Apple Computers in Schools

I work in a College of Education and our students go on to become teachers, so we get Apple sales reps visiting every year and I met with a couple yesterday.  Apple Computers tries hard to own the K-12 market, but I don’t have any figures to show how successful they are.  We have three computer labs in our building and two are filled with Macintosh computers, with the assumption that teacher education students need to train on the type of computers they will see in their future jobs.  Actually, the PC lab is the most used.

My day job involves programming, web development, server management and computer support.  I’ve been working with computers since 1971, and I began working with Apple II computers in 1978 and Macintosh computers in 1984.  I admire Apple.  The Macintosh is a fantastic computer, but I just don’t know if it belongs in the school systems.

Every time I meet Apple reps I feel like I’m talking to two clean cut Mormons that have come to my door to sell their religion.  Apple people believe in their Macintosh and feel all kids should have one.  Apple Computers got a beachhead in the school systems with the Apple II machines and it was natural that teachers wanted Macintoshes when they came out.  The trouble is students leaving K-12 schools end up in colleges and businesses where Windows reign supreme.

Despite Apple’s excellent computers, the exposure to kids to Macintoshes throughout their school life, the overwhelmingly cool marketing campaigns, Apple has only gained about 1/20th of the market.  Why is that?  Macs cost too much.  I mention that to the Apple reps yesterday and they pooh-pooh that belief, but it’s true.  Several times in my life I was determined to buy a Mac but after pricing them at the Apple Store, and even considering my education discount, I always faced too much sticker shock and walk out.  I then go elsewhere and buy a Windows machine for half as much money.

The last time this happened I wanted to buy an iMac, but only the $1799 version was practical because of memory, DVD burner and 20″ screen.  I left the story and bought a HP with more memory and hard drive space for $498, and then bought an excellent Samsung 22″ LCD monitor for $222 and was completely happy.

Which makes me wonder why cash strapped school systems buy Apple computers?  And now with the economy the way it is, really, why do they buy Apple computers?  If schools bought parts, taught their students to build computers, and accepted Linux, they could have 3-4 times as many computers for their money, or just save a lot of money.  Isn’t the idea of going to school to learn?  Wouldn’t building computers and using open source software inspire a lot more learning than getting the easy to use expensive computers?

When the Apple II came out schools justified expending enormous amounts of money on computers because students would learn about programming and computer literacy.  They don’t universally teach programming in schools anymore, and computer literacy is a moot point since most tykes pick up computer skills before they start school.  Hell, if I ran a school I’m not sure I would have computers in the schools at all, but that’s a different rant.

Another issue about computers in schools is compatibility.  If 95% of society uses one kind of computer, why have kids study on the one that gets 5% of the market?  Of course, I wonder why 100% of everyone isn’t using the same kind of computer.  Can you imagine what our society would be like if Sony TVs got some stations and Samsung TVs got different stations?  Or if Fords had to drive on different roads than Toyotas.  Or if you bought a toaster and it only worked with wheat bread.  Or if you have a telephone that only got calls from telephones of the same brand?  I could go on and on with the examples, but I’m sure you get my point.

But if my point is made, why should Windows be the universal computer OS, even if it has already gained 95% of the market share?  We’re pretty close to having 100% hardware standardized on Intel chips and its clones, and it’s just the finicky OS that’s giving everyone fits.  You’d think the open source folks and Linux would have won the war by now, but they haven’t.  The momentum is with Windows.  It’s a shame we can’t (inter)nationalize Windows 7 and take it away from Microsoft and make it open source and give it free to the world.

And what’s so technologically hard about building a computer OS that everyone can write programs for, that wouldn’t crash, that wouldn’t get infected by viruses and malware, that would be easy and elegant to use, and be universal across all the countries of the world.  I mean, Unicode has already been invented, why not UniOS?

When I saw the Apple reps yesterday I told them I would find Apple more acceptable if their OS was sold to run on any Intel box like Windows and Linux.  I just can’t get behind endorsing one company as a universal standard.  Hey, Bill Gates, make Windows 7 open source.  Windows is less elite than Apple because it runs on computers made by anybody, but it still can’t be a world-wide universal standard if it’s sold by one company.

