Thirty years ago, a young and floppy-haired Steve Jobs made a rare lobbying effort in Washington to get more Apple computers into classrooms.
The effort paid off: Apple got tax breaks for donating computers to schools, a charitable effort that won over educators and made the Apple II and the Mac the first computers used by millions of children.
Now, in the era of smartphones and tablets, the company is renewing its drive to capture the lucrative education market by revolutionizing the textbook industry and getting more iPads into classrooms — all at a hefty profit.
As the company prepares a major announcement with educators and publishers Thursday, Apple is aggressively pushing a strategy that would secure its dominance among a variety of schools, from New York City’s public system to Stanford University.
While outfoxing rivals such as Microsoft and Texas Instruments, the move has the potential to lock public money into Apple’s tightly knit universe of products, analysts say. Arlington County alone is committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to integrate the firm’s gadgets into its curriculum.
Since it launched the iPad in 2010, Apple has flown teachers to its Cupertino, Calif., campus to play around with the device and learn about a classroom in Escondito, Calif., that uses the iPod Touch to help students do their homework and uses the iPad for teachers to organize and deliver their lessons.
At an event on Thursday at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, Apple is expected to announce new partnerships that will bring digital textbooks to students — a $10 billion industry that has been slow to embrace changes sweeping other media.
“Apple has a history of thinking that if you catch kids in school, they are more likely to be excited about your products later in life,” said Carl Howe, the director of consumer research at Yankee Group.
That didn’t escape lawmakers who, along with Apple, had proposed tax breaks to bring computers into schools in 1982.
“I think that it is an outstandingly good marketing tool,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said at the time during the hearing at which Jobs testified. ”Every child will grow up seeing that logo in front of him. Steve was very upfront about that.”
Arlington County’s public school district has several “iPad pilot projects,” including one this year where fourth-grade students at Drew Model School are each given an iPad for their social studies class, funded by $20,000 from the state.
Apple, textbook publisher Five Ponds Press and the school created a social studies app about colonial Jamestown, Va., that included text from books usually taught in the class as well as video about the history of the area.
Arlington’s school district hasn’t studied whether the technology has led to higher achievement, but they say students have expressed more excitement about their course work.
The county is now committing $400,000 to more iPad projects that will transfer all assessment tests for its elementary and middle school students onto iPads this fall. The goal is to have one iPad for every 10 students, said Pat Teske, the supervisor for instructional and innovative technologies for the district.
“What these devices allow you to do is put technology in the classrooms instead of in some lab down the hall,” Teske said. “The students are very engaged in the content. They love Google Earth, for example, and everything is instantaneous and right there for them.”
Like Arlington, more than 2,300 elementary and secondary schools have launched experiments centered on the iPad over the past year. About 1,000 K-12 schools have adopted a program designed by Apple to put an iPad in the hands of every student in a school.
By the middle of last year, Apple had sold more iPads in K-12 schools than Macs.
“To do that after just five quarters is absolutely shocking. We would have never predicted this,” chief executive Tim Cook said last summer.
According to congressional records, Apple has also lobbied for education reforms that would include about $100 million in annual grants doled out by the Education Department for technology programs.
Schools can become locked into Apple because its closed software means content can only be moved easily between the company’s devices. Some publishers say educators need to be wary of relying on one firm.
“The iPad is a phenomenal device for consuming content,” said Bethlam Forsa, the global head of product development for textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The publisher released an algebra app days after the iPad was first released and is banking on a future where most books will be consumed over e-readers and tablets. “But we have to be device-agnostic because our customers will use multiple devices.”
Some experts doubt the effect of gadgets on student performance. Lawmakers have criticized federal programs that brought high-speed Internet connections and computers to technology labs in the 1990s but that were rarely used. Teachers complained that they weren’t getting technology training, and education experts questioned the need for classes in word processing and presentation skills.
To date, neither Apple nor its rivals have been able to have a transformative impact on education, a fact that frustrated Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography.
Other tech executives have also touted the importance of technology in learning. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, for instance, has warned that the nation risks falling behind countries such as Singapore and China, which have thrown their efforts behind education in computer science, math and engineering.
Jobs told Isaacson: “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt. . . . But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent the whole process and save money.”