View from the Classroom
More Straight Talk About the Education Market
by Steve Wood
October 28, 2002




Ten days ago I put up a column, Straight Talk About the Education Market, in response to Apple's X for Teachers program, which offers a free copy of Mac OS X to every K-12 teacher in the U.S. and Canada. The release of the column coincided with the release of another round of dismal sales figures for Apple Computer.

The thrust of the column was that Apple's OS X for Teachers initiative is an act of desperation by Apple to create a much larger base of educational OS X users. Apple needs to do so as it glibly announced last month that starting in January 2003, all new Mac models sold will only boot into Mac OS X as the start-up operating system.

Schools have been very slow to adopt OS X for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Apple's exorbitant pricing of the OS X Jaguar update. A lack of OS X native software, networking and printing problems, along with rather poor backward compatibility in running older "Classic OS" applications were all noted as reasons educators were holding OS X at a distance.

I pointed out that Apple has painted itself into a corner in the education market by its premium pricing of hardware and software and it's unresponsiveness to the needs of its education customers. My take on the whole Apple Education issue is that whatever Apple does at this point probably won't matter much, as "Apple lost the critical mass necessary to stay viable in the education market a number of years ago."

Such a column on the Macintosh web is pure flamebait. It's just asking to lose your readership and invites the nastiest of email messages. Since I'm an independent writer and View from the Classroom really isn't a revenue producer, losing the audience of the "Apple can do no wrong" crowd is probably a blessing. The delete key still works well for the flames.

But in contrast to similar columns in the past, I was astounded by the depth of disillusionment with Apple Computer and Apple Education by teachers and other columnists who wrote. While I did receive the requisite number of flames, mostly from folks who have no connection or understanding of the education market, teachers' comments and assessment of the situation were far harsher than anything I had written!

So, while I really am not fond of columns that are simply a posting of readers letters, I'm going to do just that sort of a column here to share with you the experiences of educators across the United States and Canada who have used Macs in their classrooms for years. Some of the letters are from non-educators as well who seem to have a pretty good grasp of the situation.

I'm also dividing the column into two parts on two separate web pages. The comments below are all from educators and appear with name and email attribution. I think there is a lot to be said for educators willing to put their name on their comments and stand up and be counted. The second page includes some very telling missives from folks outside of the classroom and some others where the authors requested anonymity for one reason or another.

In response to my pre-release email with a subject line of "Am I Nuts," web buddy and Kayenta Middle School teacher and Mac wizard Jim Crittenden responded:

No, You are Not Nuts

The education value of Macs have been steadily eroding ever since the move to Mac OS 8.6. That was when it became impossible to automount a file server without writing a special AppleScript. Gone were the days when a teacher could just walk into a classroom, start up the computers, and walk away expecting them to be ready to go upon completion of their bootup. After Mac OS 8.6, teachers had to stand by each machine during its boot, wait for the logon window to pop up, and then logon manually to each machine. Reality check: Few teachers have the time in the morning to do this during the morning crunch time.

Speaking of OS 8.6, that was when the infamous "keychain" concept was introduced. Maybe it is a good thing for the home user, even a great family idea, but in the school environment it becomes another headache, especially when people forget their passwords. Reality check: School is a very special place. As I tell my students- there are lots of things you do outside school that you can't do in school. Well, the same thing applies with computer configurations. Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

Network-intensive applications, such as Accelerated Reader, required a server be connected to work. If the connection was not ready, the AR client lost its network point or simply self-destructed. Either way, it required someone to come in and repoint to the server, or reinstall the software. Reality check: Most schools do not have that kind of tech support; consequently, the application goes unused and the computers sit there. Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

When Mac OS X was first presented, we were cheerfully told that the days of "upgrade leapfrogging" of third party software and hardware were in the past. The story was that the Unix foundation made such chores unnecessary. Instead, every update of Mac OS X seems to require updating everything else. Reality check: Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

