Google wants a piece of the education market.
At this week’s Google I/O conference in San Francisco, Google announced a new app initiative designed to make the company more of a presence in classrooms—or at least those classrooms in school districts wealthy enough to purchase tablets for students.
“Today we are excited to expand Google’s education offering by combining the ease and portability of Nexus tablets with highly engaging educational content,” read a note posted on the Official Android Blog after the keynote. “Through this new program educators will be able to manage tablets and discover, purchase, and distribute content through Google Play for Education.”
Google Play for Education allows school districts to purchase and instantly distribute apps to student devices, after browsing through options subdivided by curriculum, grade or standard. In theory, this sort of system works out well for everyone: app developers potentially profit from bulk sales to educational institutions, Google and its manufacturing partners earn considerable cash from sales of Android tablets, and students get educated in a cutting-edge way.
But from a different perspective, Google’s push into the classroom can also be construed as an attempt to block the influence of a rival, Apple, which has made educational outreach a priority. In January 2012, Apple launched iBooks Author, which lets educators and publishers create interactive textbooks for the classroom; it also unveiled a revamped iTunes U, a platform for distributing course materials and video lectures. “Education is deep in our DNA,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told the audience gathered for the rollout at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was long interested in making his company a player in education. “He wanted to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of spavined students bearing backpacks by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad,” Walter Isaacson wrote in his popular Steve Jobs biography.
That’s not to doubt the altruism of either company in the educational realm: if company resources need to be invested in something that betters the larger world, it’s hard to argue against preparing kids for the future. But tech companies also aren’t charities, and executives know that a kid using their PC or tablet in the classroom today is more likely to grow up to become a long-term customer. In these sorts of cases, there’s a thin line between philanthropy and pursuit of profit.
As tablets’ price-points inevitably decline over the next few years, and the cloud becomes more ubiquitous in schools, it’s likely that tech initiatives like the ones pushed by Google and Apple could become far more prevalent. At that point, more school districts will find themselves dealing with many of the same technology issues facing companies around the world, including vendor lock-in.