On the Reports of Apple’s Doom in the Educational Arena

There are any number of think-pieces on the problems facing Apple in Education. One of my favorites, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was written by Bradley Chambers. And as I said in that post, I agree with everything he has said about what Apple can do to make life easier on the overworked cadre of educational IT support staff out there.

That said, I have finally put my finger on what has been bothering me about the growing groupthink that is setting in the aftermath of Apple’s education event. First, it is worth remembering that we have been here before. There is a parallel between what we are hearing here and what was said back in the early 2010s about the iPhone in enterprise:

Back in those days, IT kept tight control over the enterprise, issuing equipment like BlackBerries and ThinkPads (and you could have any color you wanted — as long as it was black). Jobs, who passed away in 2011, didn’t live long enough to see the “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) and ‘Consumerization of IT,’ two trends that were just hovering on the corporate horizon at the time of his death.[1]

While there are important differences between the corporate market and the education market, I think it is worth remembering that Apple’s shortcomings in device management have been invoked by those in IT to foretell the ultimate failure of its initiatives before. They were proven wrong because customers (In this case, the people in the enterprise sphere they supported.) demanded that the iPhone be let in and because that market grew to be so significant that Microsoft believed supporting the iPhone would be to its benefit.

Despite the differences, Apple appears to be using a similar playbook here. They are not pitching their product to IT. They are pitching it to the teachers and parents who will request and then demand that iPads are considered for their schools. And as Fraser Speirs pointed out in a recent episode of the Canvas podcast[2], the wealthier, developed nations of the world can afford to deploy iPads (and/or Chromebooks) for all of their students.

Second, the focus on the current state of identity “ownership” by companies like Facebook and Google is, perhaps, less of a threat to Apple than it is an opportunity. My bet is that this is a space that is ripe for the kind of disruption Apple specializes in.

The current model for online identity focuses on a company knowing everything about you and using the information that is surrendered by the user for some purpose. In the case of Google, it is to create a user profile. In the case of Microsoft, it is to keep major companies attached to their services.

Apple is not interested in that game. They are interested in maintaining user privacy — a stance that has real value when providing services for children. So, what they would want and need to do is develop a system that creates some kind of anonymized token that confirms the user should be allowed access to a secured system.

They have this, of course, in Apple Pay.

What Apple now needs to do is figure out is some way to have a secured token function within a shared device environment. That is, I suspect, not trivial if they wish to keep TouchID and FaceID exclusively on device. A potential solution would be an education-model Apple Watch (or the equivalent of the iPod Touch in relation to the iPhone) that could match a student identity.

Again, there are a host of technical issues that Apple would have to resolve for a system like that to work. It would, however, be a much more Apple-like approach to securing identity than mimicking what Microsoft and Google do.

[1] This stroll down memory lane is from Ron Miller’s 20 January 2018 TechCrunch article “Apple’s Enterprise Evolution”.

[2] It is worth noting that Chambers and Speirs’ podcast series Out of School may have come to an end but it is still one of the best places to go to get a grip on the details of education deployments.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.