When our middle school bought a slew of iMacs a couple years ago, we had to deal with some quality control issues. Namely, the power button was poorly milled and got stuck when it was pushed in to start the iMac. The solution was to take the case apart and sand down the edges of the button, then reassemble the computer. Easy, sure. But not when you're talking about 50 iMacs in a school with little to no tech support. The quality control issue repeated itself a year later when we bought 78 iBooks and set up three mobile labs. The return percentage has been about 20% on these iBooks. The cover-closing failure rate is 90%. Thus, these great machines are suffering over cheap latches. Someday, someone will need to get some Velcro strips and make homemade closing straps to keep the machines closed. Reality check: Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

Speaking of the iBook carts, they came completely disassembled, with no specific instructions about how to set up the iBooks and route all the wires, etc. Okay, this is a minor issue, given adequate tech support, but it didn't happen at my school. Instead, our leaders chose to hire an Apple company techie. Apple bills them out at $1500 per day. Gee thanks. Reality check: How about warning us first what is involved in the setup of your products? Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

PRAM batteries failing during summer storage. Reality check: Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

Serial printer support. Reality check: Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

AppleWorks upgrades that are not backward compatible. Reality check: Teachers do not have the time and/or expertise for this.

Well, now I can talk about the greatness that is the Mac: AppleTalk; Airport; iMovie; iTunes; Final Cut Pro; file translating; no filename suffix b.s.; drag/drop; finder; Rendezvous; AppleWorks draw; the Appearance control panel; energy saver control panel; out-of-the box-brand-new-and-on-the-network-in-under-5-minutes; etc., and all the wonderful features I take so much for granted that I can't think of them.

But the issue is not me and my Mac, or even my classroom Macs. I am able to run things locally. I am a Mac mechanic. But my neighbors are not. In fact, 90% of the teachers in my district are not Mac mechanics, or any other kind of mechanic, and all the above issues and more are preventing them from using computers effectively in their classroom.

Thus, 90% of the Macs in our district are little more than glorified word processors and/or web browsers. For this, the remote network administrators for our district are chanting, "Office XP, Windows....Office XP, Windows....Office XP, Windows....Office XP, Windows....

Bye-Bye Apple.... You'll always be on my desk.

Before you tee off on Jim's comments, this is a guy who ran a Mac lab for years on a shoestring. He used a Power Mac 7200 running AppleShare 3 as his server and the most incredible collection of antique (obsolete, junk -- not to Jim) Macs for his students until the grant fairy provided new iBooks and iMacs for his reservation school. Cut him, and Jim bleeds the Mac OS. He's a Mac loyalist, but he's disgusted.

From some other classroom teachers "in the trenches:"

Chris O'Rourke, who teaches in a rural city in Australia, writes and maintains the extensive and informative pro-Mac site, Why most people should buy a Macintosh rather than a Windows PC. He writes:

Fully agree with you, Steve. Sometimes I wonder why I spend hours each week on and why I subscribed to .mac.

In another email he wrote:

I posted to a Mac education list here in Australia after quoting your page and a couple of other things. Here's a snip or two:

"sorry to harp on about this but I think this is very, very important...

Read David Frith's column, Apple's US focus losing customers, in today's OZ...

It's not just Steve Wood and me raving on...."

Within 24 hours I have had 7 separate personal emails from Apple Australia staff, never having received one before.

If we keep the pressure up it might make a difference!

And that -- "make a difference" -- is what it's all about, both with kids and with Apple Education.

Pompton Lakes High School Yearbook Advisor and Special Ed teacher Steve Weinstock wrote:

You are right on the ball. It is the same stuff I've been saying for years at my school. Now we have cheapo Dells and Gateways running Windows 2000 and crashing every day. The tech guy is earning a mint staying late to fix the system.

The Mac Labs are basically gone. However, students bring their PC floppies to me to access, open, and print their files. Why? Because their own PCs won't print their own Word files. The school's PCs won't access or open their PC disks (go figure...), but my iMac with a Superdisk drive accesses it. Office:Mac 2001 does the job opening them, and it prints perfectly on my printer.

