Dear Tim: What's Apple's Commitment to Higher Ed?

Josh Kim asks Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, to articulate his company’s new strategy, rebrand the iTunesU app and fund technology efforts by innovative educators.

October 18, 2017

Dear Tim,

Following up on your interview with The Columbus Dispatch on the recent big Ohio State University-Apple announcement, I have three requests to ask of Apple. They are:

1. Articulate a Clear Apple Higher Ed Strategy

Over the past year, it has seemed as if Apple decided to pivot its higher education strategy. Apple has been holding small, invite-only events for higher education leaders across the country, but for the first time in many years, Apple will be present at the Educause conference in two weeks.

This new Apple higher education strategy has been discussed in smaller gatherings and at professional conferences. What I ask is that you prioritize talking about the strategy in two places.

First, put your enthusiasm behind redoing the Apple Education website, because there is very little on it about how Apple thinks about higher education. Worse, it appears that all Apple cares about is K-12 education, as all of the images and text seem to relate to primary and secondary students. If Apple is serious about higher education, the website should reflect that intent and strategy.

Second, make Apple’s higher ed strategy a major part of your next keynote address. Highlight the Ohio State deal and other university partnerships. Talk about why higher education matters to Apple. Go through the history of Apple’s involvement with colleges and universities and give a glimpse of your company's goals for the future.

2. Open a Conversation About Apple-Designed Educational Apps

My second request is that you direct the company to open a dialogue about Apple-designed education apps with those of us who work in higher education. The app that I’m thinking about specifically is the iTunesU app. This has got to be the world’s most confusingly branded app. First, what does an app that is designed to support learning have anything to do with iTunes? Please rebrand this app to Courses -- or iCourse -- or something that makes sense.

Second, why there is a private iTunesU and a public iTunesU? The private iTunesU app is like a stripped-down learning management system for iOS devices. Its beauty is its simplicity. Learning content can be delivered to iOS devices in a secure and seamless manner, with easy content updating and an elegant learner experience. It is great that educational content, such as media, books and articles, can be downloaded to the device.

That use case has very little to do with the public iTunesU courses. I’m not even sure if anyone is putting out open iTunesU courses any longer. The two apps should be separated and rebranded.

Finally, I hope we can talk about things like creating a web-based instance of iTunesU (or whatever you call it next), as well as supporting learner analytics. There is no reason why the iOS app can’t be complemented with a simple web front end. This would allow any device to access content on the platform, with premium experiences (like off-line viewing and seamless navigation) being reserved for iOS. The lack of learner analytics for iTunesU content also is a serious detriment to the platform.

3. Create an Apple Foundation to Support Higher Ed Innovation

The final request that I’d like to make is for money. Specifically, I suggest that Apple fund a foundation or some other entity to invest in innovation in higher education.

Apple is no stranger to philanthropic giving to support education. Education is listed as one of Apple’s core values in its recent SEC filing, along with the environment, accessibility, privacy and security, supplier responsibility, and inclusion and diversity. The company has pledged more than $100 million to the ConnectED initiative to bring technology to underfunded schools, and a $40 million partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to support students at historically black colleges and universities who are pursuing careers in technology.

Where Apple could make a big difference is a big investment in higher ed innovators. One mechanism to do this may be an expansion of the Apple Distinguished Educator program. I argue that Apple should broaden this program to educators who are driving innovation on their campuses, regardless of whether they are doing anything with Apple products. The less that Apple ties its investment in educational innovators in with its products, the more legitimate this designation will be.

Currently, many of the biggest innovators are those in the most fragile of positions: adjunct professors, instructors and nonfaculty educators. Directing resources and attention to those on the margins of higher education -- those educators who have shown that they "think different" -- would fill a market failure in the current Gates Foundation-led postsecondary philanthropy climate.

Tim, thank you for reading this open letter in "Inside Digital Learning." I look forward to hearing your thoughts.




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