The first time I watched a Steve Jobs product announcement on YouTube, I was struck by the way the media seemed to hang over his every word without questioning the high price tag, the closed system he advocated or the war metaphors he was using to describe winning over the market share. It straddled the line between Amway pitch and religious revival. Don't get me wrong. It was much prettier. Jobs was a master marketer who understood the Zen of design. But in the end, it was the same li(n)e that many of us experience: "If you consume, you will find happiness."
I don't hate Steve Jobs. For what it's worth, he's never broken any Windows in my home. However, in the euphoria of Apple-philia, I think we need to remember that his company made a ton of money selling very expensive computers to schools. Whether or not they were worth it (and often they were worth the money), it is important that educators remember the reality that Apple has a vested economic interest in public education. It's why I shudder every time I walk into the district office and see the sheer number of Apple stickers branding the public space.
I mention this because I've read many tributes to Steve Jobs describing how he transformed education. Bloggers have gushed about how Jobs was a visionary for 21st Century Learning. However, like Bill Gates and other technocrats, it's important to remember that engineers often make piss-poor education reformers. Simply glance back at history and see how well techies have done in moving education forward. Thomas Edison believed that classrooms would be radically transformed with phonographs and motion pictures. He envisioned a futuristic classroom where students passively experienced the information. Henry Ford was a technological genius, but his vision of factory schools are the very thing that have gotten in the way of authentic learning.
It's important that we remember Steve Jobs accurately. His teardrops did not cure leprosy and his products themselves did not radically transform education; rather, it was only once the full force of the Internet became a mainstream staple of our culture -- decades after the first Apple IIe was ever sold to an elementary school -- that Jobs' products even had an opportunity to transform education.
If we want to look at the values of Jobs, we need to ask, "Are these really what should drive education in the future?"
- High price
- A rejection of open source and open knowledge for everyone
- Closed systems
- An embrace of aesthetics over capacity
- Innovation intrinsically tied to corporate power
- Competition to the point of forcing the issue of monopoly
- Relying on expert-created content (for sale) rather than encouraging user-based content creation (share via Creative Commons)
- Intuitive user experience that demands users intuit alike
- Emphasis on quality and craftsmanship produced on the back of globalization
- Sustainability through products that last until their manufactured obsolescence kicks in
- Centralized organizational structure and corporate secrecy
- Marketing to children
- Lack of Social Justice: Heavy use of manufacturing from under-developed countries
- Selling hardware and software for profit rather than relying on connected networks
It comes down to this: the iPad is a great device; it could be argued that the iPad will be an essential device. But the iPad is not an essential device because of what it physically is. The iPad is an essential device because of what it represents: mobile access to the fruit of the Internet. The idea that the Internet itself is mobile and accessible by all is far more transformative than the number of megapixels in the webcam or the ergonomics of the leather magnet cover.
In the end, we have to remember that Apple made and continues to make products. It's the artists and designers and thinkers who use those products, it's the people who make connections using those products, it's the rebels who subvert and augment and redefine the uses of those products (think the origination of iTunes University) that defines transformation. Jobs himself would likely agree. It has been therefore ever the more disheartening to see the flood of memorializations and hagiographies that seek to portray Jobs' inventions (as though there were no engineering teams working at Apple) the important thing rather than what those inventions represent within the ecosystem of Internet-era technology. And by Apple's own corporate code, those inventions have represented secrecy in an era of openness, closed systems in an era of collaboration, and high price at a time of great financial anxiety.
Steve Jobs couldn't fix your classroom. In fact, he never really had that in mind.