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Apple's iPad event took me back to school. What a trip!

Posted by SHARA TIBKEN on

Apple went to unusual lengths to make its point that iPads should be playing a bigger role in the classroom.

Apple CEO Tim Cook checks out one of the demos at the company's education event in Chicago.

"Welcome to first period with Mr. Harmon," says a big screen at the front of the classroom. The teacher stands to the side, holding an iPad in his hands.

I'm sitting on a stool at a black lab table in what appears to be a science classroom, next to roughly 40 other adults crammed inside. In front of us are shiny new iPads, enough for every two people to share.

With the press of a button, Jim Harmon, actually a learning specialist from Apple, brings to life all our iPads, launching the company's Clips app on every device without moving from his place at the head of the classroom. Our task is to use Clips to create a poem and video that explains the Fibonacci sequence. For the life of me, I can't remember what that is.

"Hi, I hope you will enjoy my Fibonacci poem," Harmon (sorry, that's Mr. Harmon) says into the iPad's camera before instructing us to do the same on our own tablets.

For a moment, I'm in elementary school again -- with the addition of high-tech tablets.

In reality, I'm in the middle of one of Apple's more unorthodox product launches. These kinds of events typically follow a standard template that includes a keynote and hands-on time with products. But instead of a standard Bay Area venue, Apple hosted its event at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. There was no traditional product demo, with Apple instead sending hundreds of journalists, industry analysts and educators into classrooms for their own back-to-school session.

And Apple was committed to its performance. When I got to the school, I was emailed a class schedule that included a general assembly (the keynote) and various sessions.

The theatrics helped dress up what was a fairly incremental update to Apple's 9.7-inch iPad, which remained at $329 but received a boost in specs as well as support for the $99 Apple Pencil stylus. Apple spent the bulk of its "assembly" talking up new programs designed to help administrators and teachers in the classroom, including the Schoolwork app, which lets teachers dole out assignments and monitor student progress as easily as writing an email.

But just as importantly, the school setting and demos helped reinforce the idea that Apple is serious about getting its iPads back into classrooms. It's an area in which Apple once held so much promise, only to have Google's Chromebook wind up dominating the sector with its cheaper, more laptoplike options. In the last quarter of 2017, three out of every five mobile devices shipped to a K-12 school in the US were Chromebooks, according to Futuresource Consulting. By comparison, only 14 percent of schools used iPads or Macs.

"At Apple we care deeply about education because we love kids and we love teachers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said Tuesday in his keynote presentation. "We know our products can help bring out the creative genius in every kid."

Gene Munster, a longtime Apple analyst who now runs the Loop Ventures VC fund, asked me when I last went to a high school, and I couldn't remember.

That's likely what Apple was hoping. It knew most of the reporters covering its event probably hadn't been in school for years. Even those who have children don't necessarily understand what it's like to use a mobile device in a classroom. In my case, we had Apple's colorful iMacs in the library, but Apple's iPad didn't even go on sale till seven years after I'd graduated high school.

When iPad meets homework

Lane Tech isn't your normal public high school, or at least it's nothing like my high school. The large, red brick buildings are situated on a 30-acre campus, and the interior draws comparisons to something out of "Harry Potter" or "The Breakfast Club." More eventual Ph.D.s come out of Lane than any school in the country, Cook said in his keynote speech.

Luckily for me, I didn't need a Ph.D. in math to deal with Fibonacci. My partner at the session, after all, is Jeff Dillon, superintendent of the Wilder School District in Idaho.

I record a video saying, "Hi, I hope you will enjoy my Fibonacci poem," just as Mr. Harmon instructed. I guess my pronunciation was off since Clips thought I said, "I hope you will enjoy my jeep."

Dillon and I edit the text and move the video in front of some nature images that are already lined up. Before we have a chance to actually write a poem, it's time for second period and my favorite class: history.

Our task in this session is to use music to interpret a famous speech. We use GarageBand to create a soundtrack to the famous President John F. Kennedy quote: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Mr. Harmon turns on our iPads, and we set about choosing zooming sounds and surreal, otherworldly tracks.

Last, it's coding with Mrs. (Shannon) Osheroff, actually a K-12 development executive at Apple. Using Swift Playgrounds, we learn how to make an animated character walk in a square and climb stairs. We even make a UBTech Jimu Meebot robot dance.

By pairing us with superintendents, teachers and students, Apple's classroom lab setup makes it clear that the company is really focusing on educators. In Dillon's case, each of the 500 students in his K-12 district has an iPad, and he was at the Apple event to check out the new offerings.

For Dillon, and other educators like him, it's not just the new iPads themselves that have him intrigued. It's also the seemingly little things, like the ability for a school to set up hundreds of Apple ID accounts in less than a minute. Or for students to quickly log in to shared iPads by tapping a picture of their face and entering a passcode. Or for teachers to control all devices in the class at one time, automatically opening them to the same lesson and locking them so students can't turn on sounds or use apps they shouldn't be using. The teachers can easily monitor the progress of students and see if some kids are falling behind.

Apple is "going in the right direction," Dillon says in between creating soundtracks with GarageBand and coding with Swift Playgrounds. "They're listening to us and taking action."

Apple goes back to school

The last time Apple focused on education was January 2012. That, coincidentally, was the first Apple event I ever covered, when I still wrote for Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal in New York.

The two events couldn't be more different. In 2012, Apple rented the fancy Guggenheim Museum on New York's Upper East Side. Its announcements focused on how publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson could use Apple's new technology to create digital textbooks.

This year, Apple chose a public school in Chicago, where half the students are from low-income families that get government aid. It's also diverse, with 41 percent of students identifying as Hispanic, 36 percent white and 8 percent black.

Apple's event this week was about showing the things the company says people can do only on an iPad. That's key as the company tries to win back schools that have switched to Google's Chromebooks.

Early on, the iPad did take off in schools. Many bought tablets to try out in classrooms, and some, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, planned to purchase a tablet for every single student and teacher. But the iPads didn't quite live up to their promise.

They were pricey, and the software didn't make it easy to manage multiple devices at once. Digital textbooks never quite took off, either, and LAUSD asked for its money back. At the same time, Google's Chromebooks hit the market. Those devices were cheaper and easier to control using Google's internet-based software.

Today, more than 25 million students across the globe are using Chromebooks, Google says.

But education isn't a market Apple's willing to abandon. Getting children hooked on its products early helps ensure future generations of loyal customers. And often, it's the teachers who help shape kids' preferences.

"If Apple can successfully equip teachers with the tools they need to create the kind of examples around projects and assignments that kids can aspire to create, it will go a long way in changing the narrative for iPad," said Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin

That brings me back to my class schedule. It's about time for my class to end and my next session to start. I'll be heading to Apple's Creative Lab/Coding Lab/IT room that's set up in Lane Tech's music room. There, I'll use the Apple Pencil to draw roots, stem and flowers on a plant to learn about photosynthesis, among other lessons.

But before I go, Mr. Harmon has one more task for me and the other students. "Your homework is to download 'Everyone Can Create,'" he says. That's Apple's new curriculum, due this fall, to teach students how to develop and communicate ideas through video, photography, music and drawing. In other words, exactly what I'd been doing for the past hour.

Now that's some homework I can handle. 

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