iPad education

Today MacStories published a great article by Fraser Speirs about the upcoming iOS 9.3’s new features targeted at education. Shared iPad, Classroom App, and Apple School Manager all look great, at least on paper.1

Interestingly, Fraser makes a strong case that it is in fact the educational features in this iOS update that are the most important for Apple, and yet Apple lists those at the bottom of their iOS 9.3 feature preview page. I think Fraser is correct in his assessment of the need for Apple to not lose the educational market. In many ways, they already have lost it to Chromebooks, based primarily on cost.

The real problem for schools using iOS devices is the problem of sharing them among students. iPads are expensive. Apple’s goal with Shared iPad is to let schools reduce their cost by letting iPads be used by multiple students and making sure those students each see only their own data. That bumps educators right into another problem with iOS devices: storage space. As Fraser explains in the MacStories article:

Of course, this is much easier to achieve when the computer has 500 GB or more of local storage attached. Even the largest iOS devices have barely more than a fifth of that, and schools are not usually buying 128 GB iPads.

To compensate, Shared iPad is able to eject users’ data from the local storage, save it in the cloud, and restore it on-demand. OS X Server’s Caching Server feature has a role to play here in accelerating the restore, but the ultimate backing storage is iCloud.

The question of whose cloud and whose data quotas remains unclear. The more I think about it, the less Shared iPad makes sense to me unless Apple is going to provision students’ Apple IDs with much higher storage quotas than they have right now. If a student creates 15 GB of data on their shared 32 GB iPad and then a student who has 20 GB of data wants to sign in, where does that first 15 GB go when the student only has 5 GB of iCloud storage?

I really cannot stress enough how much I think Apple needs to apologize unreservedly for the fact that they still make 16GB iOS devices and banish them all to the history books immediately.

Last time this was a major topic on tech Twitter, I saw comments from a lot of people espousing Apple’s right to keep the small capacity devices under the banner of capitalism and profitability. Fine, but don’t we always rush to praise Apple as one of the few forward-looking tech companies? How is it then that they couldn’t even be bothered to notice how badly these weak devices are hurting them in education? Personally, I think 16GB devices are now providing a bad user experience for everyone.2 It’s just that in an educational setting, it can be a much bigger problem. Educators have a job to do, and they can’t be fussing around managing storage space on devices.

Schools are always going to buy more of the cheapest devices. When they find out that 16GB iPads provide a terrible experience, you can guess for yourself what the next move is: quit buying expensive Apple products and put everyone on Chromebooks.

I’ll grant you that, at least in theory, Apple provides the iPad with capabilities that Chromebook has a hard time matching. I’m talking about rich textbooks, and now things like Classroom App and Apple School Manager. But school budgets are tight almost universally, even in comparatively wealthy countries like the United States, and Chromebooks are cheap. Very cheap. They also require less setup and administration to be able to be shared among students, partly because they are simpler, less capable devices.

I feel like Apple is kind of sleepwalking right now in a few different areas, and that education has been one of those. They came out with iBooks textbooks for iPad with great fanfare back in early 2012. I’m not an educator, so I can’t speak with any authority, but I have an impression that these never got the full traction in schools that Apple hoped for. I’d really like to know how many schools and text publishers are still using and taking full advantage of this capability now, four years later.

Education has always been an important market for Apple. They’ve had varying levels of success and adoption over the decades, but they’ve always been there. I think iPads absolutely can provide a wonderful learning experience for students as well as being a great tool for teachers and school staff, but Apple has to address the issues that still remain. They’re important problems, even if seemingly minor, because ease and cost of implementation are major factors in what products are purchased for deployment in the classroom.

As Fraser points out at the end of his article, platform shifts in education are rare. If Apple gets shoved aside now due to its inattention to a few key details, it could hurt them for a long time. And more importantly, it’ll probably mean an inferior technology experience for students in schools that do choose something other than iPads.

  1. Or should that be “on web”? 
  2. When I was in the Apple store last week buying a new iPhone, I heard an Apple employee recommend a 16GB iPhone 6s to a woman who was purchasing her first smartphone. It was very difficult not to yell “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo” at the top of my lungs…