In a recent study, “The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving from Promise to Practice,” the federally funded Web-based Education Commission, reported that throwing money at schools would not necessarily generate the dramatic changes required to take advantage of the Internet’s potential as a learning tool. Specifically, the report says, “… the most important ingredient is not money. It is the presence of a local hero or heroes with the vision, courage, and stamina to challenge the status quo. Absent this ingredient, more money will be of little benefit.”
To transform the Internet from a curiosity to an integral part of the learning experience, there are several technical requirements at the school level. Wireless access to the net, that concentrates the student’s focus on the learning experience rather than the technology, is one. Online storage and communications facilities are also important. Reasonably priced hardware and a user-friendly operating system are almost prerequisites as well as software packages specifically geared towards processing digital data.
Most Apple Macintosh systems now include wireless capabilities, and the portable iBooks are particularly attractive to schools. The new iBook mobile lab introduced by Apple at the recent FETC in Florida could be an ideal solution for schools that can’t afford multiple computers in every classroom. With iTools, students will have access to online storage capabilities from school or home, and Apple’s KidSafe options ensure that students only access those sites on the Internet recommended by educators. Throw in the Mac’s ease of use and dynamite digital processing software like iMovie, iTunes, iDVD, and AppleWorks and you wonder what’s holding the schools back.
The heroes of the Education Commission’s report are the educators who are willing to put their careers on the line to promote enabling technologies that maximize the impact of the digital revolution. They are often the same rebels who argue for both the preservation and expansion of Apple’s presence in the schools.
The Arrogance of Ignorance
In an article entitled “Big Mac Attack” that appears in the February 2001 issue of Teacher Magazine, Jason Tanz writes anecdotally about the plight of these Mac ?heroes’ in many of our school systems. He notes that much of the impressive brand loyalty was built in the early days when the Mac stood alone against the DOS monstrosity.
Faced with the enormous complexity of supporting three or four different versions of Windows, many school systems have reacted by shutting out the easiest system to support and to use, the Mac. That has left the school Macintosh user frustrated, incredulous, and often isolated.
A case in point was just reported recently on the Macs Only website: “Macs Bite the Dust in Another School District?: From a reader, “It has come to my attention that the Brownsville Area School District, Brownsville, PA, is making a switch from Macintosh Computers to Windows based PC’s from Gateway. This switch is being done with no type of study or reason other than the new superintendent doesn’t like Macintoshs.”
This kind of report has become far to frequent. System administrators resort to any convenient justification for killing off the Mac, most of them invalid. Some claim that it’s more expensive to maintain networks with two diverse operating systems. Others argue that the students should work on systems that they will eventually see in the business world. And still others suggest that file compatibility requires a single operating system.
Of course, all of these arguments are flawed. According to a Gartner Group study, “there are no detectable extra support costs associated with having both Macintosh AND Windows over and above having Windows alone.” We have no idea how software will evolve over the next year, let alone five years, and thus it’s impossible to predict what kind of system software future businesses might use. Moreover, the file compatibility issues between Windows and the Mac disappeared years ago.
Unfortunately, at the school level, there’s seldom any mechanism in place to challenge one of these Windows-centric decisions once it has been made and school superintendents rarely know enough about the issues to second guess their “experts.” It’s as if whole school systems have turned into lemmings following the Windows march to mayhem.
Mobilizing Teacher Power
So we have two diverse trends that impact on Apple in the education market: The company has adopted an Internet strategy that should have enormous appeal to schools, while at the same time, many schools are shutting Apple out without as much as a cursory look at its new technology.
Apple must get the attention of school decision makers, not by showing them the errors of their ways, but by proactively showing them how Apple equipment can be used to work together with their existing hardware and software to expand the learning opportunities for kids. In order to accomplish this, the company needs to open channels of communications with schools, district offices, state offices, parent organizations, student organizations, and, of course, teachers.
To be sure, the company has done an enormous amount of work supporting Apple Learning Interchange (ALI), which serves as a kind of intellectual sounding board for educators involved in technology solutions, but ALI bears the Apple moniker and therefore mainly attracts Apple enthusiasts. ALI is undoubtedly an important marketing asset that leads to increased use of technology in Apple oriented schools and therefore increased marketing depth. It probably adds little to Apple’s educational market breadth, however.
To make substantial headway in market breadth, the company needs a mechanism that will persuade Windows users, mixed Windows/Mac users, and educational decision-makers to consider Apple solutions in future planning. So, once again, how do you get their attention?
Marketing is all about communications and there’s no doubt a lot can be accomplished with slick, thirty-second commercials, press releases, and appearances at education conferences. Critically, it’s also time for Apple to recognize those isolated Mac evangelists out in the Windows-only schools.
The Mac was created under a kind of renegade atmosphere at Apple, and the company should mobilize its Mac users to facilitate similar dramatic change at the school level. These school rebels need information, organization, and support. As a start, Apple could establish a sort of grass roots rebel network to provide them with current information about programs and prices, handouts for the faculty and community, special strategies in dealing with bureaucratic intransigence, explicit directions about integrating Macs with PC networks, and in return for their support, discount prices for individual purchases of Apple equipment.
Mr. Jobs and the folks at Apple have introduced some dynamic products that can make a difference in education. Before that can happen, however, Apple Marketing must begin to “think different” about its education users. I suspect Cheryl Vedoe, Vice-President for Educational Marketing recognizes this fact, as she recently asked for advice from teachers. Please take the time to send her your input!