Targeting schools for technology sales

Last Updated 08 November 2011, 16:01 IST

Three times over the past two years, school officials from Little Falls, Minnesota, have escaped the winter cold for two-day trips to Silicon Valley. Their destination: the headquarters of Apple.

In visits the officials described as inspirational, they checked out the company’s latest gadgets, discussed the instructional value of computers with high-level Apple executives and engineers, and dined with them and other educators at trendy restaurants. Apple paid for meals and their stay at a nearby inn.

The visits paid off for Apple too – to the tune of $1.2 million in sales. In September, Little Falls handed out iPads to 1,700 of its 2,500 students at a celebration in the school gym.
“Both my visits there have been extraordinary,” said Curt Tryggestad, superintendent of the Little Falls Community Schools, who visited Cupertino in 2010 and this year. “I was truly amazed to sit in a room with Apple vice presidents, people who were second in command to Steve Jobs.”

The demand for technology in classrooms has given rise to a slick and fast-growing sales force. Makers of computers and other gear vigorously court educators as they vie for billions of dollars in school financing. Sometimes inviting criticism of their zealous marketing, they pitch via email, make cold calls, arrange luncheons and hold community meetings.

But Apple in particular woos the education market with a state-of-the art sales operation that educators say is unique, and that, public-interest watchdogs say, raises some concerns. Along with more traditional methods, Apple invites educators from around the country to small “executive briefings,” which participants describe as equal parts conversation, seminar and backstage pass.

Such events might seem unremarkable in the business world, where closing a deal can involve thinly veiled junkets, golf outings and lavish dinners. But the courtship of public school officials entrusted with tax dollars is a more sensitive matter. Some critics say the trips could cast doubt on the impartiality of the officials’ buying decisions, which shape the way millions of students learn.

Mike Dean, a spokesman for Common Cause of Minnesota, a nonpartisan group that promotes open government, was critical of the Apple visits, calling them “influence peddling.” Apple declined to discuss the executive briefings. Natalie Kerris, a spokeswoman for the company, said education was “in its DNA.”

Broadly, efforts by technology vendors to get close to educators are becoming more sophisticated, said John Richards, an adjunct lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, where he teaches about education and technology.

“What the textbook sellers had perfected for years has moved into the high-tech world,” said Richards, who also works as a consultant for technology companies in the education market.

The sales pitches come as questions persist about how effective high-tech products can be at improving student achievement. The companies say their products engage students and prepare them for a digital future, while some academics say technology is not fulfilling its promise.

Even Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, turned skeptical about technology’s ability to improve education. In a new biography of Jobs, the book’s author, Walter Isaacson, describes a conversation this year between the ailing Jobs and Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, in which the two men “agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools – far less than on other realms of society such as media and medicine and law.”

The comments echo similar ones Jobs made in 1996, between his two stints at Apple. In an interview with Wired magazine, Jobs said that “what’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology,” even though he had himself “spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet.” Jobs blamed teachers’ unions for the decline in education.

Still, Jobs seemed to hold out hope that devices like the iPad could change things by replacing printed textbooks. Isaacson writes that the textbook market was the next big business Jobs hoped to disrupt with technology.

The executive briefings on Apple’s campus have been going on for more than a decade but have received little attention, partly because participants sign nondisclosure agreements that are meant to protect the company’s technical and business secrets.

Matt Mello, director of technology for the Holly Area Schools in Oakland County, Michigan, went on a two-day trip to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, in April 2010. The sales team wore ties, and the engineers and executives dressed casually. Sales pitches took a back seat to conversations and presentations about how students use computers. One video showed a 10-year-old boy talking about creating podcasts with a MacBook.

The group met with a local participant in Apple’s “distinguished educator” program, Ted Lai, who talked about podcasting in schools. Then, in a room called the Jim Henson Studio, they learned to create podcasts using iMovie software. Soon, Mello was convinced.

Since then the district has switched to Apple, giving 350 laptops to teachers in 2010 and, this fall, 450 iPads and computers to high school students. The price: $637,000. Mello was joined on the trip by two principals, two assistant superintendents and a teacher. Apple paid for meals and a stay at the Inn at Saratoga, near the Apple campus, where rates run $189 for a single room that looks onto a tranquil creek.

Rich Robinson, executive director of a nonprofit watchdog group, said he did not believe the educators were violating state law. But he said the ethical issue seemed to be a gray area for public officials. “It’s acceptable business ethics,” he said. “It’s not good public ethics.”

In Microsoft’s case, the company covers airfare, hotels and meals for participants in its events for teachers. It also invites administrators and school technology staff to regional meetings that are aimed at helping them solve technical issues. Because those meetings include people who can be involved in purchasing computers and other gear, Microsoft does not pay for travel or hotels.

There is sensitivity about these issues on the educators’ side as well. In September, a group of state officials and educators in Idaho canceled a trip to Microsoft because they worried it might appear as if the trip had unfairly influenced any eventual purchase of Microsoft products.

(Published 08 November 2011, 16:01 IST)

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