I think schools should buy components and build computers that can run any OS that the students want to put on them.  Make Windows 7 and OS X open source and let them compete with Linux.  Let the OSes battle it out for 10 years and then let’s pick the UniOS for the world standard starting in 2020.

JWH – 3/12/9

13 thoughts on “Apple Computers in Schools”

  1. I’m slowly moving towards Linux; I’ve abandoned MS Office and now I use Google docs and (less frequently) Open Office.
    There’s a trend towards netbooks and if Google can push Android to be the OS on those, MS and Apple will take a big hit.

    The use of commercial OS in government institutions cannot be much justified, even less in Education. Jim: are you in a position where you can promote a change?

  2. Ignacio, I’m afraid I have little influence. I’m on a small committee discussing ideas to save energy and make computer usage more green. I help faculty and staff configure the computers they want to buy. Over the years I’ve ordered hundreds of computers, but the standards are set by the university. I try to always get energy efficient equipment.

    Recently I’ve been discussing with some of my fellow tech support people the idea of building computers, and we discuss the idea of using Linux. Generally we buy Dells and they cost over a $1,000 without monitors, mainly because we’re contracted to get machines with 3 year warranties. I think we can build an equal machine for $300-350 if we use Linux, that would use less energy and save even more money. But it won’t happen. Our users are tied to Microsoft Office, SPSS, Photoshop, and many other Windows programs.

    Even on my home computer its too hard to break away from Windows. I need, Zune, Rhapsody, and iTunes for my music and audio books. I’m thinking about building my own machine for fun and to make it green as I can, but I’m figuring my OS future is with Windows 7.

    If enough people used Linux then Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, etc. would sell their programs for it. I don’t expect programs to be free, but I think the OS should be free and open source and universal, but we have a ways to go.

  3. “that wouldn’t get infected by viruses and malware”: Humans themselves aren’t immune from “viruses and malware” – you expect computers to be? I mean, problem is in the nature of the beast – programmability. Life virus is DNA, computer virus is code – both are soft & indistinguishable from “good” parts of host.

    Things could have been much better if Windows didn’t have to start out trusting computers on LAN that later got expanded to bad internet, & I do hope things will somewhat improve with time, but we are never going to be free of “viruses and malware”.

  4. Tinkoo, what you say is probably realistic, but I keep hoping for a computer miracle. Compared to the human body, computers are very simple, so hopefully we can cure what ails them. Or we could find ways to quarantine their actions on the network.

    If you boot your Windows computer with a Linux CD and cruise the net your Windows partition is safe from attack. Why couldn’t Windows create a virtual machine for interacting with the Internet, sort of like a Hazmat suit. In other words, even if our computers are like a life form and susceptible to disease, we could find ways to protect them better than we’re doing now.

  5. I’m cynical enough about human nature to also believe that viruses and malware will never entirely go away simply because there are too many people out there that for reasons of profit, malice, boredom, etc. are writing code that can bypass current security standards and are faster at doing so than are those writing the security codes to block them. And I don’t ever see a global change in human nature that will stop those people from doing that kind of malicious work.

  6. I agree for the most part. I’ve had Apple IIs, Macs, powerbooks, PCs (desktops and laptops), and workstations and PCs running linux.

    The academic science community used to be wedded to Sun Workstations running Unix, very expensive. We’ve all pretty much changed over to cheap PCs running free linux, with a fraction of personal users sticking with Apple laptops.

    But absolutely the schools should be trying to save money and the cheap PC running linux is an easy and excellent option there. I always used to think a good current computer cost about $2000. That was true when I bought almost every system for myself, from the Apple II+ through to my last desktop PC. Been a few years since that one, but just bought a new work desktop and had trouble spending $2000 without shooting for top end stuff I didn’t need. Mostly been buying $1000 machines for student desktops in recent years.

