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(Apple image)

One-time education technology leader Apple is now a distant third in new computing device shipments to K-12 schools in the U.S. But this week, it may become clear about how Apple plans to reverse its current unenviable position, which is closer to education’s trailing edge than to its cutting edge.

Apple has invited news media to what it’s calling an education “field trip” in Chicago on Tuesday. To be held at Lane Tech College Prep high school, the event is said to focus on “creative new ideas for teachers and students.” But that, in typical secretive Apple fashion, is it. There are no other hints about what will be announced.

The company is indirectly fueling speculation that a big reveal is coming, due to the event’s unusual location (it’s not at the company’s Cupertino headquarters), and the fact Apple will not livestream the announcement. Rumors range from a cheaper iPad or MacBook Air to cloud-based tools for teachers.

(Futuresource image)

Apple is arguably stronger in higher education, but its current K-12 position is weak. Market research firm Futuresource put Apple’s share of new mobile computing device shipments into U.S. K-12 schools in the fourth quarter of 2017 (both of Apple’s iOS and MacOS) at 14.1 percent, the lowest it had been for all of last year. That’s far behind Google’s Chrome OS at 59.6 percent and Microsoft Windows OS at 25.6 percent in the same quarter. Outside of the U.S., Futuresource noted Apple’s share is even smaller.

This is a far cry from when iPad-mania gripped schools districts earlier this decade. Futuresource’s Ben Davis said that in 2012, Apple held more than a 50 percent share of new mobile computing device shipments to U.S. schools, a mere two years after the iPad’s launch.

But a number of factors seemed to undermine Apple’s then-leadership: the need to add (and buy) keyboards for iPads to make them fully functional beyond fifth grade for writing and online testing, Google’s push of much less expensive Chromebooks available from a variety of partners, and Microsoft’s recent catch-up play with cheaper Windows 10 education devices from its partners.

Parents of a certain age have fond memories of Apple in education. Apple basically owned the early personal computer edtech market in the 1980s with the Apple II. Lots of students then “died of dysentery,” thanks to The Oregon Trail and other popular floppy-disk based educational software programs.

School fixture Apple //e and The Oregon Trail. (GeekWire photo / Frank Catalano)

Since then, Apple’s fortunes in education have waxed and waned while its consumer cred (and price points) have skyrocketed.

Apple has made some education plays in recent years. It acquired student data analytics startup LearnSprout in 2016. But that was its last significant public move. And its last education-only roll-out event was even further back, in 2012, when it announced its iBooks platform for digital textbooks.

In an analysis, Futuresource’s Davis said there are a lot of possibilities about what Apple may announce beyond less expensive hardware, from reinforcing its efforts in classroom coding and STEAM education to doing more with augmented reality tools.

Overall, it may take a lot to move the needle. As Davis concluded, these types of announcements “will help Apple retain existing customers in the segment, and may bring some new schools to its stable, but it remains to be seen if these developments could create an immediate and significant shift in its competitive situation.”

Check back for coverage and analysis of Apple’s event Tuesday morning on GeekWire.

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