Golly gee, I say, why don't you get a Mac, kids?

"My dad says they're too expensive."

I can't argue, as the up front cost is more. And now with OS X, well, older peripherals won't work (or you have to do a search for drivers ). Contrary to popular assumptions, most students are not that computer savvy! After all, if they do something just a bit out of the ordinary, their PCs crash and burn, necessitating a full system software reinstall. They don't want that so the most daring thing they do is play Solitaire.

These are true stories...

Anyway, Apple is just about belly up in the education market. No service support (or too few to be there when needed), expensive hardware, and networking problems all contributed to the death. It's so sad.

But, the kids keep coming to my room with their files on floppies...

I may have been a bit hard on those folks doing good things with digital video in schools in the first "Straight Talk" column. Jim Hancock wrote of DoDDS's (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) problems with buying from Apple:

I run a digital video club at my elementary school. I have my personal Mac in my classroom and wrote a proposal last year to my district gaining us 4 new 15" LCD iMacs, two Cannon GL 1s, and some other related equipment.

Obviously, I am a Mac enthusiast who would love to see Apple increase their market share to 8 or 10%.

There are many Mac enthusiasts back at the DoDDS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The whole Pacific Region of DoDDS used to be almost all Apple. Do you think that Apple will even recognize the DoDD Schools by offering us any of the same offers state side schools are offered?

You know the answer.

Apple has made some inroads into this school system in the last few years with their iMovie and Final Cut Pro programs. In this region, at least, Apple was all but banned for the last 6-7 years with the NT surge. Now with the digital video push things have changed.

There has been and still is, I believe, a chance for Apple to make some greater inroads into this school system (and it's a large one). However, I'm not holding my breathe. It will never happen.

It's a sad fact that Apple has, for some reason, put blinders on regarding the ed market. It seems to be, as you have stated, that Apple is really not pursuing the education market -- only giving it lip service.

I hate the thought of only being able to use Windows machines, but I have been improving my skills on them (most all of the DoDDS in Germany and elsewhere have gone with Dell - that's what I'm using right now) to ease the transition.

Arrogance has brought this company to the edge of disaster before, and it appears not to have learned anything from the past.

Your fellow struggler in the great pedagogical struggle,


I usually cut out the complimenary closing of readers' emails. But Jim's reference to "the great pedagogical struggle" is a good reminder to we computer nerds that there's a whole lot more at stake than just computer platforms. Computers are one of our tools, but teaching kids is what we do!

Ray Chojnacki, Eastern High Schools, Voorhees, NJ:

I am a technology director in a school that is 90% Mac. I know the pain you feel when you say your words fall on deaf ears. You very nicely put in words the conversation I recently had with my local Apple ed rep. I have fought the Mac/PC battle for years with great success. But, for all the reasons you stated it is almost time for me to go to the dark side.

Now that X is going to force me to re-do my entire software library, it will be difficult to justify NOT moving to PC's. Year's ago I could get site licenses from Apple for $500. But those days are gone. It's been a good run but it might have to come to an end.

Jeff Bernier, of Martha's Vineyard Regional High, once before helped me out with a great referral to a very good (and forthright) Apple Ed rep. He wrote:

Well, I for one can see much truth in your ideas, although you may be a bit ahead in the demise of Apple in education.

Here at MVRHS, we are still about 60-40 Mac to PC. We are very worried about the transition to OS X. I have converted my lab to the newest version of OS X and love it. But I teach programming and advanced computer applications. All my apps are now native. But this is not the story in the rest of the school. Our older machines can't be upgraded, and at $69 a machine, we will not be able to afford upgrading the "Fleet" to OS X.

I am toying with the idea of having all the PC based teachers order the free OS X disk and then "donate" it to the school. [Great Idea!]

To make matters worse, at present Mac Manager does not support OS X clients!!!!.