  7. Mike, that’s the trouble, spending $1000+ for a lab machine for students, (and generally Mac buyers spend $1500-1800 per machine). In flush times I guess that’s okay, but there are great machines for sale that are much cheaper. I can understand having to have Windows, but if a school system is willing to skip Windows for Macs, then they should be able to handle Linux.

    I loved the old days of Apple II, where students learned about how computers worked, put them together, wrote programs, and generally got into the technology. Now the computer is just a tool, and we have to live with that.

    But if you have to buy a lot of tools and the budget is tight, why not consider Linux? I think $500 per machine with a 22″ LCD monitor is a good goal to aim for.

    If schools wanted to get back into the learning potential of what computers can do, I think Linux has more to offer. Don’t give kids the easy to use computer, give them the hard to use computer, and see what they learn.

    Just think if Linux was the educational computer how many programmers it would add to the pool of open source developers. Open source begs for participation, and isn’t that the kind of thing you want to promote with kids?

  8. Oh, we install linux on those student machines, and in this context “student” means “graduate student working on a PhD in astronomy” and they generally need a bit better than a bare bones machine given the data we handle and analyze. Often they need more than the professors. One student designed a million dollar infrared camera, every single detail, and needed some expensive software and monitors for sure.

    I was one of those kids with the apple II+. I taught myself enough assembly/machine language to hack computer games and wrote launch software that let you pick how many men you wanted, what level you wanted to start on, etc., in addition to my own games.

    This goes back to the issue of how important is it to catch everyone as well as possible and how important it is to give the best every opportunity. You can’t maximize either at the expense of the other, and need both to happen at some level.

    It should probably be the case that there are advanced or specialized computer labs for macs and windows, with general access to cheap linux boxes. My experience is that even with a University with a little money, the IT people throw a fit and only want to deal with one system. We ignore them and administer our own linux systems, at some cost. Basically though, switching to linux means making a bunch of IT folk with PC or apple skills cranky (because they would have to work to learn linux) and they’re usually the ones who get to make the purchasing decisions.

    I think that’s the real problem.

  9. I teach in a very economically strapped school system with a poor track record for making sound financial decisions. For instance, my 3-year-old, 30 million dollar school that is still has construction issues as simple as poor plumbing. Of course teachers have Mac Minis in every room (when we should have laptops, but that’s another story).

    I did a little research and found two reasons we don’t switch to something cheaper: front-end cost and laziness.

    Switching systems means either having two separate systems in the county while a gradual shift is made or one massive expenditure to change hardware, software, and IT capability all at once. It’s cheaper today to band-aid problems with a few new computers and a single software update at a time. Our attendance and grades programs need to mesh with the attendance and grades programs in the central office and thus with all the other schools. Much easier to stay put.

    As for the temptation of Linux, it has quite the reputation of requiring knowledgeable IT personnel to fix problems, especially communication problems with printers and other things that “less savvy” teachers have a talent for screwing up.

    If a Linux revolution occurs in education, my county will be the last on board.

  10. we wouldn’t be half way down the innovation trail if everything was open standard…remmeber businesses (and business investors) are interested in profilts….if the market followed what your suggesting, these companies would struggle to make a profit, and therefore struggle to bring you all the innovation they do. I see absolutely NO arguement for computers to NOT be in schools, I can’t respect anyone with that opionion, they’re simply living in a cave somewhere obviously..

    1. Wow, that essay is so old that I forgot I even wrote it. I had to go reread it just so I’d understand your comments. The Android phone is based on Linux, it now has something like 80% of the world market share. Most super computers now run Linux. A lot of embedded systems, like Roku boxes, and ebook readers run Linux. Teaching computers like the Raspberry Pi run Linux. And now school systems are heating up on the idea of teaching computer programming again – Linux would be a perfect platform. Also, my last three computers I built myself. I couldn’t have done that with Apple.

  11. So it seems the major reason schools have Apple computers is Apple’s aggressive sales staff. I like the construction and reliability of Apple, but Windows machines still do some things that Apple can’t do. I need to make a decision on going Apple or Windows and with an Intel based machine, I have an inherent Linux capability not possible with Apple.

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