Apple pivoting iPad education strategy to regain its footing

News that Google (GOOGL) Chromebooks outsold Apple (AAPL) iPads in the U.S. education market shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but Apple could yet make a come back.

Schools ordered 715,000 of the much simpler and cheaper Chromebooks in the third quarter compared with 702,000 iPads, according to market tracker IDC. The quarter was the first time Chromebook shipments outpaced iPads in the education market.

Apple jumped out to an early lead in iPad sales to schools, but some districts have had issues integrating the multi-faceted tablets into their educational programs. In the most notable reversal, the Los Angeles Unified School district canceled a $1.3 billion iPad order amid numerous problems. Superintendent John Deasy resigned in October after questions arose about his interactions with Apple and Pearson (PSO), hired to supply iPad-friendly curriculum materials. Now a grand jury is investigating.

Problems with iPads in schools have cropped up in other districts, as well. The school district of Fort Bend, Texas, near Houston, cancelled a $16 million iPad program last year, for example. Of course, schools also have problems with other devices. Hoboken, New Jersey schools this year cancelled a program that gave high school students inexpensive Windows laptops.

Despite the iPad issues, Apple is still in the lead in the $10 billion U.S. school technology segment if Mac laptops are included in the tally. And Apple’s revenue and profit share remains much higher than Google’s. But iPad sales were expected to give Apple another foothold, especially as school districts look beyond traditional laptops and PCs.

Apple already appears to have learned an important lesson from its education sales setbacks with the iPad. Instead of going after new billion-dollar contracts, one of the company's latest iPad-in-schools initiatives involved giving almost $300,000 worth of devices to a small district in Pennsylvania. Students won’t get the devices until next year, after teachers and administrators have had a chance to plan how the devices should be used. The go-slow approach, with a focus on teacher training, fits with research about the most successful programs.

The Pennsylvania gift is part of Apple's pledge to spend $100 million to aid poor school districts around the country. CEO Tim Cook in October said the company would give out iPads and Mac computers to students and teachers in 114 schools. Apple's donations, part of President Obama's ConnectED initiative, obviously bolster the company's image but also will help promote the use of iPads in schools.

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Schools preferring Chromebooks have cited the lower upfront costs as well as lower maintenance expenses from the simpler operating system. Chromebooks sell for $200 compared to iPads starting at $399 for older models and $499 for the latest model. Add-on keyboards and cases to protect the more fragile iPads can add to the price tag.

Chromebooks are also supplied by a variety of different manufacturers such as Samsung, LG and Toshiba. That allows school districts to follow traditional competitive procurement practices versus the ipad which is only sold by Apple. And the laptop-style devices are easier to integrate into school activities, with teachers and students familiar with the keyboard design. iPads require more teacher training and new study materials.

Ultimately, however, iPads may unlock new and more creative lesson plans. Unlike Chromebooks, iPads can convert to many uses — from video camera to GPS tracker to metronome — using thousands of specialized apps. It's up to Apple to smooth the way.