Apple and Chromebooks in Education, and zzzzzz

4 min read

I read this story with some interest. It's largely a press release in interview form, but at the end of the article the interview includes a question about Apple's position in the education market. To be clear, the closing paragraphs on education -- and an accompanying discussion on a listserv where I lurk -- are what motivated this post. This excerpt in particular stood out:

Yet Chromebooks don't do that. Chromebooks have gotten to the classroom because, frankly, they're cheap testing tools for required testing. If all you want to do is test kids, well, maybe a cheap notebook will do that. But they're not going to succeed.

My initial thoughts after reading this story haven't changed much -- I'll share those thoughts in a little bit, but first I want to be clear about the limits of my perspective, which also provides insight into my bias. I have worked in schools, but am not currently employed by a school or district. When I was working in schools, I was responsible for several different laptop and 1:1 initiatives supporting teachers and students. But this is back in the late 90s, early aughts - so a while ago.

Currently, I have the good fortune to have both professional contacts and friends in schools and districts across the country, so I've been able to -- over the years -- learn directly from people who run and manage several hundred to several thousand to tens of thousands to over 100K machines. These machines have varied from Chromebooks to iPads to Windows machines to (yes, for real) even some Linux boxes. The larger deployments - and even a lot of the smaller deployments -- mix multiple types of devices.

But this gets back to my original reaction after reading the apple exec's quotes in the article about Chromebooks and how their usefulness for testing helped drive adoption: he's not wrong, but the fact that his statement contains a kernel of accuracy is completely irrelevant.

More importantly, the fact that he is able to repeat Apple's highly flawed marketing copy doesn't make Chromebooks any better or any worse.

The big edtech players are most loyal to their marketing copy, their talking points, and moving product. There are many excellent individuals working in these companies who care about education, but even these folks will acknowledge that the needs of the company will generally win out.

Apple is getting its lunch eaten by Google in education for a lot of reasons - and the fact that Chromebooks are good at supporting standardized testing is a small part of the conversation. But we should not kid ourselves either: the ease of managing Chromebooks compared to the relative complexity of managing different Apple devices is also a factor (See also: why Firefox struggles for a greater share of use in schools). Chromebooks are definitely easier for the adults, and that can translate into kids having more access to more devices more of the time.

But, of course, using a Chromebook means that we are committing to using multiple other parts of a larger ecosystem -- Chromebooks shouldn't be understood just as a device -- they need to be understood as a hardware product that is simultaneously product onboarding and loss leader that is easy for adults to administer and hand over to kids in schools.

So, yeah - when I read the article my reaction was more than a little bit of facepalm. But not because he was wrong about education -- that's pretty normal for just about any tech exec when they talk about education. My facepalm is rooted in the fact that we are still arguing over the merits of one device over another device. To be blunt: at the end of the day, show me the evidence base -- real, actual peer reviewed and replicable science -- that shows that Chromebooks or Windows devices or iPads or MacBooks matter, or that they matter more than a school environment where kids aren't shamed for lunch debt or in fear of being shot.

PS: Semi-related: if Airpods were spun off as a standalone company, they could become the 32nd largest company in the US. So let's talk about what companies are putting sub-$300 devices in schools.