Apple University One Step Closer

by on January 28, 2016 at 2:52 pm in Economics, Education, Web/Tech | Permalink

Bloomberg: Apple Inc. said it acquired education-technology startup LearnSprout, which creates software for schools and teachers to track students’ performance.

Apple is working on education tools for the iPad, which will allow students to see interactive lessons, track their progress, and share tablet computers with peers….More than 2,500 school districts in 42 U.S. states use LearnSprout’s software, according to the company’s website.

As I said in my post, Apple Should Buy a University:

Apple University would be a proving ground for educational technologies that would be sold to every other university in the world. New textbooks built for the iPad and its successors would greatly increase the demand for iPads. Apple-designed courses built using online technologies, a.i. tutors, and virtual reality experimental worlds could become the leading form of education worldwide. Big data analytics from Apple University textbooks and courses would lead to new and better ways of teaching. As a new university, Apple could experiment with new ways of organizing degrees and departments and certifying knowledge.

1 mulp January 28, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Who wants to be the first patient of an Apple U med school surgeon who got his surgical degree at home using VR simulators?

Or fly on the maiden flight of the supersonic plane designed by the Apple U aerospace engineer who designed the plane using VR simulation at home for his PhD thesis? The plane got built in China by contract manufacturers. Maybe by manufacturing techs who took the plans from various contractors to assemble the plane faster and ship it faster and cheaper, like with the Hoverboard knockoffs….

2 Josh M January 28, 2016 at 3:16 pm

Things could be much worse than that, just use your imagination!

Who wants to be the first employee to have their HR paperwork filed by an Apple U communications major? The first to buy a car from an Apple U business major?!

3 mbutu o malley January 28, 2016 at 5:05 pm

Your coffee made by an Apple U Creative Writing major?

4 Pshrnk January 29, 2016 at 9:17 am

Would you want to be the first patient of any surgeon?

5 msgkings January 29, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Thousands of people every day are treated by doctors who just barely got through med school….

6 Tom G February 8, 2016 at 3:49 am

“I was last; in my class; but I made it throoooough … Like a surgeon (hey), cutting for the very fist time”… Weird Al (to a Madonna tune)

7 Dean January 29, 2016 at 1:24 pm

Hoverboard knockoffs? That’s how the Hoverboard originals were made.

8 Picador January 28, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Another nice synergy between Apple and the education sector: the bureaucrats who allocate funding for this stuff are exactly the sort who get hot under the collar over Apple’s particular flavour of snake oil. Educational technology companies have long known that the key to success is 95% style and 5% substance; Apple is the master of this approach to problem-solving.

9 Jeff R. January 28, 2016 at 3:49 pm


LA’s decision to spend a billion or more taxpayer funds on iPads for each student a couple years back was a masterstroke of bureaucratic incompetence, faddishness, and wastefulness.

10 Brian January 28, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Combine that with Apple’s poor track record of delivering services and analyzing how to improve them and this seems doomed to failure. Excellent devices and UI’s and ok storefronts has brought them a long way, but the “I know better than the customer what the customer wants” has not done well in this space. Basically every other large tech company has shown a better ability to use their customers’ use patterns as a way to improve. I think the parallels to providing education are strong.

11 Mark Thorson January 28, 2016 at 7:55 pm

You’re looking at the wrong synergy. It’s not between Apple and the bureaucrats — it’s between Apple and the politicians. Think of all the money that will be saved by moving education to the cloud and getting rid of bricks-and-mortar schools, print media textbooks, teachers, teacher’s unions, and the bureaucrats. And think of all that cash flowing into government coffers when all that real estate is sold. It’s a win-win for everybody except the unions, and they’re on the way out anyway. Apple will love you, taxpayers will love you, real estate interests will love you, everybody will love you.

12 Patrick January 29, 2016 at 7:43 am


For the sake of humanity I hope that Google and even Microsoft or Amazon get there first

13 Dan Weber January 29, 2016 at 10:23 am

Having been on the inside of some educational tech, the whole field is really really hard to deal with.

1. It’s impossible to make money. There are always a lot of new companies trying to expand fast and then make money later, which keep on stepping on each other.

2. It’s impossible to make money, part 2: There are companies that appear to have no desire to ever make money ever.

3. If you are selling a school a $80 computer, and I am selling them a $2 rock, they will buy the rock from me.

4. The public oversight means that there are lots of groups with near-veto power. It’s very easy for a third-party to show up and blow the deal.

