Analysis: Microsoft, Google, Apple — why is Amazon the lagging tech giant in the classroom?

Amazon launching Amazon Inspire at the ISTE conference in 2016. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Is Amazon a sleeping giant of education technology? Or one of its biggest, underreported failures?

Those are questions to which answers have varied, especially in 2018. But now it seems the answer is definitely yes. To both.

As someone who lives in Amazon’s original headquarters city and has worked in education technology as both an executive and analyst, I’ve seen that Amazon is inescapable. Its indirect impact on education is huge: as a source for parents and teachers to buy classroom supplies, as a distributor of ebooks and e-readers, as a fundraising tool for school-related nonprofits through the AmazonSmile program, and even as an Amazon Web Services backend for edtech startups and established education companies delivering software through the cloud.

It is, at least figuratively, everywhere in education.

But what’s surprising is how inconsistent and even inept Amazon can be when it comes to directly addressing teachers and students with technology for learning. It’s almost as if the company doesn’t realize that educators’ memories, just as students’ educational careers, are long.

Amazon’s latest misstep is the abrupt, and still unexplained, shuttering of TenMarks, a math and writing software startup it purchased in 2013 and announced in 2018 it would close the following year, leading to a lot of frustrated, Twittering teachers. That was preceded by the forever-in-beta Amazon Inspire, an educational resource sharing site launched in 2016 but kicked hard in the knees immediately afterward, when a handful of copyrighted items were found posted on it. A year later, the company also lost its K-12 education general manager, who had come to Amazon with the TenMarks acquisition.

Things are so bad, Amazon was a no-show on the exhibit floor at the overwhelming, and influential, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Chicago this year, after sporting a huge booth and presence just two years earlier when Inspire was launched.

Amazon’s TenMarks business announces it plans to shut down on its website. (TenMarks Image)

Yet, there is so much — as a school counselor might say — potential.

It may be that public education, notably K-12 education, is simply a poor fit for Amazon’s otherwise successful approach of self-service at scale. Districts, schools and teachers need a lot of hand-holding when it comes to technology. That’s neither inherently good nor bad; it just is. And it’s very understandable when the development of kids and their brains is at stake.

Going to directly to K-12 parents appears more compatible with Amazon’s retail approach, with products such as the Amazon Rapids children’s reading app (think of it as a multimedia Kindle app for kids), the Echo Dot Kids Edition, or even Alexa learning skills from third parties such as Bamboo Learning and its music and math instruction products.

But there are signs that as Amazon gets a better handle on what it does really well — outside of retailing packaged and digital goods — 2019 may be the year it finally solidifies its role in K-12 education and takes a relatively stable place in the classroom alongside other tech titans such as Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

What it also does really well is provide cloud services.

Amazon’s new Amazon Future Engineer website. (Amazon Image)

It already sells cloud computing services to not just companies, but educational institutions at the district and campus level. It already had a free AWS Educate program to help students (and teachers) learn about cloud computing and technology careers. So when Amazon announced its free Amazon Future Engineer initiative late in 2018, I didn’t find it a surprise. It was simply a logical next step.

Now, Amazon apparently would like everyone to view AFE — with its emphasis on computer science education for underserved communities — solely as a philanthropic effort, not an education technology initiative. (I know; when I wrote about it, I received a phone call from a polite but persistent Amazon public relations representative urging me to re-frame my story. I didn’t.) But AFE is about STEM and computer science; it’s education about the most pervasive and critical of modern technologies.

Having AFE associated with edtech is not a bad thing. And it may indicate, going into 2019, that Amazon has found its sweet spot when it comes to its K-12 education efforts.

They’re perhaps not best tied to the legacy online retailing business. Instead, they may be better tied to its other major business that underpins and makes that web presence possible: Amazon Web Services, and the cloud.

(Editor’s Note: A version of this analysis appeared on the education news site EdSurge.)