Today, MacBooks and tablet devices are quickly becoming classroom staples. Long gone are the days when hardback books, Pilot pens and PowerPoint presentations would see teachers through the day. Educational technology, or edtech, is here to stay.
Just what is feeding the frenzy? Silicon Valley’s wealthiest companies, Apple and Google, which have spotted a potentially lucrative new business line: selling laptops, tablets and software to schools.
Apple, for instance, has extended its Everyone Can Code educational programme, which is now at 70 schools and colleges in Europe, 16 of them in Britain. Apple supplies a free iBook textbook on how to develop applications with Swift, the company’s coding language, along with guides for teachers.
The School-Tech Market is Worth £900M
It should come as little surprise that the tech giants are so keen to come to teachers’ aid: the UK educational technology market is worth a reported £900 million.
They have had some success in doing that. Of the 12.6 million mobile devices sold to schools in the US in 2016, Google’s Chromebooks accounted for 58% of the market, up from 50% a year before.
Helping students to learn can be an effective PR and marketing stunt, enhancing a company’s brand. But the tech companies are not doing it merely to make money — their CEOs believe that computer science can genuinely help the human race solve some of its most pressing challenges, from climate change to healthcare shortages.
‘Education a Great Equaliser’, Says Apple Chief
“I’ve believed this for a long time, and…Apple has a deep belief in this as well, that education is a great equaliser of people,” Apple chief Tim Cook said a UK school this month.
Actions speak even louder than words: Apple recently teamed up with the Malala Fund to champion every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education.
Although the UK government has pledged £100 million to train computing teachers, many schools are turning to online forums, social media, and seeking support from the technology industry.
A Dearth of Support
That’s because there is a dearth of support to implement a computing curriculum, according to the Royal Society, which has called for a tenfold increase in funding for teacher training, as England only recruits 68% of the target number of computing specialists.
There are bigger implications for a failure to adequately support computing in schools. One-third of English students attend a school that doesn’t even offer a computer science GCSE exam, with the lack of adequate training linked to Britain’s technology skills gap.
Google, Microsoft Corner the Market
Apple has followed Google and Microsoft into the schools market.
Microsoft runs several schools programmes aimed at boosting teaching skills and integrating technology more widely into the classroom, while Google has given a grant to Raspberry Pi to fund 15,000 UK schoolchildren to get their own Pi microcomputer to learn how to code.
One clear benefit to Apple of doing that is to quicken uptake of its nascent development language, Swift, which would in theory produce more developers for its app ecosystem, which has created jobs for two million people in the US alone, with coders earning $16 billion over the past decade, according to Apple’s figures.
Apple’s Mission to Code
Cook told The Guardian newspaper that coding is a smarter choice than choosing a second language, but that Swift was not widely used in British schools. The Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy, claims that Swift is taught in only 1% of UK schools, with teachers preferring to use languages such as Python because they are more open.
The key question for schools is whether coding games and other gadgetry can actually improve learning: a 2015 report from the OECD club of mostly rich nations, found that investing in classroom technology and computers doesn’t necessarily boost results.
A Question of Affordability
With games such as Minecraft being labelled a “gimmick” which gets in the way of learning, and UK schools’ budgets coming under pressure, can schools really afford to fork out on Apple, Google, and Microsoft’s software?
“It’s very difficult at a macro level to pull out one thread of analysis and say that is where investment in tech has made a difference,” says Mark Chambers, CEO of the education technology association Naace. “But through the use of case studies we can share the stories of head teachers who are confident that levels of achievement have been made.”
There are challenges in adopting technology too, he continues: “We still have massive challenges around achieving pricing that is appropriate to schools. So many digital content providers base prices on the enrolment of the school. We need more sophisticated pricing models that place a fair return on use, rather than on the number of pupils.”
“The final barrier for adoption is around training,” Chambers adds. And not just training teachers and kids to use specific content, but changing teaching models within schools to better mix with technology.
The Race to Supremacy
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to deploying tech in the classroom, but most industry watchers believe that doing so will be essential to ensuring we produce the next generation of computing talent, and ensure that children can prosper in a world increasingly dominated by automation.
Google, Apple and Microsoft have largely shaped the conversation of technology in schools. Expect their battle for supremacy in the classroom to continue, with schools likely being the ones to benefit most from the tech titans’ efforts.