14 Mark Thorson January 29, 2016 at 1:09 pm

The textbook companies seem to make money. Maybe Apple should buy a textbook company — and for God’s sake, don’t lay off the sales force. That’s where much of the value resides in a textbook company. Apple would get a whole bunch of content that’s already selling to schools, and a sales force that knows how to sell to schools.

15 The Original D January 29, 2016 at 3:15 pm

The sales force is where pretty much all the value is in Edtech companies. The technology usually sucks. Same for hospital IT.

16 The Unqualified Economist January 29, 2016 at 9:11 pm
17 anon January 28, 2016 at 3:16 pm

I don’t suppose you liked the Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree perspective on IP:

I am not sure I like it either, but I am not super comfortable with Google vs Apple defining our education infrastructure either, if that is what it becomes. An open standard would be better for long term innovation. It might be an area where Policy is justified.

18 rayward January 28, 2016 at 3:35 pm

Tabarrok is confusing the medium (Apple devices) with the message (knowledge). It’s quite common, as people confuse the mad men in Silicon Valley with technology.

19 msgkings January 28, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Way too simplistic. Yes much of what make SV run is based on ad revenue. But the services funded by those revenues: telecommunication, online shopping, banking, research, dating, you name it….that’s real technological advance.

20 The Anti-Gnostic January 28, 2016 at 4:13 pm

“…telecommunication, online shopping, banking, research, dating, you name it….that’s real technological advance.”

It’s mostly advance in mediums applicable to particular sectors. Nuclear engineers using e-mail is definitely better than couriers or the post office, but real substantive advance would be figuring out nuclear fusion.

21 msgkings January 28, 2016 at 4:35 pm

I disagree. Email in your example is a fundamentally more efficient and powerful mode of communication than physical mail, it’s a real, measurable, significant technological advancement. So is being able to search all of human knowledge with a keyboard in seconds. Or being able to meet mates, shop, and move money with that same keyboard. And so on. Tech is not just energy and spaceships.

22 prior_test January 29, 2016 at 2:15 am

‘Email in your example is a fundamentally more efficient and powerful mode of communication than physical mail, it’s a real, measurable, significant technological advancement.’

That is so more efficient and powerful as a mode of communication that it has been replaced to a major degree by other forms of electronic communication – whether facebook, twitter, or any number of platforms that are doing their best to achieve their own unicorn status in the gamification of capital that is modern American technological progress.

E-mail requires a vast filtering apparatus to just keep it barely usable at this point – but the cost of those filters, with their license and personnel costs, are somehow counted as being part of that IT budget, and thus part of the ongoing revolution, and not instead a drag on the value of e-mail. And honestly – how often do you use e-mail these days, as compared to 15 years ago?

23 msgkings January 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm

prior, as usual your attempt to be clever and contrarian laughably backfires. The reason email “has been replaced to a major degree by other forms of electronic communication” is the continuing TECHNOLOGICAL advances coming out of SV. Exactly the point I was making to The A-G and rayward. It’s an equation so simple even a German can understand it: physical mail < email < newer communication tech like IM, social media, Twitter, etc.

I'd thank you for the endorsement but you are so toxic here I refuse it instead.

24 The Original D January 29, 2016 at 3:16 pm

The necessity of a vast filtering apparatus is testimony to its success.

25 rayward January 28, 2016 at 4:01 pm

It’s not being simplistic, it’s being realistic. Indeed, this web site is devoted to the efficiency of markets, achieved through the maximization of profits. One either believes in markets or believes in fairy tales, not both.

26 msgkings January 28, 2016 at 4:03 pm

Maybe I’m missing your point, I was just taking issue with you lumping all of SV into an advertising model. Ads are part of the story, but no one is ‘confusing SV with technology’. It is technology.

27 Pshrnk January 29, 2016 at 10:03 am

There are many fairy tales about markets.

28 Moreno Klaus January 29, 2016 at 10:21 am

Markets are efficient, etc 😉

29 Hopaulius January 28, 2016 at 4:03 pm

I hope Apple or some other tech company can disrupt the stranglehold book publishers have on college textbooks. In two quarters my daughter has spent enough on instantly obsolete accounting textbooks to buy an iPad Pro.

30 anon January 28, 2016 at 4:09 pm

There is a thing called OER, but such things tend to be supported by 2nd or 3rd place tech companies, rather than leaders who can hope for a dominant position.

31 AIG January 28, 2016 at 4:23 pm

If your daughter’s accounting textbooks become instantly obsolete, then she’s not studying accounting. She’s lying to you and probably buying Women’s Study textbooks instead.

if there’s one thing that never becomes obsolete, is accounting textbooks.

