27 December 2011

Steve Jobs, Apple ... and education

(c) Katerha
I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's superb biography on Steve Jobs - the first full book I read on my e-reader, btw.  I'm not an Apple fan.  I find many of their products overpriced and I don't like the way they lock you into their software and file types.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book, because of Jobs' achievements, co-founding a great and enduring company and disrupting various industries (animation, music, pc, phones, publishing, retail).

The end-to-end integration of hardware and software that distinguishes Apple from rivals such as Microsoft (before) and Google (now)is an important theme in the book.  In an open system operating systems would be licensed to different hardware manufacturers and hardware from different manufacturers would be easy to connect.  Adopting an open system has lead to a dominant position of Microsoft and may lead to a similar dominance of the Android OS.  An open system may also - over the long term - result in more innovation, because more people have access to the source code, resulting in more competition.  Apple still has a stellar team of designers and engineers, but it was the 'magical genius' of Jobs to focus on a few key products and have an incredible eye for perfection that glued everything together. Jobs himself is not an engineer and praises himself (and Apple) to be at the intersection of technology and 'liberal arts', giving them a better vantage point from which to detect people's wishes and desires.

According to Jobs, a closed system is more than a clever strategy to lure the consumer into using exclusively Apple products. Apple's vision is to create a seamless consumer experience, focused on simplicity and user-friendliness. iPhones suffer much less from baffling error messages, faulty apps or malware.  Separating hardware from software would reduce that vision.  Most people may well prefer a products that looks and works perfectly and don't feel the urge to connect  different systems and start tinkering.  

Apple was very early to recognize the 'digital hub' strategy with a computer, and afterwards the cloud functioning as a digital storage place for data on iPods, iPhones etc. More and more people have multiple digital devices and Apple's tight integration of software and hardware has clearly served them well, overpassing Microsoft in 2010 as the most valuable technology company.

Jobs has a strong-voiced opinion about nearly everything, including education.  Isaacson recalls a discussion between Jobs and Bill Gates during which they discuss education.  They both agree that technology has influenced education much less than it has other domains, such as medicine or law. Jobs mentions two main challenges:

1. Teachers should be treated as professionals and not as industry assembly workers. Principals should have more power to set the curriculum and to hire and fire teachers, based on their performance.  Schools should be open until 6 p.m. and 11 months per year.  This reminds me of a post in Larry Cuban's blog in which he quotes two interviews with Steve Jobs:

I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

2. Jobs does see an important role for digital learning materials, all available on one iPad, replacing the scores of heavy and over-priced textbooks. The book mentions it was one of his dreams to shake up the education market by developing digital resources for the iPad, not to replace teachers, but to enable them to deliver more personal instruction and motivational feedback.  The profusion of (educational) apps for the iPad may soon very well shake up the educational market.  As Audrey Watters notes in Hack Education:

There's also an argument to be made, I think, that the explosion in educational apps for the Apple iOS ecosystem has changed everything -- or at least, it's helped change the ed-tech business landscape this year. If you look at the bestselling educational apps in the App Store, for example, you'll see titles from startups and small companies, not just from the educational publishing giants. There's the promise too, of course, that iPads will replace those heavy textbooks; no doubt, the educational publishers are scrambling to go digital, to stay relevant.
iPhone for sale in Phnom Penh

Despite the premium price, iPhones and iPads appear to be popular in Cambodia as well, with many people preferring them to cheaper devices and even going to lengths to acquire genuine ones instead of ubiquitously available fakes. It would be interesting to compare the effect of distributing (or subsidizing the purchase of) iPads compared to traditional notebooks to lecturers in teacher training colleges.  The visual attractiveness and amazing intuitiveness of iPads could lure teacher trainers into exploring multimedia for education, or it could be nothing more than a novelty effect, quickly wearing off if underlying barriers are not addressed.

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1 comment:

  1. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)


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