Of all of the areas where technology is poised to make the biggest difference in Americans’ everyday lives, education is one of the most widely discussed. Tech leaders, researchers, teachers, and school administrators all discuss the future of the classroom and what lessons will look like as technology becomes more accessible and more capable.
One of the most visible companies offering both tools and hardware tailored for educational uses is Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL). In May, the company announced a new tool called Classroom, which integrates Google Docs, Drive, and Gmail to enable teachers to create, collect, and organize assignments, improve class communications, and organize files by student and assignment. The company announced this week that it was offering Classroom to anyone with a Google Apps for Education account, with updates like an “About” page for each course, and the ability for teachers to view and comment on students’ work before it’s turned in. Zach Yeskel, Google’s product manager for Classroom, wrote in May that Classroom is intended “ to give teachers more time to teach and students more time to learn.”
Classroom is the latest in Google’s lineup of products targeted to the education market. Google Play for Education, the company’s platform for teachers and school administrators to buy and manage apps and content is available on tablets and on Chromebooks, Google’s small, affordable, web-only laptops that are growing increasingly popular in classrooms. In the second quarter of the year, Google sold 1 million Chromebooks to schools, and The Wall Street Journal reports that Chromebooks account for a fifth of U.S. school purchases of mobile computers. That’s due to how simple it is for students to complete activities with Google Apps for Education, a set of productivity tools like Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, Forms, Vault, Talk, and Hangouts.
Google says that 30 million students, faculty, and staff use Google Apps for Education, including those at seven of the eight Ivy League universities. Google’s recent move to bring Google Play for Education brings better integration between Android and Chrome, and brings added flexibility to classrooms that use both Android tablets and Chromebooks. Managing large numbers of Chromebooks is considerably easier than configuring software and network permissions on a classroom or school’s worth of other laptops or tablets, and their integration with Google Apps, as well as with Google Classroom, makes them a simple but capable device for teachers to use in the classroom.
Google’s vision of the classroom of the future involves a simpler, easier, more integrated computing experience, where all of a student’s files are stored on the web and the need for traditionally installed software is superseded by web apps that tie neatly into the Chrome and Android operating systems — even if Google hasn’t (yet) unveiled any truly groundbreaking apps to prove that Chromebooks offer advantages other than the system’s cloud-based architecture.
As Wired’s Issie Lapowsky points out, the value of the education market for big companies like Google and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) isn’t just in the opportunity to sell hardware and capture market share among teachers and school administrators. Students themselves are valuable users, who will learn to use the ecosystem that their school provides and then, the logic goes, be disposed to use products from the same ecosystem as they go to college or go into business.
Yeskel told Lapowsky that Classroom in its current iteration is simply laying the foundation for other things to come, meaning that Google will look to make its ecosystem even more useful for teachers and for students. He says that Google’s education team spent a year working with teachers to figure out what was missing from educational tech and found that classroom management represented a significant gap. But Yeskel says Classroom’s capabilities now are just a start. Teachers should expect Google to gradually add more tools to Classroom, and to its arsenal of education-minded resources.
With both Google Apps for Education and the Chromebook, Google is seen as a competitive player in the education tech market, where its lightweight laptops are expected to erode the market share of other manufacturers’ tablets and laptops. But Google has strong competitors in the space, including Apple, which arrived on the scene early on with the iPad. The iOS tablet was an early favorite of teachers and school administrators looking to bring new technology into the classroom, in part because of the wide variety of apps and educational content that it made readily accessible to teachers and students.
Apple notes on its “iPad in Education” website that the App Store features more than 75,000 education apps for every subject area, grade level, and learning style. The App Store offers teachers curated collections of apps to help them find the best apps for their classroom. Apple also offers iBooks, books and textbooks often made especially for reading on the iPad. Some of those that are made for the iPad are also interactive, and teachers can create their own interactive materials with the iBooks Author app for Mac.
Apple also recently updated iTunes U, according to TechCrunch, with improved discussion features and the ability to create and update courses from the iPad app, which previously was primarily meant for students and others to consume content like podcasts or video lectures. The update also enables teachers create assignments, distribute course materials, and track student progress.
However, some teachers and school administrators lament the lack of a physical keyboard for the iPad, and say that students are more comfortable with a small laptop for getting work like writing done. The iPad currently accounts for more than 90 percent of the tablets currently used in education, but it’s worth asking whether school districts will continue to buy tablets when less expensive but in some ways more capable laptops like the Chromebook become available.
But Apple, like Google, envisions classrooms where iPads and Macs make educational content accessible and ensure productivity software is intuitive, even fun. Mac apps like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand all contribute to an ecosystem that Apple says gives students “the power to create.” A Mac is by nature a much more powerful machine than a Chromebook, and Apple markets that power as key to a creative suite that’s meant less for web browsing and browser-based completion of assignments than full-powered use of a wide variety of software to enhance learning.
While Google and Apple’s visions for the classroom are fundamentally different — Google’s seems more about accessibility and simplicity while Apple’s focus on a high-powered creative experience — the two companies aren’t alone in testing the ways that technology can bring new opportunities for learning to students from elementary school through college.
Microsoft, in addition to offering inexpensive Windows laptops aimed in part at the education market, offers a version of Office 365 for education. The educational subscription integrates email, calendars, and online document editing, storage, and sharing. Students can complete assignments in Office applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and while Office may not be the most exciting of the options that are available for students and teachers, they’re capable and familiar. Like a Mac, a Windows laptop has an advantage over a Chromebook in the ability to run a wide variety of software natively on the computer, instead of relying exclusively on web apps.
Other companies, even Facebook, are also getting involved in education, with TechCrunch reporting that the social media giant is piloting a program to provide free WiFi access to students’ homes, an extension of a 1:1 program to provide a laptop to every student. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that the company’s mission is to “connect the world,” and while the North Carolina initiative may be a little bit closer to home than Internet.org’s recent launch of an app to extend Internet access in Zambia, it aligns with the concept of using technology to improve how schools and the U.S. education system work.
The number of tools that are available for the classroom is constantly multiplying, with teachers using services like Dropbox, Evernote, Slideshare, Prezi, WordPress, and Flipboard for a variety of productivity functions. While many companies have a vested interest in building products that will be useful for school administrators and teachers in the growing education market, they’re also each contributing to a vision of the classroom of the future as a more connected, more open and more creative place.
In an era when Internet access is considered a basic right and technology is increasingly central to the way people work and play, it’s inevitable that schools will be investing more into the devices and tools with which they equip their classrooms. And the companies who offer the most capable and cost-efficient education-tailored hardware and software are likely to see the classrooms and students of the future adopting their devices.