32 Just Saying January 28, 2016 at 5:18 pm

The content learned may not become obsolete, but if the teacher says ‘Home work is questions 1 – 20 on page 40’, and you’re using last year’s edition, then yeah, your book is obsolete.

33 AIG January 28, 2016 at 6:19 pm

Sure. That’s the professor’s prerogative however, to use the latest edition. And I can’t recall every paying full price for a textbook while in College, or at least not getting a big chunk of the money back by selling the book back to the bookstore. This was before publishers had online editions of the books too, so today you don’t have to buy the hard-copy but just buy the online edition for far less.

Plus, now you can even rent the online edition for the duration of the class instead of buying it. Low-cost solutions are plenty available.

34 Alna January 28, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Can textbook still be purchased through Amazon U.K. for cheap?

35 Ethan Bernard January 28, 2016 at 7:37 pm

> That’s the professor’s prerogative however, to use the latest edition.

I doubt it. It will be hard for the bookstore to guarantee a supply of these. Although Amazon used books may solve this.

36 NPW January 28, 2016 at 9:01 pm

Very much not the professor’s prerogative.

37 AIG January 29, 2016 at 1:12 am

“Very much not the professor’s prerogative ”

Very much is. Yes perhaps not on the textbook to use, but on the edition to use. Especially since these days students don’t have to rely on the university bookstore for their books. Amazon delivers in 2 days.

I happened to teach a class, and I specifically tell my students to buy the previous edition because it’s cheaper.

38 Hopaulius January 28, 2016 at 11:23 pm

It’s a small community college, and yes, they can supply the latest edition as needed. Because the books can’t be used the next year the bookstore won’t buy them back. It’s a racket. Accounting principles don’t change, but tax policy changes continuously. At least, that’s the excuse. Back in the 1980s I took a summer German course at UC Berkeley. The textbook was revised annually by the professor, and you had to buy the new one.

39 Hopaulius January 28, 2016 at 11:25 pm

And my daughter hates, loathes, and despises feminism and women’s studies.

40 Horhe January 30, 2016 at 7:35 am


41 Albigensian January 28, 2016 at 4:11 pm

The most important thing when discussing technology in the classroom is to remind readers that we’re talking about “the 21st century classroom.” Yes, schools should buy and deploy this 21st century technology for those 21st century learners to use in their 21st century classrooms!

Because otherwise we might wonder if you’re just too 20th century to appreciate the importance of moving the classroom into the 21st century! Or perhaps just because those selling this stuff are convinced that intoning “21st century” helps moves the merchandise?

42 AIG January 28, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Hmm…lets think this one through Alex. Apple’s business model is to charge outrageously high premium prices for its products, sold to dumb hipsters who will buy anything for a brand name rather than any actual capability of the product.

Now why would Apple want to invest money in a…university? Unless of course it could charge 10x the price of average universities, just as it does for all its other products.

And some iPads and “big data” aren’t going to command any premium prices. In universities, premium prices come from premium professors. So is Apple going to try and poach Harvard and Stanford and MIT? Good luck with that.

So what would be the point? What’s the problem to be fixed? And what would Apple gain from this?

43 Ethan Bernard January 28, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Apple products sell because they work really well. I bought my macbook because I was tired of fighting with Windows Vista. I spend about 20% as much time fighting with my macbook, compared to the previous Vista machine. About half of my colleagues use Apple. I’m a scientist and engineer.

All the money from all the hipster fanboys in the world cannot account for a tenth of Apple’s sales.

44 AIG January 29, 2016 at 1:15 am

Fine. Whatever reason you buy it, is irrelevant. I won’t believe you, but that too is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that Apple’s business model relies on charging high premium prices. It needs high margins.

Is it going to do this with a “university”? No. Hence, moot point.

45 anon January 29, 2016 at 1:12 pm

MS does Apple a favor by setting the bar so low.

Long ago they decided to pay the Windows Tax forever. That is, maintain backwards compatibility forever. Windows simply cannot be a modern OS while also being true to a single user, no security, base. Attempts to do so can only be halfway successful.

Apple, in contrast, made the leap to UNIX with OS X. They can therefore do as well as any other UNIX. (MS could have done, if they forced a transition to a true NT.)

46 rayward January 28, 2016 at 4:28 pm

Flying cars to Mars (or something), that’s what the hucksters are selling. It’s especially rich that a web site devoted to reason is promoting such nonsense.

