If there’s a common thread that unites the rival technology giants Apple, Google, and Microsoft in the education market, it’s this: They’re big.
The three major tech companies—along with Amazon, a relatively new player on the scene—go head-to-head in vying for big chunks of school business, most notably in sales of devices and operating systems, and they try to forge their own paths in others. At the same time, all of them are best known for their work outside education, through their sales to consumers, businesses, or both.
Each of the companies has seen its fortunes shift in the fickle school market, where vendors of all sizes struggle to gauge what schools want, which administrators make buying decisions, and whether new products will dazzle educators and students, or simply frustrate them.
When the companies have made their biggest headway—as Google is doing now with Chromebooks and its classroom-productivity tools—it’s typically because they have introduced products that not only meet schools’ distinct needs, but also overcome their stubborn limitations.
The simplicity of Chromebooks, and above all, their price–models can be purchased for under $200–are major selling points for schools, offering a clear advantage over Apple and Microsoft in the views of some district officials.
Google’s recent gains in the K-12 market are reflected in the results of a new nationwide survey released by EdWeek Market Brief, which shows that educators and administrators hold the company’s products in high regard and are willing to vouch for them among their peers. (See the survey results here.)
Google’s education rivals, Apple and Microsoft, as well as Amazon, earn mixed reviews, depending on the question asked, according to the survey, which was produced for Market Brief by the Education Week Research Center. K-12 officials were highly familiar with the process for buying products from Apple, and gave a high rating to that experience. When asked which school-provided tools educators and students use most for instruction in their districts, 42 percent of survey respondents said Chromebooks, far outpacing PC laptops, at 15 percent, and PC desktops and Apple iPads, both at 13 percent.
Microsoft scored lower than Google in a number of rankings of K-12 officials’ satisfaction. But a much stronger percentage of those surveyed, 46 percent, rated their purchases of Microsoft products as excellent or good, than did those who rated them as poor or fair, at a combined 13 percent.
EdWeek Market Brief gave all four companies the opportunity to comment on the survey results.
Educators Demanding Personalization, Customization
However Apple, Google, and Microsoft are perceived in school districts, some industry observers question whether the dominant role they play stifles the introduction of bold new ed-tech tools into the market, as companies looking in from the outside choose to stay clear of occupied territory.
As it now stands, the big three providers, along with Amazon, are all selling products in a rapidly changing digital education environment.
Districts continue to invest heavily in devices for individual students. Internet connectivity and reliability in schools are on the rise, as is district take-up of cloud- and browser-based technologies. And school officials are increasingly demanding “personalization” and customization from tech tools, as opposed to one-size-fits-all products.
Faced with a bewildering assortment of tech choices, school officials today make buying decisions based on a combination of factors, including their perceptions that a product will help boost student achievement and increase student engagement.
It’s hard to think of a more conservative industry than education. The processes are institutionalized, by definition.Larry Singer, CEO, Open Up Resources
They also want products that are easy to use. District officials overwhelmingly emphasized the importance of ease-of-use in the survey results, and the respondents appear to heavily favor Google for just that reason.
School districts don’t want to be forced to make new tech products mesh with their existing digital platforms, and they don’t want to create more work for overstretched educators. They expect new products to do that work for them, said Larry Singer, a former executive at Pearson and Hewlett Packard, who is now the CEO of Open Up Resources, a provider of openly licensed K-12 materials.
“Something simple that fits into the existing model has a much better chance of being adopted than something complex,” Singer said. Schools, on their own, “don’t do the integration well.”
What the Tech Giants Are Doing in K-12 to Seed Future Revenue
In their pitches to investors and at ed-tech conferences, new companies often boast of their ability to “disrupt” the process through which schools select and implement new products. But that idea is antithetical to many administrators, who face enormous pressure to make smart, cost-effective buying decisions.
Educators, for their part, want technology that will improve instruction without overwhelming them or heaping on new tasks.
“It’s hard to think of a more conservative industry than education,” Singer said. “The processes are institutionalized, by definition.”
Companies also have to create products to appeal to districts with different academic and tech needs and capabilities. “Education doesn’t move as a [single] thing,” Singer added. “There are 130,000 schools and 14,000 districts.”
Against that backdrop, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have sought to stand out in the market by offering products that meet a variety of classroom and back-office functions:
- Microsoft has long been a leading producer of operating systems in the U.S. and international markets. It also offers a productivity suite, Office 365 for education, widely seen as a competitor to Google’s G Suite for Education. Just this month, the company announced a new operating system and set of classroom tools—regarded by industry observers as an answer to Google’s platforms–that the company argues will give educators simple-yet-rich options to help students.
