The educational iMac: Too much, too late

On Monday, Apple announced a buck-under-$1000 education-only iMac. As the news report tells us, this 21.5-inch iMac bears a less-powerful processor than its $1199 sibling as well as half the other Mac’s RAM and storage. While it may be short on specs, the new education-model iMac’s $1000 price makes it a tad more tempting for schools that are endlessly strapped for cash. And, with schools set to go into session in the next month, the timing is right.

I have to think, however, that there are groups within Apple as well as in the education community that shake their collective noggins when considering the appropriateness of this computer for schools. In many ways, this iMac is too much and too late.

Too much

If you have school-age children in public schools you’re aware that the school your child attends is anything but bloated with cash. In today’s political and economic climate, education has been kicked to the curb, as reflected by school budgets being slashed and then slashed again. “Extras” such as the arts were abandoned ages ago in all but the most affluent districts. And for those districts that don’t come equipped with a healthy tax base (or parents capable of making up the difference), more vital elements—small classes, libraries, school nurses, paid aids, teachers, and mid-level administrators—have been jettisoned.

Given these circumstances, what would you expect your local school board to do about computer labs when it comes time to purchase new equipment? Offered the choice between a $1,000 iMac or a $500 Windows 7 PC, what decision would you make? Capable and attractive though an iMac may be, at this time, it’s beyond the budget of many public schools. Those that have Mac-based computer labs will certainly consider upgrading if they have the money. As will junior-colleges and universities that have more financial leeway. But for today’s typical elementary/high-school? Too expensive.

Too late

Last year I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Bill Wiecking, an instructor at the Hawai’i Preparatory Academy (also the director of the school’s Energy Lab). In addition to providing some insight into how technology can help with sustainable living, Dr. Wiecking provided me with a new perspective on how technology can and will be used in the classroom.

Without putting too fine a point on it, a lab full of desk-bound computers ain’t it.

To begin with, they’re an inefficient resource in regard to time. You have to march a classroom full of kids to the lab, portion the kids out to their computers, teach what you need to teach, and march them out again. The lab then sits idle until the next group comes in (and all night and over the weekend).

And what about the time spent with the computer? Is enough allocated so that students can get some real use out of the computers, or are they simply being used as ginned-up typewriters and encyclopedias?

Now, consider data. Files generated by the students stay on the computer unless you provide them with a copy on a key drive or place it on a server that the child can access from home (provided their home has a computer and that computer can read the files they’ve created). If you’re in a position to mandate that students’ homes have a computer compatible with their schoolwork, great. But this isn’t an option for many schools and families.

Common though school computer labs may be, they’re a relic of a past age and, in some ways, this iMac caters to the past rather than the present and future.

So what, then?

That present and future is represented by laptops and portable devices such as the iPod touch and iPad. Their portability ensures that students have access to them everywhere in the school (and, ideally, at home), not just in the corner of a classroom or in a room under lock and key. Students then have the opportunity to live with the technology and incorporate it into their studies and lives, thus having the time to explore the knowledge available to them rather than simply putting together PowerPoint presentations and looking up the occasional Wikipedia reference.

Beyond mere portability, devices like the iPod touch and iPad present different ways of interacting with information. For example, rather than looking at a paper map of the heavens, a student can fire up Star Walk, point their iPad at the sky, and see what circulates overhead. Or spot a bird out the window and quickly identify it and check its range with iBird Explorer Pro.

With such devices at hand, teaching needn’t be completely scripted. “Teachable moments”—making a lesson of something happening at the moment—is as important in education as it is in parenting. Having a portable resource such as an iPad can not only increase the frequency of these moments, but make them more meaningful. Instead of offering a “Let’s keep that in mind for later” answer, teachers and students can instead pull out their iOS devices and immediately look for answers and information.

And then there’s communication. When I attended elementary school, I was assigned a pen pal from a foreign country. Other than practicing the cursive writing I’ve long since abandoned, I got little from the experience. It would have been a completely different matter if I could have spent some time on FaceTime with that student and taken a video tour of their home and community.

And yet how do you reconcile too much and too late? While a $999 iMac may be a lot of money for a strapped school (particularly compared to a seemingly comparable PC), at least it can serve multiple students. An iPad may be half that price, but to be really effective, you need more of them.

My fervent hope is that Apple is well aware of this—that the company sees the education iMac as something to satisfy schools that must equip computer labs and classrooms with desktop computers. But that this iMac is the last of its line—a computer designed for an inefficient learning environment. In the future Apple will push portable in the form of less-expensive laptops and iPads as the way computing devices can really help contribute to education.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor with Macworld.]

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