As you may have heard, Apple has extended its reach into education, holding its first education product launch since 2012, and announcing a lower cost iPad aimed at students and teachers. The new iPad has a stylus pen, several new apps and a large amount of free iCloud storage as well, costing just under $300. But how should the education community view the moves of such a big player into more schools?

apple blogThe 2017/8 GEM Report dedicated a chapter to remind us that the private sector’s foray into education is big business and carries with it responsibilities and the need for private actors to account for their actions. Edtech is vast and growing. The global educational technology market crossed $17.7 billion in revenue in 2017 and is expected to grow to $40.9 billion by 2022, according to Frost & Sullivan. The market is expected to grow by 20% per year in China and a joint report issued by Google and KPMG estimated that the online market in India would rise more than six times to almost $2 billion over the next four years.

The biggest players in EdTech are Google, Microsoft and Apple, which make up 83% of the market at the moment. Macs and iPads make up less than 20% of Apple’s product sales at present but the vast market potential in schools make them an avenue worth exploring for their sales team. Already, in 2016, Apple’s iPads and Macs accounted for about 18% of the laptops and tablets shipped to schools in the United States, according to Futuresource Consulting.

What is missing in all these figures is the extent to which any of these pieces of hardware and software are actually improving learning. As our analysis showed, many partnerships between governments and private laptop providers for schools have benefited vendors, not students, sometimes owing to poor procurement and contract enforcement. India’s Aakash tablet project in 2010, for instance, was a public-private partnership with DataWind that, due to inadequate government enforcement, ended up primarily benefitting the vendor. DataWind produced just a fraction of the tablets called for but was never penalised.

In 2012, Thailand launched the One Tablet per Child project, in partnership with Shenzhen Corp. The Bangkok Post reported major issues, with 30% of the initial products broken, although the government claimed less than 1% were in disrepair. Ultimately, Shenzhen could not deliver the promised 800,000 tablets on time. It refused to pay late fees, led for bankruptcy and terminated the contract. In 2014, a new government scrapped the programme and ordered schools to turn over the tablets.

In other cases, it is an issue of project design and implementation. The One Laptop per Child initiative in Uruguay showed no initial impact on mathematics and reading scores because teachers had not fully adopted the programme and analysis found that the devices were mainly used to and information on the internet. And with many such issues around the world, there is little left to say about the quality of the technological solution itself in the first place.

It is therefore important for governments to be vigilant as private corporations’ primary interest is profit. They are answerable only to their shareholders, raising concerns about their accountability to citizens for delivering education of good quality. For example, antitrust lawsuits have been filed against Pearson to block it from achieving a monopoly in education markets. As we cautioned in our Report, does anyone have the authority and capacity to hold such a large monopoly accountable?

UNesco17 FFF - Markets become monopoly

Such fears of monopolies call for caution when a technology giant like Apple becomes clearly interested in education. There have already been cases of Apple trying to secure iPad deals for students in specific jurisdictions in the past, the most famous case being Los Angeles in 2013. In that case, all students were to be provided with iPads containing a Pearson curriculum at the cost of $1.3 billion. In the end, the contract was stopped, as it was suspected that Apple and Pearson may have received preferential treatment in the procurement process. And, at the same time, the curriculum provided by Pearson was denounced as being incomplete and unusable.

Alternatively, look at Apple Distinguished Schools, for instance, which are now institutions that use Apple products and where iPads are provided to all students.

These both question where the line should be drawn between traditional learning and learning via technology. They sum up one of the ever-present questions about the benefits of EdTech, which is whether the market ever puts learning first. The increased focus on this question is perhaps why Pearson have launched an efficiency framework to measure the education impact of its investment activities due to finalise this year, with a focus on answerability to consumers. We look forward to seeing the results.

It is indisputable that digital literacy is crucial for work, as recognised in target 4.4 in the new Sustainable Development Agenda, which we document each year in our Report. Defining what these skills are is crucial. Most adults in low and middle income countries do not have even basic computer skills. In 2014–2016, only 2% to 4% in Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jamaica and Pakistan could use basic arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet. It is important for people to possess skills that do not tie them to specific providers but allow them to navigate across different technologies.

In order to integrate technology successfully into education, and for all those now tempted by the new shiny Apple iPad, there must be significant government commitment to think beyond procurement. Learners’ needs must be incorporated into curriculum design, teachers must be adequately trained and equity issues must be prioritized. Public-private partnerships in technology integration need to consider the realities of the end users: schools and teachers. And the most disadvantaged schools and students should be prioritized so as not to widen the digital divide.

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