- Google creates the operating systems used in Chromebook devices that now have a dominant share of the U.S. K-12 market, and it offers the popular productivity tool, G Suite, of which Google Classroom and many other features are a part.
- Apple’s iPad and Mac devices are widely used in schools, and Apple offers a variety of apps and tools for students, including ones focused on coding, music, and video. It also offers features to help teachers improve their skills and instruction and their use of Apple devices.
- Amazon has expanded its footprint in K-12 districts through Amazon Web Services, a cloud-based storage, data, and analytics system, used by many school systems to replace physical storage. Amazon has also sought to ramp up schools’ ability to use its online marketing for purchasing, and it has announced plans to create a platform for open educational resources.
Some of the best-known products the companies have introduced into the K-12 market are free for teachers and students. Google’s G Suite, for example, is offered to schools at no cost. The company gives its operating system for free to Chromebook manufacturers, which sell the hardware. (Schools and districts can buy a $30 per-unit device-management program, if they choose.)
But even when K-12 products don’t make money right away, investing in schools has traditionally offered the big tech companies a long-term play: the ability the lure young users to their brands and build loyalty among them.
“They’re all spending a lot of money in this,” said Mike Fisher, an associate director of education at Futuresource Consulting, a British market research and consulting firm. In making that investment, the big tech companies end up “seeding for future revenue.”
Google’s Simple-and-Cheap Strategy Paying Off
School districts’ appetite for simple—and cheap—solutions goes a long way to explaining the recent success of Chromebooks, which have browser-based operating systems, boot up quickly, and are easily shared, many observers of the K-12 tech market say.
“It’s the price point,” said Kecia Ray, the executive director of the Center for Digital Education, when asked to explain Chromebooks’ appeal. “I don’t hear anyone talking about the bells and whistles.”
Districts’ attraction to Chromebooks is evident in data released by Futuresource Consulting earlier this year, which concluded that Google’s Chrome operating system has emerged as the clear leader in the K-12 U.S. market. Those operating systems, which run on Chromebooks, have 58 percent of the market share, up from 38 percent two years ago.
Chromebooks’ low cost gives district leaders confidence that they can buy large numbers of the devices and replace them if needed, without major financial consequences, said Ray, whose organization advises K-12 officials on technology. Ray is also a former executive director of learning technology for the Metro Nashville school system.
While administrators are keen on Chromebooks’ simplicity and functionality, she has also heard teachers complain about the devices’ reliance on internet connectivity for many functions, and about their shortage of memory, compared with other devices.
Some district officials say, “‘We can’t even run our reading series on this,’” because the device can’t accommodate the software, said Ray. With those disconnects in mind, she urges chief technology officers in districts to make sure they agree with chief academic officers about what digital tools are needed for instruction.
Rajen Sheth, the senior director of product management, Android, and Chrome for business and education for Google, said in an interview that Chromebooks can meet districts’ ambitious instructional needs.
Many Chromebook functions do not require web connectivity, he said. And districts can access a lot of educational materials today through the cloud, without downloading software. But if schools want it, some Chromebook models on the market offer more memory, he said.
With Chromebooks and G Suite, Google was determined to reduce the management burden districts face in bringing new educational devices and platforms into the fold, Sheth said. On that front, he believes Google is succeeding.
Too often “the support cost for computers was much higher than the cost of the device itself,” Sheth said. With Chromebooks, “the manageability [is] simple,” and districts have found they “could buy tens or thousands of Chromebooks, and they didn’t have to hire a single IT person.”
And because G Suite can be accessed from the web, he added, it can work on any device with internet access—in districts that use Google devices, and those that use Microsoft or Apple tools.
“We want to win on the merits of our platform,” Sheth said. “We don’t want to lock in our users by any means.”
Google Rises Despite Student-Data-Privacy Concerns
Google’s popularity in the new EdWeek Market Brief survey is high despite the fact that it has faced a blast of public criticism in recent years for its data-privacy practices. In 2014, during a class action that was later settled, Google acknowledged to Education Week that it “scanned and indexed’ email messages of millions of students using G Suite for Education, then known as Google Apps for Education.
The company says it has since halted that practice. It was also one of hundreds of companies to sign the Student Privacy Pledge, a commitment not to sell students’ personal information, or build profiles of students other than for educational purposes.
Some privacy advocates question whether those steps go far enough.
In a statement to EdWeek Market Brief, Google officials said the company “does not use any user personal information (or any information associated with a G Suite for Education account) to target ads, whether in core services or other Google services accessed while using a G Suite for Education account.”
Google’s reputation for privacy protection in K-12 districts has probably rebounded in recent years because of its public assurances, and the widespread use of G Suite reflects that, said Hal Friedlander, the former chief information officer for the New York City schools, the nation’s largest district.
