Digital Education: Why iPads are so widespread in German schools

When tablet classes are discussed in online discussions about digital education, in most cases they are based on Apple iPads. This development is not viewed uncritically: After all, Apple is a high-revenue company with clear sales and marketing interests for its products and – perhaps more importantly – operating concepts for digital technology. If children and young people are used to Apple devices at an early age, they may also prefer Apple devices in the future – so the argument goes.

Microsoft has been pursuing a similar strategy for decades with cheaper software licenses for Office and Windows in the education sector and was able to score points with many quite helpless schools during the pandemic with the completely free A1 version of Office 365. Success is inevitable: modern school education without Microsoft products seems unthinkable to many teachers – especially at vocational schools.

Maik Riecken taught German, chemistry and computer science (non-specialist) for several years at a high school in Lower Saxony. He is a media education consultant at the Cloppenburg media center and in this capacity advises schools and school authorities on the implementation of digitization projects. In his free time, he runs the websites and and writes articles on digitization issues in schools in various media.

A look at the requirements in vocational training seems to prove them right. In the commercial area, Office products are at least a hidden part of IHK exams. Even if the exams themselves are designed to be product-neutral, attached material is often in Microsoft formats. Microsoft Office has thus become the quasi-standard within office communication – and not only there, as everyone can see for themselves in communication with public authorities.

Structurally, critics of iPad classes fear similar developments – only in relation to Apple products. The disputes between supporters and opponents occasionally take on ideological traits. Among other things, data protection and public procurement law are tried in order to ultimately “only” bring very different ideas of “digital education” into position against each other. What are these notions?

From an IT perspective, the use of digital technology in schools is about conveying a basic understanding of digital processes. Two examples of different scope:

Anyone who is not familiar with the basic functionality of networks will not be able to distinguish between a failure of the WLAN and the failure of an Internet connection and will therefore not have any solutions in the event of a fault.

Anyone who does not at least have a schematic idea of ​​what databases can do will later find it difficult to assess the possible effects of combining data collections – for example in the case of mergers of digital companies. Around 2014, Facebook was able to convincingly convince the EU Commission that a combination of the data from the then independent WhatsApp messenger with the data from the later parent company Facebook would be “technically impossible”. When it turned out in 2017 that this was not true, the formal problem was settled by a penalty payment – the data of the users had nevertheless already been combined and the damage to the consumers had occurred.

From a computer perspective, iPads are a kind of black box in many respects: Even at the file system level, they cannot be easily intervened or examined. You can definitely teach IT content using iPads, for example via web applications or simple programming environments. The iPad itself remains a closed system. The operating system defines its interfaces and specifies the options for interoperability with other systems. This works best within the Apple cosmos. For a computer scientist, however, the iPad is a restricted device due to its closed nature.

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From a school administration perspective, however, the iPad is a gift: the devices are very precisely and granularly configurable via mobile device management systems (MDM). In class work, only one app should be available without additional material? No problem, for the administrator it only takes a few clicks in the MDM. There are even easy-to-use apps for some MDMs that the teacher can use to put the devices into a legally compliant exam mode, block the Internet or even provide files. These restrictions survive even a complete restart of the device.

The students’ only option is to carry a second private iPad with them to gain an advantage during an exam. The extensive control options often convey a feeling of control and security, especially to insecure teachers. You can smile about that, but often enough you need such functions to make the transition to other learning formats possible in the first place.

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