online courses that are the same on tablets as they are desktops much more attractive or even the only option.

While Stoltzfus offers a complete course that can be used to gain new knowledge, many of the materials on iTunes U aren't full courses. In fact, that's part of what Stoltzfus thinks has made his course so popular; there just aren't many full chemistry courses available on iTunes U. Much of what is on iTunes U is supplementary content, making it most useful for students who are already enrolled in a course elsewhere. Those who want to take a full course have to look elsewhere for the most options.

They also have to look at other providers if they want to test or practice their skills. With no assessment tool, iTunes U content is often no more engaging than a YouTube video (and less accessible).

Copyright scrubbing is also a huge deterrent for creating innovative, engaging content. Professors who create courses can't use any visual aids that they don't own, or they risk being sued by the publisher. If a professor records class lectures in which he uses images or figures from a textbook, he has to go through those videos and edit out the copyrighted material before iTunes U will accept it. This is a time-consuming and often expensive process; instead of facing this tedious task, many professors, like Stoltzfus, choose a very basic format for their content.

"The critique from a pedagogical perspective is that I'm just making video of a lecture with notes," he says. "For me it's best because I don't have to worry about violating copyrights and it's the quickest way to get it done."

For students looking for the best online learning experience, though, the lack of features could be a turn-off.

Who Else Is in The Game?

Google and Apple are archnemeses in the tech game, and in the education sector, Google may actually have the advantage. While iPads had a head start in the marketplace and were picked up in many schools because of it, Google tablets are less cost-prohibitive. Google's Nexus 7 tablet sells for $199 and may go down in price in July when a new version is rumored to come out. That's compared to more than $300 for the lowest-priced iPad Mini. For low-income schools, affordable tablets and other devices (like the Chromebook) can be game-changers as increased student engagement can potentially combat high dropout rates, according to several different studies.

Apple's closed system of proprietary software and hardware, which makes it hard to use Apple products with non-Apple products, may also be holding it behind Google. Google's Chrome OS and Android OS can be used to operate devices created by several different companies, allowing Google to benefit as those companies compete. Companies like Acer and Samsung build a Chromebox, a compact desktop computer that runs on Chrome, and the newest Acer version is rumored to be hitting the stores at $99 apiece. The ability to get the price so far below that of Apple's products puts it well within the $250 to $300 price range that many teachers say they look for in digital technology.

In terms of online education, Apple's barely showing up. MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are offering high-quality, complete courses for free while iTunes U is growing slowly and works better as supplementary material than an actual course for the most part. Though it may work well for students enrolled at the schools with their own pages, it's not an attractive option for the lifelong and DIY learners. MOOCs are working out some kinks with credit and cheating, but iTunes U has a long way to go with its platform to get to the point of useful, fully engaging content for the online learner.

How Teachers Can Succeed

When Starting a Tablet Program

  • Think about what works for your situation. Jumping into a one-to-one program without doing your research can lead to a lot of headaches and maybe even failure. Consider different brands of tablets, apply for grants, and think about how your tablets will work with your other technology. If you can afford Apple products across the board, they could be worth it just for the ease in connecting them all, but if you can only afford the iPads, you may need extra support to get everything to work together.
  • Start a student support group. Orth says that having a group of students become your iPad gurus can help in numerous ways. Not only does it empower those students, but it relieves the tech department and teachers. These trained students can work with their peers and help them troubleshoot their problems. Technology staff are then free to take on the more serious issues, and teachers can focus on instructing.
  • Educate parents. "The biggest mistake is keeping parents in the dark," Orth says. Parents need to be educated on how the program works and how they can monitor their students. With concerns over screen time and privacy, it's important to show parents that iPads can be used as tools in education without being harmful or distracting. With the right knowledge, they can help keep students engaged at home.

When Starting an iTunes U Course

  • Figure out your time investment. Stoltzfus put his entire course on iTunes U at once, a process that he says was very time-consuming. If you have tighter time constraints and don't know how long uploading content will take, prioritize. "It doesn't have to be the entire course up at once," Stoltzfus says. "First tackle the toughest learning objectives, and then work your way down." Understanding things like copyright scrubbing — which requires educators to remove all copyrighted material from videos and lectures that they don't have permission to post — can also help you create content that fits your time commitment.
  • Think about full courses. Though you don't have to put up a full course all in one go, providing a course rather than just supplementary content can contribute greatly to your success. It makes the content more attractive to DIY learners.
  • Add unique content. If you have the expertise, why not add some upper-level content? Stoltzfus says there is plenty of content on iTunes U for the freshman level, but not much for upper-level learners. If he adds another class, he'd think about adding inorganic chemistry material because there simply isn't much out there. While this kind of content may reach a more specialized audience, its uniqueness can lead to a very engaged research community.

Staying Alive

While Apple is making strides and certainly has a following among some students and schools, the company isn't having the impact on education that it had in the past. The iPad's head start in the market has given it an edge in changing the potential of the classroom, but other, more cost-efficient tablets are gaining ground in many school districts that can't afford to buy only Apple products. Cost is again an issue with iTunes U and what devices are compatible with the app, keeping Apple straggling behind in the online education sector, a sector that's going to be increasingly important in the years to come. We'll have to wait and see if Apple can come with anything as revolutionary as its Apple 1 again.