But district leaders’ understanding of data privacy remains uneven, said Friedlander, now the CEO of the Technology for Education Consortium, a nonprofit that seeks to bring transparency to schools’ buying and decisionmaking for technology.
And while parents may or may not be informed on the facts, “it only takes one person to say, ‘You can’t use Google to spy on these kids,’ to spook a superintendent,” Friedlander said.
Google’s Sheth said that the company is “very, very clear with districts about privacy and security,” partly by spelling out its policies in online statements. He said he’s confident that the message is getting through.
“Schools won’t trust us if we’re not doing the right thing,” Sheth said.
Amanda Moore, a 4th grade teacher in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana, leans heavily on Google platforms to share lessons with students and review their work.
Moore uses docs, slides, and Classroom—all features of G Suite–to push out assignments to, and work with, her students, all of whom have Chromebooks. She logs in to review their work and makes suggestions.
She recently posted a poem on the platform that began, “White sheep, white sheep, On a blue hill, When the wind stops, You all stand still,” and asked them to make inferences about it.
Sometimes she works with students in real time through the system, using a chat feature to exchange ideas. Such was the case when she noticed a boy working on using persuasive techniques in making an argument about whether commercials for junk food should be used on TV. She gave him tips on strengthening his argument.
“Anything I create, it becomes easy to collaborate,” Moore said of the Google tools. “It’s really fluid in that sense.”
The product has at times brought frustrations. Moore said she wishes G Suite made it easier for her to design pages where students go for assignments, and to create separate assignments for different students. (Google officials say G Suite has tools that allow teachers to customize sites for their classes, and recently launched a feature that gives teachers much greater power to create assignments for individual students.)
While many industry analysts compliment the simplicity of Chromebooks and G-Suite, Fisher says their popularity in K-12 is based on something more specific. Those products simplify teachers’ work rather than making their jobs harder—a standard that countless ed-tech products flooding the market fail to meet.
The standard should be, “How do you create a good user experience, [in which] you differentiate your offering but don’t make it so feature-rich that it becomes overwhelming?” Fisher said. “What Google has done well is packaging up the learning experience in an easily usable, easily understandable way.”
Microsoft, Apple Fight Back With New Digital Tools
Yet while Google has a commanding presence in districts like Indiana’s Wayne Township, its competitors are not standing pat.
Despite the dominance of Chromebooks in the United States, Microsoft continues to be by far the dominant provider of operating systems in the non-U.S. K-12 market, according to Futuresource Consulting. In addition to the low-cost devices it unveiled recently, it has launched Intune for Education, a management tool that Futuresource notes has many of the functions of the Google management console.
Microsoft officials are aware of Google’s strong standing in many districts, as reflected in the EdWeek Market Brief survey, said Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s vice president of worldwide education.
But Microsoft is also convinced that educators who get to know the company’s platforms are won over by a richer experience than what rivals can offer, with tools that better prepare students for the challenges of the workplace, Salcito said.
As an example, Salcito said he knows of districts that use Chromebooks with younger students, but then rely on Microsoft products for upper grades, when schools are assigning more complex tasks.
“When we demonstrate or show [schools] what’s possible, the lightbulb goes on, the change happens,” he said. “We just have to do a better job making that possible.”
Salcito spoke in an interview after Microsoft’s May 2 unveiling of a new set of classroom tools and features, which many industry observers collectively saw as an attempt to take on Chromebooks and G Suite. At the event, Microsoft officials repeatedly touted the products’ simplicity and their ability to reduce teachers’ workload while engaging students.
Microsoft has “learned a lot” recently about schools’ demand for technology that is easy to use, Salcito said, and the feedback it’s receiving is shaping its new products.
“We’ve got to learn, we’ve got to listen,” he said. “And I think we’re making huge strides as a company to react. I’m hopeful those surveys will start to change. I’m confident they will. But I also believe that when customers understand the richness of our products, you get a very different reaction.”
Many districts and individual educators, meanwhile, remain strongly loyal to iPads, whether because school systems have structured their curricula and instruction around the tool or simply because of Apple’s brand equity, said Adam Newman, a founding partner of the investment firm Tyton Partners and a former K-12 English teacher.
Apple recently unveiled several new products and features for the school market that at least implicitly take on Google. They include Classroom, a new iPad app designed to help teachers manage student learning; and upgrades to the latest operating system.
While Apple officials did not want to discuss comparisons with Google products, they said in a statement that when K-12 users begin using iPads and Macs, “they see the value right away.”
Apple’s devices and apps engage students and promote deeper, richer learning, they argued.
