Apple made me go to class to learn about math, history, coding, and iPads

The future of science class?
The future of science class?
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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The bell rang and I started panicking. There were people everywhere, but I didn’t know anyone. I had my schedule from the administrators, and I needed to find classroom 125. I turned one way, and there was the auditorium. I turned the other way, and it was the cafeteria. I was late. Eventually, I found my class, late, and was one of the last students to arrive. The teacher had already begun. It was 11am, and I already wanted to go home.

This was not, in fact, a nightmare recounting my first day at school, but part of Apple’s education-focused event. The company invited journalists, analysts, and educators to Lane Technical College Prep high school on the northwest side of Chicago to debut a new low-cost iPad and educational software. It hopes that these products will outmaneuver Google and its partners for a greater share of the burgeoning grade-school education market.

After a presentation, with the likes of Apple’s head of marketing, its head of retail, and—why not—Al Gore in attendance, Apple dispatched reporters and others out into classrooms to test out some of the things it announced onstage. My classroom had a few tables dotted with iPads in it. A group of former teachers were there to walk us through the software. Much like they would be in a real classroom, the iPads were locked by the teacher, so I couldn’t do anything on the one in front of me until an authority figure unlocked it. I tried to force it to reset and I couldn’t do that either. I’m lucky I didn’t get detention.

The head teacher first walked us through how to use Apple Clips, the company’s Snapchat-like video recording app, to write a poem inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. We had to add a video introduction, a little poster on what the video was about, and record the last frame of the poem (the rest had been completed for us). Even with the help of the teachers circulating around the room, my project partner and I failed spectacularly to get Clips to recognize our voices, or to reorder our clips before saving.

Apple wouldn’t let us take photos or videos in the room, but it seems that its educational software had a small loophole: I could save my clip and export it over AirDrop, Apple’s proprietary software for sharing files between Apple devices, to my phone. We almost certainly would’ve gotten an F, no doubt paired with a frowny face, for this:

After the Clips demo, the teacher opened GarageBand on all our iPads, and asked us to record a quote from John F. Kennedy about space exploration. We had to arrange some pre-recorded sound loops and royalty-free audio (including Neil Armstrong’s first words on the Moon), and then record ourselves saying Kennedy’s quote over the top. AirDrop was still on, so you can now enjoy my terrible JFK impersonation:

Our teacher then enthusiastically asked the class, “Who wants to learn how to code?” There were some half-hearted grumblings from a room filled mainly with people who hadn’t been in a classroom for anything other than a PTA meeting in decades. We continued on.

A tutorial showed us the basics of Apple’s Swift Playground app, which it built to show younger students that learning to code can be fun. Apple helpers brought small robots out of cupboards and put them on every table. We connected them to the app, and could program them to dance, using pre-loaded commands. It was exceedingly easy to tap on pieces of code and get it to run, but quite difficult to edit the code, given that the app is all touch-based, and there’s no keyboard.

One of the teachers informed me that there were tons of commands I could use to make the robot dance, so I scrolled all the way to the end of the list and found one called swagger(). I put it at the end of my dance sequence, and fired up the little robot. He jiggled and shook as he went through my commands, and when he got to swaggering, he did the splits, fell over, and his foot popped off. The teacher was not impressed. I was pretty sure at that point that I wasn’t going to pass this class.

Mercifully, it ended soon after that. I was supposed to go to another demo on augmented reality apps. I decided I didn’t feel like dissecting a virtual frog, so I cut class and headed to the cafeteria to write. Again, much like real high school, I kept to myself and sat on my own. It’s amazing how little changes.

That is, except everything else about school. When I left high school more than a decade ago, I was still handing in essays on floppy disks. (Editor’s note: In my day they were actually floppy.) Apple now has multiple courses teachers can follow to teach code and creative arts using its products, and some 30 million US students now use Google services and products each year. Apple’s Chicago event, which seemed determined to remind us how hard school can be, showed that the classroom has changed, and that the company can change with it.

Apple has been pushing the iPad as a computer replacement for years, and with today’s software updates, which give teachers more ability to track, assist, and assign students, it may finally have something to chip away at Google’s dominance in the educational market.

But as I write this—which I consider homework from today’s class—I didn’t fire up an iPad to do it. I opened up my personal MacBook Pro laptop, some form of which has been my staple computer since my high school days. The new iPad isn’t water-resistant, it isn’t rugged (it will need a case in a school setting), and it doesn’t support Apple’s smart keyboard case. And yet, it still costs as much as any Chromebook laptop when you throw in the cost of the Pencil stylus.

I can see how the new iPads make taking notes and recording videos easier, but I can’t really see how I’m supposed to research and write on an iPad, or do any real coding. Considering the price and lack of flexibility of the device, I’m not sure how many schools will either.