Why Big Tech is in Edtech

A picture of a laptop on a table. Text above the laptop reads Why Big Tech is in Edtech.

Recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the involvement and influence of the world’s biggest technology companies in education. Clearly, there are numerous benefits for teachers and students in the products and services they offer, but what drives companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others, to continue investing in the education market, and how does that affect our students now and in the future? Here are some thoughts based on my own musings.

Making Money

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The reason that so many of these companies still exist today, is because they operate on the notion of making a profit. Education is a market they can sell to in the same way that they do to enterprise or consumer markets. If there is money on the table, it seems only natural they should go after it. So, how do these companies make their money?

Most of Apple’s money comes from selling devices. They do have a growing revenue stream in services like iCloud and Apple Music, but the bulk of their income still comes from iPhones, iPads, and Macs. As an incentive for buying their devices, software like Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iMovie, Garageband, Classroom, Schoolwork, Clips, Notes, Mail, Calendar and more are free, and so is the operating system for the device, as well as all subsequent updates. They don’t want your data, they just want your money, and this has made them one of the richest companies in the world.

Most of Microsoft’s money comes from selling software and devices. They also earn revenue from cloud enterprise services like Azure, but around two thirds of the company’s income is from Office, Windows and the Surface line of devices.  While there is a free version of Office 365 for schools, it is limited, and access to the full-featured desktop versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, does require a paid subscription.

Most of Google’s money comes from advertising. With the help of the various services that it offers, Google collects data on its users and compiles that data to build advertising profiles that it uses to serve people with targeted ads. This is interesting, because that’s not a part of their education platform at all. The G Suite tools are free for schools, and although Google does make Chrome OS, most of the Chromebooks that schools buy are from the likes of Dell, Acer, Asus or Lenovo, and not from Google. So, they don’t really make much money from schools, at least not directly.

A Sense of Altruism

Let’s flip the script for a minute. Money may well be the driving motivator for many of these companies, but it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t at least a little selflessness involved here. Children represent the future, and as such, we all want the best for them. We want them to succeed and to have opportunities and to realize their dreams. There are executives at all of these technology companies who believe in that mission and who genuinely want to change the world by giving kids the tools and resources to do that.

Of course, I have no real sense of how big a motivation this is for these multi-billion dollar companies, but I want to believe that it is an important one. I want to believe that they really care about investing in a sector of society that is frequently under-funded by state and federal governments.

Social Capital

So, altruism is great, but there’s also no denying that education is good for business. It makes your company look good when you are under the glare of the public eye. If your closest competitor is doing great things in the education market and you are not, then you might want to rethink your strategy because whether you like it or not, education helps build something called social capital.

Being involved in the learning process at schools can add to the reputation of a company and the things it is associated with. It adds a human face, an air of social responsibility, and it gives people new ways to connect and identify themselves with a company that is seen to be doing good things for society as a whole. It’s the feelgood factor, a way to help differentiate your company from others and the opportunity to get you involved in conversations that you might not normally be a part of: conversations about change and about creating a better world for everyone.

Future Users

However, if we continue down this path, you soon come to the realization that technology companies are involved in education because they are courting future users. This involvement gives these companies the ability to influence kids when they are younger so that they can make money from them when they are adults.

When students spends the majority of their K-12 life using one particular device, or living in one particular ecosystem, then the chances are high that when they leave school to join the workforce or go to college, they will choose to use the very same products and services, because that’s what they are used to using.

Apple wants you to buy their devices, Google wants you to use their online services, and Microsoft wants you working in Office and Windows. There are few better ways to make that happen than to start people using these things at an early age and to get them invested in an ecosystem that they don’t want to leave.

What it Means for Schools?

I feel like these motivations are not always known or discussed in schools. Sometimes they are ignored or taken for granted. Either way, I think they are important conversations to have with teachers to help them be aware of the values and ideals of the companies that they are tacitly promoting in their schools. Teachers have their own preferred products or services, they always will, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the right ones for their students.

I also think that this is a perfectly valid conversation to be having with students. Are they aware of the commercial and privacy implications that go along with choosing to use a particular product or service, and if they are, does that affect the way that they use them? Again, I doubt that students spend a lot of time thinking about this. After all, they get to use all of this technology for free when they are at school, but as the old adage goes, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.

I am, of course, a big advocate for the use of technology in education. I think it can truly enhance the learning process, bring things to life in new and interesting ways, and make us more efficient in the ways that we learn. However, I also believe that we need to educate ourselves on the technology that we do use, and to be responsible in the choices that we are making for students in regards to the technology that we are asking them to use. Without education like that, we can’t expect our students to be the responsible, digitally literate citizens that we want them to be.

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