Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is beginning to solicit applications for its part in the White Houses’s ConnectED initiative, a program that will seek to improve the technology in U.S. classrooms and connect 99 percent of American students to “next-generation” broadband and high-speed wireless in the classroom by 2019. For its part of the program, Apple will provide schools with iPads, Macs, and educational content, plus Apple Professional Development training for teachers.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has begun sending out letters asking for applications to its grant program. The company is looking to make grants to schools where 96 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Apple is investing $100 million in the initiative, and as The Washington Post reports, last week a superintendent received a letter saying that if his school is selected, the company will provide not only Apple products and educational content, but also the wireless infrastructure that would enable the school to take full advantage of the technology.
As the White House’s website notes, both the FCC and a number of companies have committed to ConnectED initiative, which has no government grants, but instead relies on investments like the one Apple is making into the program. In addition to Apple, Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE), AT&T (NYSE:T), Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK), Esri, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), O’Reilly Media, Prezi, Sprint (NYSE:S), and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) have all made various commitments to the initiative. A total of over $2 billion in private funding opportunities will provide schools with devices, software, curricula, broadband, and training. The special focus of the program on bringing disadvantaged and rural schools up to date emphasizes how integral to learning technology is considered by schools, companies, and the Obama administration.
The Washington Post reports that Apple is already the manufacturer with the most products in U.S. schools. The iPad has been a particularly popular tool for teachers to integrate into the classroom, given the multitude of tools, apps, and content available for every grade level. The technology enables teachers to differentiate lessons, giving different students the opportunity to learn the same concept via the various methods that work best for them. A simple example is the ease with which students can research an historical event. A quick Google search could yield videos, visual timelines, articles, and quizzes. A computer or a tablet opens even more opportunities with apps and software.
Apple’s education website offers teachers a demonstration of how an iPad or Mac can bring new learning opportunities to the classroom, featuring videos of actual teachers who have used Apple products in the classroom. The website is slick and well-designed, clearly meant to sell the products to schools who can afford them. But the product pages do make a convincing case for the diversity, if not the depth, of educational opportunities accessible via an iPad or a Mac. The education site also now prominently displays a link to the White House’s website for the ConnectED initiative.
The initiative draws attention to what the education community terms the “digital divide.” That’s the gap between, say, schools that are able to go to Apple’s website and order iPads for students, and the schools who have to make tough choices to decide whether they have the budget for iPads, or even for getting fast wireless into every classroom. There are many schools that fall somewhere in between. Schools that do have internet connectivity accessible might not have up to date computers. Or the school’s teachers and staff may not be trained on how to use the technology that is available. The accessibility and use of resources like internet connectivity, computers, tablets, and the accompanying software has a big impact on students’ experience in school, and creates a big gap between schools that can afford to implement them and schools that can’t.
The White House writes that fewer than 30 percent of U.S. schools currently have the broadband capacity that would enable them to use today’s tech in the classroom — making it very clear that many of America’s classrooms are very much behind where we’d like them to be. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have all committed to improving classrooms’ connectivity, and Sprint says it will also provide students with mobile connectivity away from school.
The amount of information available on the internet has far outpaced the resources traditionally used in the classroom, enabling students and teachers to access that information is becoming a basic requirement of a 21st century classroom. It’s interesting to note that none of the funding for the ConnectED initiative is coming from the federal government. (Though the ConnectED site does note, without much specificity, that “the president also directed the federal government to make better use of existing funds to get Internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms.”)
The companies funding the $2 billion ConnectED initiative are making (very PR-friendly) investments into U.S. students, who will build the next Apple and head the next Microsoft. Apple is making a smart investment in the opportunity to get its products into the hands of both teachers and students. By both donating iPads and Macs, and providing training for teachers, Apple is working toward a few goals. First of all, participating in a big push to get schools connected makes its products more visible to teachers, who typically share lesson ideas and resources online, and share recommendations on the best apps they’ve used in the classroom.
The ConnectED initiative will also enable Apple to train more teachers and students to use the Apple ecosystem so that they’ll learn the apps and software that are unique to Apple’s platform. That could result in more innovations, like education-focused apps, that further improve schools’ use of Apple products, and might drive more sales later on.