“We want to provide students with great technology that can help personalize learning,” a company spokesperson said, “[and] expand their creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration to actually make a difference when they get into the real world.”
When schools see the devices’ potential, the spokesperson said, “Apple becomes a really clear choice.”
While each company’s products has its strengths, the dominance of Apple, Google, and Microsoft in the K-12 market has likely stymied the potential development of breakthrough technologies in schools, argues Friedlander, of the Technology for Education Consortium.
The omnipresence of those companies in the market has likely discouraged new companies from attempting to mount a challenge, because they don’t believe they’ll have a shot at succeeding, he said. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft have developed good products that they “sincerely believe meet students’ and teachers’ needs,” Friedlander said, their products are falling well short of transforming teaching and learning.
“Innovation has suffered,” Friedlander said. The products turned out by the major tech companies do not amount to “groundbreaking stuff that propels teaching into some new realm because of the technology.”
“It’s not innovation with a big ‘I.’ ”
Amazon Makes Big Moves in Cloud Computing, Business Services
One big and well-resourced company that appears to be making a rapid ascension in K-12 districts is Amazon.
School districts are turning increasingly to Amazon Web Services for cloud-based storage, with the goal of cutting the costs of maintaining and updating physical servers.
In addition, school officials are buying goods through Amazon Business for Education, an online marketplace customized to serve schools. Amazon says millions of educational products can be purchased online, from books to school furniture to computing devices.
Amazon has already made big moves in the world of K-12 procurement. Last year, the New York City schools struck a deal with Amazon to have the company build an online marketplace to provide e-books to educators.
We’ve abandoned the approach that it’s got to be one [tech provider] or another. I just don’t think it’s a fight worth having anymore.Lenny Schad, Houston Independent School District
And in February, Amazon announced a partnership with U.S. Communities, a nationwide cooperative-purchasing program, to allow districts to piggyback on contracts arranged by public agencies, including school districts. Amazon and the cooperative say the deal will make it easier for districts to avoid lengthy procurement processes when making purchases.
In addition, Amazon said last year that it was developing Amazon Inspire, an online platform to allow schools to find, upload, and share open educational resources. Amazon has offered few details about the project since then. But it is being closely watched in the K-12 business community, as districts demand more options in buying curricula—and they seek similar flexibility in making other purchases.
“Everyone in the industry is wary of Amazon and the role they can play,” said Fisher. Compared with Google and other players, Amazon “has different angles into the market.”
One district that recently turned to Amazon Web Services is the Douglas County, Colo., school system, which has used its cloud-based storage to meet a number of needs over the past three years. Most recently, the district bought AWS to cover big, temporary needs for storage created by the testing of new technologies, as well as by the demands of creating and pushing video content to the public through the district’s public website.
The district paid roughly $6,000-$12,000 per year to AWS for storage, though its costs vary greatly by month, depending on need, said Gautam Sethi, chief technology officer of the 67,000-student system.
“Amazon was a way for us to experiment with different options,” Sethi explained, offering a way to avoid “buying new hardware for a temporary need.”
Mixing Apple, Google, and Microsoft Together
When it comes to buying devices and operating systems, some district officials predict that schools will soon begin moving away from committing to one provider—whether Apple, Google, or Microsoft—and use them all for different classroom and back-office needs.
The Houston Independent School District is already taking that approach, giving school leaders broad autonomy to select the technology they want.
The 210,000-student district has a license with Microsoft and most of the digital devices in the system use Windows operating systems, notes Lenny Schad, the district’s chief technology information officer. But while some teachers run Microsoft platforms on those devices, others use Google products on them. Some schools have Chromebooks, while iPads are also popular, and many teachers rely heavily on Apple’s apps.
Schad embraces the mish-mash of devices and platforms, which is made possible by the browser-based nature of Google and other products. He reasons that teachers are likely to use what they want, anyway—whether it’s G Suite or Microsoft Office 365. Why should he stop them?
“We’ve abandoned the approach that it’s got to be one or another. I just don’t think it’s a fight worth having anymore,” Schad said. “From my perspective, we’ve got three 800-pound gorillas. Each is effective for a segment. For both hardware and software, the days of trying to pit one against another are over.”
While some K-12 tech leaders share Schad’s vision of districts working across Apple, Google, and Microsoft platforms, others caution that making that leap to multiple ecosystems might not be the right move for everyone.
“It requires more training for staff and a wider variety of expertise,” said Pete Just, the chief technology officer for Indiana’s 16,000-student Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, which relies primarily on Google devices and productivity tools.
“For us, there’s more cross-pollination when teachers next to each other all know the same system and can help each other, rather than having to find the expert in that same solution.”