A major factor keeping me solidly Mac centric is a dislike of Microsoft. (I own 2 Macs and 1 Dell.)

Randy Zercher, Houston, Texas:

Steve, you're absolutely right, as near as I can tell.

I've been a hard-core Mac user since 1986. My hopes for the Mac OS have had many a "cruel dashing" since then. I wish Apple would live in the real world as I do, making Macs work in a PC environment (in a church, of all places!).

I guess it probably does all boil down to the CEO, doesn't it -- although arrogance has been Apple's weakness ever since the first "Big Blue" ad, including the time when Steve wasn't at Apple.

This note was intended mainly as an antidote to all the hate mail you'll be getting.

Terry McCune makes some good points, especially about the need for, and common sense of having, an "Apple Day" for school staff:

We, in Canada, desperately need lower pricing because of our devalued dollar. Our school district almost exclusively buys or begs old PII computers from industry and links them in a thin client system to Dell servers. The IT boys love it - work for them forever. Teachers hate it - only 2 techs to serve about 600 computers. The "out of service" numbers on any given day are outrageous. Printer problems seem particularly obnoxious.

What do I need: An inexpensive iMac ($900 Canadian) that can do everything an eMac can do. The thin clients don't have sound cards, can't be used for "creating" anything more than a word document and are just plain clunky.

I need Apple to convince Logic eXtension Resources, makers of the LXR*TEST family of advanced assessment products, to reinstate support for the Mac. There are thousands of databases of questions for it out there. I use it every day.

I especially miss Apple day. We live 2 ferry rides north of Vancouver B.C. It's a 4-5 hour trip through spectacular scenery. Every fall, we used to have an Apple day, and we usually sold (through an interest-free payroll payment system) $80,000 Canadian to teachers, administrators and hourly staff. THESE WERE PERSONAL SALES - NOT FOR SCHOOLS. We paid the educational price.

If we purchased $5,000 of Apple equipment last year, I'd be amazed. And the Apple educator advantage is to Apple's advantage, since that price is consistently $50 or more above the institutional price. Shame, shame.

Why do I still support and advocate Macs in schools? Because they are so much better at the things that students love to do and are elegant at doing it. And because a 56 year old English teacher can wrangle the mini-Mac network in the time it takes a tech to lift a work order off the spike.

Nuff said?

Terry and others' emails over the last few years have sensitized me to the fact that as bad as we teachers in the U.S. think Apple Education's pricing is, it's far worse for those like Terry, who pay even more of a premium because of an unfavorable currency exchange rate.

Mike Scott, Director of Technical Services at Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, wrote:

As an IT Director, I have to provide solutions that make sense for classroom teaching and learning activities. Apple is certainly making decisions that don't address the needs of the education market, and given our economic situation here at IU, Apple pricing leaves a lot to be desired.

I love Macs but will not hesitate to buy the best workstation to fit the needs of faculty, staff and students. Macs are not the best choice for us, and I fear that we'll be eliminating 70 Macs in our inventory over the next 3 years.

What a shame.

Dr. Felipe Urdaneta, assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Florida, shared a letter he sent to Apple (good idea -- see contact info at the conclusion of this column) concerning the lack of Apple Authorized Repair Stations.

Although I have been quite a big fan of Apple, today I am quite displeased with the company and this whole idea of Macs for education. How in the world can a company invest in such a "Switch Campaign" and claim that Mac's are "great for education," if, for example, here in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida... there is only one place in town to take your Apple computer for repair? I have a problem with my office iMac and took it for repair 14 days ago to the only authorized Apple repair center in town...It has been...14 days and still they have not taken a look at my computer!. The next closest shop is 40 miles away.

Do you think this is not going to factor in negatively next time I am buying a computer?

These are the thoughts of some teachers that most folks would view as Mac loyalists. They're not happy.

Page two carries the views of some non-educators and some folks who chose to remain anonymous.

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©2002 Steven L. Wood