47 Bill January 28, 2016 at 4:48 pm

1. Apple should buy a certifying organization. Just as Jerry Falwell bought one.

2. Be wary of reading or testing on an electronic device as there is evidence that your test scores will be as much as 15% lower than if you accessed the information on paper or took the test on paper

48 Greg January 28, 2016 at 4:51 pm

Alex – you’re wrong.

Apple’s comparative advantage is probably in teaching young children. It has compelling, engaging, wonderful products that kids are able to use even before they get to the class room. Maybe people don’t want to turn over education of their children to computer just yet… but my guess is that an Apple product is (on the margin) as effective as any pre-k – 4th grade teacher is at teaching elementary basics of math and reading.

It’s much harder to see how Apple can educate the next crop of physicists, chemists, or doctors. Can you duplicate chemistry lab experiments with Apple products? Don’t physicists already have some of the most computing power in the world? Apple’s comparative advantage is in making products that are beautiful and easy to use. Apple has no comparative advantage in high-end science. Perhaps the ability to present information means “Apple Community College” works, but I don’t really see why Apple can’t just let existing facilities use its software. I’m willing to concede that there’s lots of inefficiency in large universities – but not enough to justify Apple getting into the marketplace.

49 AIG January 28, 2016 at 6:15 pm

Comparative advantage of companies isn’t something macroeconomists or political economists are good at. So Alex forgets about what Apple does, and why it is so successful. What it does, as you point out, has no comparative advantage in this field.

You’re absolutely right: this stuff has low value. It’s not the sort of thing that allows MIT to charge 5x the price of South Eastern North Western Alabama State University for the same degree. The textbook is the same. The online portal for students and professors is the same. Something else is different between these two, however.

But at the end of the day the only relevant question is: can Apple charge ridiculous premium prices for it? Is the market big enough for it to make sufficient profits? The answer is surely no. I can only imagine the stock price reaction if Apple announced it was going to waste $1 billion of shareholder’s money on a university.

50 msgkings January 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

Since they have $1 billion probably in change in the couch the stock wouldn’t react much. They have over $300 BILLION in cash.

51 msgkings January 29, 2016 at 12:03 am

Sorry, only over $250 billion

52 AIG January 29, 2016 at 1:17 am

Even more to my point then. All this is peanuts for Apple, its a very low value proposition, with low margins and low profits.

Not even worth the couch change.

53 Alain January 28, 2016 at 9:11 pm

Buying a technology company and a university are about as different as buying a car and a can of peanut butter. I mean both are made of matter but the similarity ends there.

54 carlolspln January 28, 2016 at 10:03 pm

aapl buying a university?

Never. Why not?

Reason No. 1: Over & above some of the other valid reasons upthread, because there’s a key M&A benchmark that would never be achieved, which is sales per employee.

“Who pays attention to sales per employee, anyway? Well Apple does and always has, and if you look at the acquisitions the company has done, none of them as far as I can tell caused Apple’s overall sales per employee to drop NB its $2.12M/employee

Reason No. 2: Software is hard. aapl is no better at this than any other software company, in fact, in recent years it is definitely worse. iTunes 12.3.2 anyone?

55 AIG January 29, 2016 at 1:19 am

“Reason No. 1: Over & above some of the other valid reasons upthread, because there’s a key M&A benchmark that would never be achieved, which is sales per employee.”

Exactly. This would be a waste of time and money for Apple.

56 prior_test January 29, 2016 at 2:35 am

But it offers the hope that a plucky little online university, founded by two professors using youtube and a $4 app according to the PR story, will turn into a unicorn right in front of us.

Or not, but at least it feels as if Prof. Tabarrok is a visionary far ahead of his time, with apparently having been first registered by him in 2001 – – 2 years before

Though when did the bubble in domain names pop? Ah yes, just around the time that was registered –

57 AIG January 31, 2016 at 9:25 pm

“But it offers the hope that a plucky little online university, founded by two professors using youtube and a $4 app according to the PR story, will turn into a unicorn right in front of us.”

Aaaannnyyyy day now. Any day.

Does YouTube offer PhDs in economics too? I want to see what my job prospects would be if I put “MR University” on my resume as my degree granting intitution.

58 Larry January 30, 2016 at 1:50 am

The whole research university model is going to disappear, outside of a few dozen. The number of schools will probably decline by half. Execs who don’t get ahead of this are not going to last.

59 AIG January 31, 2016 at 9:26 pm

Any day now. Any day. DeVry University is going to take off, and UT Austin is going to go bankrupt. You heard it here first folks!

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