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Tech companies need to raise the bar in education

Education has resisted the technological transformation that has disrupted and improved so many other sectors.

Seth Erdman and fellow students use Chromebooks while working on a lesson in their third-grade class.
Anthony Souffle / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Much has been made over the last few years of the battle between Apple and Google in the education sector. Chromebooks, which have sold in small numbers elsewhere, appear to have found their niche in education and are now frequently said to outsell iPads (Microsoft seems to be an also-ran here as in the mobile market).

But both Chromebooks and iPads are designed primarily for other uses, and neither Google nor Apple has invested anywhere near as meaningfully in the education market as in other segments, such as health and the enterprise. Given how much education is prized in Silicon Valley, it’s time for all its standard bearers to change that.

Google and Apple dominate education devices

Apple has always had a strong position in the education market through the Mac for most of its history and, more recently, through the iPad. Education programs and discounts for K-12 education and college students have helped Apple to drive far higher share among both schools and students than among the broader population. It’s not uncommon to see entire college lecture halls filled with glowing Apple logos with few Windows laptops to be seen, in a reversal of the previous pattern. IPads, in turn, have been at the center of Apple’s recent programs in schools, with many school districts purchasing large numbers of iPads for use by students in the classroom.

Also more recently, Google has made significant inroads with Chromebooks, which haven’t sold nearly as well in other settings. Recent research suggested that Chromebooks had gained majority market share in education, while Apple’s market share fell significantly. Other studies have confirmed these broad findings, even if not the specific numbers. Chromebooks seem to be a real success story in the classroom, where their low cost, simplicity and ease of management set them apart from other devices. Microsoft retains a meaningful but minority share in the same market, far lower than it enjoys in either the broader consumer or enterprise markets.

Devices and operating systems aren’t everything

However, devices and operating systems alone aren’t everything. These devices obviously need to be either loaded with software (in the case of iPads and Macs) or pointed at websites and web apps (in the case of Chrome OS) which provide the tools students need to learn. Interestingly, both Google and Apple now have solutions called Classroom that help manage both devices and students’ work, but much of the students’ work itself still gets done in generic Apple tools such as iWork or the Google productivity suite. The Apple App Store and Chrome store provide access to many third-party applications, but Apple and Google have yet to produce education-oriented apps for students.

This is interesting in the context of both companies investments in the enterprise and Apple’s recent heavy investment in health care. Apple’s deals with IBM, Cisco and SAP are designed to push its devices deeper into the enterprise, while its ResearchKit and CareKit efforts are intended to enable innovation in health research and care. Google, too, is making a big push to get its Chromebooks adopted in the enterprise, and its productivity suite and related products are also popular among startups and other companies. And yet, neither company has made similar investments in student-facing applications or tools. These are companies with enormous resources and creativity when it comes to creating useful software and applications, but we’ve yet to see that innovation applied to the learning end of education.

It’s not just about Apple and Google

Even though Apple and Google are the leaders in devices and operating systems for education, there’s no reason why they should bear the sole burden of developing software for use in education. There’s obviously a large number of specialized education software makers that create many of the tools used in educational settings. But Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and others also have the capacity to create the tools students could use for research, projects, and coursework. Interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg has largely chosen to use his personal funds to invest in education, rather than putting Facebook’s corporate resources to use in this sphere.

Given how much Silicon Valley needs well-educated, tech-savvy employees, it behooves the entire industry to make a greater investment in fostering education — and not just with financial contributions, but with their technology expertise. Education has been one of the sectors of the economy most resistant to the technological transformation that has disrupted and improved so many other sectors, and it’s ripe for some major change. Tech companies should be not just enablers but drivers of that change.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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