Google's Chromebooks have overtaken Apple products as the most popular devices in American classrooms, but Apple CEO Tim Cook says the company will not be following the search giant's approach to the education market, which has been a stronghold for Apple since the early days of the Mac.
"Assessments don't create learning," Cook said in an interview with BuzzFeed News Wednesday, calling the cheap laptops that have proliferated through American classrooms mere "test machines."
"We are interested in helping students learn and teachers teach, but tests, no," Cook said. "We create products that are whole solutions for people — that allow kids to learn how to create and engage on a different level."
Apple has been deeply connected to schools since it first rolled out mass market personal computers in the 1980s, and has long offered big discounts to students and teachers. But its education market share has been snatched away by the Google-branded Chromebooks, which are outselling not just Apple but everyone else in the tech business.
By the end of 2015, according to Google, there will be more Chromebooks in schools than all other devices combined.
Cook's comments hint at one major reason for the rapid rise of the Chromebook: the computerization of standardized testing. With many states in the process of shifting their annual tests to computers and away from bubble sheets, school districts needed to buy devices quickly, cheaply, and in large numbers — enough to accommodate whole swaths of the school at once during testing weeks. Keyboards, when it comes to tests, are an absolute necessity.
Testing alone does not explain the surge in popularity of Chromebooks, which had just a 1% share of the education market in 2012. They are less than half as expensive as iPads. And they integrate seamlessly with Google’s Apps for Education — programs like Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, which Google says used by more than 50 million teachers and students.
Cook said iPads are set apart from the competition by their education-focused native apps and integration with school curriculum. Chromebooks run all their software through a web browser, requiring a virtually constant internet connection and limiting the ability to use custom-made software or apps.
Cook spoke with BuzzFeed News as part of Apple's celebration of the Hour of Code, an annual event meant to inspire children to try coding through hour-long games that teach the building blocks of computer science. Apple is turning more than 400 of its stores into classrooms this week as part of the event.
At an Apple Store on New York's Upper East Side Wednesday, Cook observed a group of third graders from P.S. 57 in Harlem as they built code that moved a Star Wars character around a map — on iPads, naturally. With the CEO of Apple leaning over their shoulders, the students remained deeply absorbed in their iPads, not once looking up to take in the gaggle of photographers and press people flooding the classroom. A girl in pigtails put her fingers over her ears to drown out the clicking of cameras.
When they were finally asked to pause their devices, the students did so reluctantly, leaving their earbuds in their ears.
"Hi, I'm Tim, and I work at Apple," Cook told the students. "Coding is a really important language to learn — as important as English, someday."
Cook told BuzzFeed News he hoped that hosting the event at Apple stores nationwide would "light a match" in children. "The next step is getting the public schools, over time, to make it a requirement. We're hoping to get their curiosity up, and then get the system" to take the next step, Cook said.
For the students at P.S. 57, the chance to code on iPads was a first. Joann Khan, their teacher, said she has had little chance to incorporate technology into their learning: her class is equipped with a single computer, and the school's aging computer lab was eliminated in the face of budget cuts.