Should schools use Windows or Apple devices

What makes the Oberschule Gehrden special is the virtual space, a kind of extended classroom. Instead of books and shelves, teachers and students use iPads and spaceless clouds. Thanks to WiFi, homework ends up directly on the electronic board in the classroom. Even the teachers don't know where the data will end up going. But the potential range is large: the Lower Saxony school is networked with around 470 schools worldwide. One of the largest digital companies in the world keeps track of this network: Apple.

All schools in Germany are facing the challenge of digitization and need support. If this does not come from the state, the schools fall back on private-sector offers. In addition to Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung, for example, are pushing into the classroom. They train teachers, certify entire schools or give away software and devices - officially without any economic interest. Why should a school say no when tech companies want to equip the entire institution? Education experts take a critical view of this: "We must not accept that education in schools becomes a commodity," says René Scheppler from the Education and Science Union, "otherwise trust in our education system will disappear."

"Education is underfunded," says the school principal. But he wants to help shape digital change

The secondary school near Hanover was the first state school in Germany to receive an Apple certificate in 2017: until then, only private institutions had received the award. School principal Carsten Huge said that the staff campaigned for more IT in the classroom eleven years ago. "We want to help shape digital change." In order to receive the certificate, his school had to adhere to the group's strict requirements: the schools must train at least 75 percent of their staff to become Apple teachers, who then have special knowledge of devices and software. All teachers and students have been using iPads or Mac laptops for at least two years, and apps are integrated into the lessons. Schools can use the money from the IT industry well: "Education is underfunded," says headmaster Huge.

There are already seven Apple schools in Germany, the company calls them "Apple Distinguished Schools". Four of them, including the Gehrden Oberschule, are state-run. When asked, the company does not say how many Apple teachers there are in Germany. The competitor Microsoft acts similarly to Apple and certifies so-called Microsoft model schools in Germany: Of the current twelve, eight are state-run. Microsoft trained around 6,000 teachers nationwide in 2018. "By certifying entire schools, companies spread their brands and influence," says Scheppler.

The state also wants schools to increasingly design their lessons digitally. With the digital pact for schools, which came into force in May 2019, the federal government is providing five billion euros within five years. Above all, investments in digital infrastructure such as WiFi, networking in buildings or interactive boards are planned, as well as money for mobile devices. This is a lucrative market for IT companies. "But they don't just want to deliver products," says Scheppler. "The tech companies want to make schools dependent and influence them in the long term." Schools would inadvertently base their pedagogy on what companies like Apple have come up with.

Politicians are clueless. The Minister of State for Digitization in the Federal Chancellery, Dorothee Bär, explains on request that her training courses on so-called Apple or Microsoft teachers say nothing. Scheppler experiences it similarly. On the online platform "Ask the State" he made inquiries to 13 school ministries - about how many Apple or Google teachers there are in the state. The most common answer: You don't know anything about certifications. Further training in the private sector was not their responsibility. The ministries apparently see no problem with exerting influence. As long as schools act within the legal framework, it is up to them who they cooperate with, according to the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Culture. Schools are allowed to purchase an Apple Certificate, but they cannot advertise it on their website. Lower Saxony's minister of culture also says that there is no growing influence from companies.

Who gets what from it

Corporations are not charities; their shareholders primarily want to make money. But nowadays the image that the public and thus also the customers have of a company is becoming more and more important. Employees also feel more comfortable in companies that are also socially involved. The US software company Salesforce, for example, a competitor of SAP, grants its employees six paid working days per year on which they can do voluntary service. To date, Salesforce employees in more than 70 countries have volunteered over a million hours with more than 11,000 nonprofits. At Microsoft, too, many employees are involved in various charitable projects. Together with the automobile manufacturer Volkswagen, Microsoft Germany has also agreed on a long-term collaboration on sustainability and future social initiatives in Germany. The German boss at Microsoft, Sabine Bendiek, was quoted as saying "to promote the use of digital technologies and artificial intelligence for the benefit of the environment, society and the economy". There are also plans for student workshops on topics such as programming and artificial intelligence. Corporations such as Intel or Salesforce support universities - naturally also in the hope of providing their own employees. ma

It is not always easy to see the influence of digital companies. Financing is often carried out indirectly through foundations or other cooperation partners. In 2013, Samsung launched the "Rethinking Digital Education" initiative and, by 2017, had trained around 600 teachers through partners. Google is proceeding in a similar way: The US group summarizes its nationwide offers under the term future workshop. Google does not go to schools itself, but works with renowned partners: One of them is the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (IAIS), which offers the web-based programming software Open Roberta.

Between 2012 and 2018, the institute received around 5.8 million euros from the US company for educational projects in Germany. Another example is the Berlin start-up Calliope, which Google has financed with more than one million euros since it was founded in 2016. It produces a minicomputer, especially elementary school students should develop an initial understanding of programming with it.

Since the calculator was launched in 2017, Calliope has given away more than 25,000 copies to schools. The Lobby Control initiative judges this as critical: "This is how curricula are circumvented, because programming is not provided in primary schools," says Felix Duffy. According to Duffy, it is difficult to assess whether this is legal - not only because the 16 school laws of the federal states set different framework conditions. Much remains vague.

The regulations of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, assume that the educational mandate is at risk if "a donation tries to influence the content of teaching and upbringing". In North Rhine-Westphalia, on the other hand, sponsoring is permitted if the school's interests are greater than those of the sponsors. Each school and its sponsors weigh up for themselves. "A single case may be okay," says Duffy, "but when something happens in many schools at the same time, the sponsorship is often bigger than meets the eye."

Is there an alternative? Why not use independent systems?

The IT companies reject the allegations. The aim is not to open up markets, to bind consumers at a young age and to collect their data. They just wanted to support the schools. Samsung, for example, writes that one measures oneself "against the highest ethical and moral standards. Accordingly, the school or educational benefit is in the foreground in all activities". Project sovereignty is left to the partner and no influence is exercised on the content.

Educational institutions that equip their students with devices and software also provide IT providers with access to young people's data. This is particularly critical when US companies are involved, says Dirk Thiede. He is the data protection officer for schools in the Olpe district in North Rhine-Westphalia. Even if the corporations agreed not to continue using the data, US investigative authorities would have access to the servers of domestic companies at any time thanks to a law called the Cloud Act - no matter where in the world. That is not in conformity with European data law.

According to experts, it is all the more important to strengthen the independence of schools and to create alternatives to the offers of the IT giants. There must be better offers from the state. Initiative can also help: In order to support schools, some municipalities in Bavaria joined forces and interposed a municipal company that compares the necessary purchases in a manufacturer-neutral manner and purchases them as a bundle.

The Katharineum zu Lübeck, on the other hand, a municipal high school in Schleswig-Holstein, uses almost exclusively open source, freely available software - as a non-commercial and transparent alternative to Apple, Microsoft & Co. "Open source programs have been decreasing in schools so far used, also because there is no lobby department and no brand strategy behind it, "says data protection expert Thiede. He advocates a European authority that certifies what is data protection compliant.

Because certainly not all schools wanted to forego offers from tech companies. "We cannot completely keep companies out of the digitization of schools," says trade unionist Scheppler, "but decent barriers are required before their influence creeps over the top and undermines the state's educational mandate."