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February 1, 2011

Dear Lens Readers,

I'm going off the usual "wireless grid" to discuss something that has been on my mind for awhile. I did a little research and discovered that Steve Jobs has done relatively little with regards to corporate philanthropy compared to other tech giants. Apple, too, has been criticized for its comparatively low giving. I think Jobs, and Apple, have an opportunity to make an important difference -- at a time when our country could really use it. And I have just the idea. Read below.

A Unique Opportunity for Apple
This is a unique moment in time. Apple has become the second largest market cap company in the United States. Steve Jobs is one of country's top 50 wealthiest individuals. But for all of its their success, wonderful products, and public adulation, Apple and Jobs have done comparatively little with regard to corporate philanthropy. Contrast that to his high-tech brethren, such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and others who have answered Warren Buffett's call and committed to give away a significant percentage of their substantial fortunes. 

My idea: iPads for Schools.

The iPad, more than any other electronic gadget, has enormous potential to be used for educational purposes. Already, thousands of educational apps have been developed for the iPad -- some are schlocky, others wonderful -- but one gets a sense this is still in the early innings. Leading educational publishers such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin are starting to seriously invest in developing for the iPad and other tablets -- there was a piece on this in today's Wall Street Journal. A Canadian company called Smart has been a terrific success story, with its Smart Board interactive white board installed in classrooms all over the world. Yet it's stock has fallen off, not because schools don't want Smart Boards, but because they can't afford them.

When it comes to major new initiatives, there are three things going on in public education today. First, with all the media, gadgetry, and screenage that are part of their daily lives, kids are learning in fundamentally different ways. Just think of the user interface on tablets, phones, Wiis, and the like, the pace at which stuff happens, kids' ability to multitask -- you get the picture. Think of what this means when they arrive at school and the challenge teachers face in keeping kids engaged and motivated. Yet schools have been relatively slow to adopt many of these technologies, due to many factors, among them: cost, bureaucratic inertia, onerous state/federal guidelines/requirements, fear, and relative lack of tech savvy among many of our teachers and school administrators (half of whom are older than 45).

Second, schools are strapped. Doesn't matter how wealthy the town. Every school district in the country must raise taxes or lower spending in order provide level service, due due rising health care costs, pensions, and under-funded mandates from No Child Left Behind to state special ed requirements.

Third, as you read about in studies seemingly released every week, our educational system has fallen behind that of other developed nations. We have increased per-pupil spending rather remarkably, yet that is not reflected in our schools' physical infrastructure, facilities, educational tools, or students' achievements. It's ironic -- iPhone, Android, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, to name a few -- all invented here -- but we have not harnessed any of this to enhance our educational institutions' competitiveness, innovation, or leadership.

I have a unique perspective. As someone in the industry, I see how people use these wonderful tools every day. I also have a front seat to observe what's coming next - and it's only more, better, more urgent. Additionally, my wife has also had a career in public education, and she has started using our family iPad in one-on-one situations with some children who have learning disabilities. Again, early days, but there is no question that tablets and the apps being developed for them can be transformative in the classroom, even more so than PCs.

Why Apple, And Why Now?

Why Apple? Pretty simple. The iPad is the leading tablet device. Apple has an entire ecosystem around the iPad in a way that other industry participants do not. iTunes is on hundreds of millions of PCs. Apple has always had particularly high market share in the educational segment. And Apple has the money.

So, what should they do? I have five principal (no pun intended) suggestions:

1. Develop a version of the iPad for education. This is a huge topic in and of itself, but top of mind thoughts are that it needs: to be more rugged; have an ability to be administered, and controlled by teachers; and be used by multiple students of different ages.

2. Create a more defined "education" category of applications. For different ages, subjects, learning styles. Also, allow schools to have their own "app store" (similar to what some enterprises have in Apple's MDM program).

3.  Give away or subsidize iPads for schools. Apple has long had discounts for institutions, educators, and students. But they could do a lot more. What if there was a private sector initiative, led by Apple to give away a substantial number of devices, at cost, to public schools, or set up a fund to allow schools to buy iPads at  a subsidized price? How about the wireless operators chip in $5 per iPhone/iPad subscriber per year  - that would be $200-300 million right there.

4.  Incubate/fund educational apps. Apple can join with Kleiner Perkins and other titans of the investment community to set up a special fund for educational apps. Developers would have access to seed capital. Form an advisory board consisting of the federal Dept. of Education, chancellors of big city school boards, college presidents, leading educators, and star students.

5.  Train the Teachers. This is where most tech initiatives in education fail. Stuff is thrown at teachers, with little attention to training them how to use and optimize the tools at their disposal. Apple can build a team of trainers who go to the schools and train teachers, administrators, and students on how to best utilize the devices and apps. They can hold training classes for teachers at their retail stores, just as they do for millions of consumers every day. Not every teacher has great facility with technology. They don't have a lot of extra time or incentive to learn how to use it. They should get professional development points (PDPs) for taking this training.

The Time is Now

There are many in the growing mobile device and applications ecosystem that could get involved in this initiative. But Apple is in a unique position to drive a game-changing effort if they so choose. Steve Jobs and Apple: the moment is yours. Otherwise, I hear Eric Schmidt is looking for something to do with his $100 million bonus and new emeritus status at Google.

Thanks for bearing with this rather unorthodox Lens. I'd welcome your thoughts.

- Mark
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