Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Steve Jobs Couldn't Fix Your Classroom

by John T. Spencer and Shelly Blake-Plock

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 
The list isn't all bad, but it clearly has its flaws and it suggests that maybe it's time educators take a long, hard look at the apple.  Consider contrasting Apple to Wikipedia.  Yeah, Wikipedia isn't sexy, but it's a far better model of education than a transnational corporation.  Apple is the-one-the-only-the-top-of-the-line-thing-to-buy.  Meanwhile, Wikipedia is a symbol of the transformation that has occurred as technology became de-centralized and democratized.  Which serves as a better model for the future of the relationship between technology and education?

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.


  1. Another bitter open source rant by people plugging a niche product (No it isn't! The Government of Chile uses it!).

    I notice that you are using Blogger, which is, when all is said and done, adds to the coffers of Google. Why aren't you using a FOSS blog software? You are also asking us to follow you on Facebook, Twitter and other for profit sites. Very un-FOSS if you ask me.

    I am getting so sick of you FOSS people thinking every stinking thing should be free. Do you have a free car? A Free house? Do you eat for free? Of course not. Get over it.

    Apple, not just Steve Jobs, has done more for education than all of the Linux basement dwellers have ever done or will do. You guys are so stuck in your mindset that it really is becoming very unappealing.

    I know I am going to be flamed here, and so be it.

    I am just calling it as I see it.

  2. One other point I would like to bring that adds to your argument is that it was typically the most basic model that was infused into the classrooms and, unfortunately, those weren't actually much more stable than the windows machines that already existed.

    As a counterpoint, here is why Steve Jobs can be important in the classroom (not changing it, but influencing it.) The idea of craft and that no matter how good your ideas, if the packaging isn't right, people aren't going to take it as seriously. Conversely, good craft can often smooth out some less than perfect concepts. The work that typically has an impact is that which combines excellent content with excellent execution. This is why Steve Jobs was able to have a closed system that was excessive in cost yet people consumed.

    Full disclosure: I'm typing this on my MacBook Pro and will get notified if you respond to it on my iPhone and my iPad.

  3. Tim,

    Let's try and stick to the argument rather than using pejorative language that labels people rather than ideas. For the record, I have never promoted a product on my blog and if you look back at the posts, I've written extensively about practical ideas for using iPod Touches in the classroom.

    I'm not a programmer, either. I'm a teacher. A regular, public school teacher.

    OS X wouldn't be possible without the source code of Linux. I'm appreciative of both Apple and Linux. I'm typing away right now on a trustworthy MacBook Pro.

    I've written before about why both Apple and Google represent business models that sometimes have some negative consequences in the classroom.

    Look deeper at the post. It's not a slam on Apple or even on Steve Jobs. It is, however, a critique of the values set in place by Apple and the consequences they have in re-imagining education.

  4. Roderick,

    Thanks for bringing nuance to the discussion. I think the sense of craft and the notion that sometimes closed were examples of his values that I would embrace. Others (blind acceptance of globalization) not so much. I hope that came across in the post.

  5. @Tim

    Hope you are not flamed here; typically all views are welcome and if a flame war starts, I will shut down the comments.

    I guess I'm not really so interested in the argument so much of "company vs. open source"; I'm more interested in the context of closed vs. open culture. There are plenty of open oriented companies; Apple is not one of them.

    In talking about the influence of technology as a business with interests in education and the enormous amount of money that changes hands, it's just something worth throwing into the conversation.


  6. And for the record: Shelly is a Hobbit. He admitted as much on Twitter last night. Completely irrelevant to the discussion, but critical to this blog nonetheless.

  7. After reading this, it was obvious that it would offend some. Steve Jobs was a brilliant thinker and a brilliantly shrewd businessman.

    I enjoy all of my Apple products...most purchased by my educational institution; and we can debate the ethics and fiscal policies in our district, but I won't go there.

    John, you're a thinker. You seem to see a lot of the sides, facets, perspectives that are often overlooked. I appreciate the insight and ability to share openly.

    The same argument can be had for Bill Gates or any other company that has "invested" in education. What are their intentions? Is it open/closed? Are there ulterior motives? Is it to make a buck (or a million)? Is it to really bring about change in education? Is it to do both?

    It comes down to the discussion. For there to be change; for there to be progress, we have to listen and respect each view, whether we agree or not. Politics has proven that nothing can be accomplished when we are divided and attack each other. There is a way to disagree, debate, and learn without making it personal.

    This is merely one's view. John's view. That's all it is.

  8. This is potentially a great conversation that started off on the wrong foot. Hopefully we can change that.

    I use Apple technology heavily in my personal, professional, and classroom life. Many of my students do as well. Here are just a few things I love about using Apple devices:

    -the UI is intuitive
    -they are amazing productivity devices
    -the iLife suite bundled with MacBooks and iMacs are awesome creation tools
    -they are not imaged, homogenized, and under strict control by IT (in my district anyway)
    -they last longer
    -they work.

    My problems with using their tech actually stem from something I have to disagree with in your post. Apple does not do ENOUGH to cater to education as an industry. In my parts, Apple treats schools and districts basically like they do any other retail consumer. No real discounts, no customized software or operating systems, no work-arounds for some of the aspects of the devices that make them closed systems. I basically serve as my own IT department.

    It is incredibly onerous for the average, non Apple-nerd teacher to use iPads, iPods etc. in their classroom, and is becoming increasingly so.

    In fact, if not for Google Apps for Ed., and being able to use them in conjunction with Apple software and hardware, I would be a much less happy with using their technology as a teacher.

    We have far too many people touting iPads (the new IWB) etc. as acting as change agents in and of themselves. This is so far from being a reality. In fact, I worry immensely about Apple's sexiness seducing so many into a false sense of security.

    In terms of the corporate nature of touting or using these devices in schools, I must say that I'm not sure what the alternative is. As long as we are facilitating a critical mindset, I think we can work with the brand.

  9. @Royan

    In my own work working with teachers, I am finding more and more a desire a) to use iPads but b) a need to actually get no-nonsense hands-on advice and practice in how to use them most effectively in an edu setting. I am thinking about this a lot right now because I am in the design stage of a new course I'll be teaching in the summer on Mobile Edu -- looking at all platforms. It's crucial to talk plainly about what is open what is not open what is supported and what you are going to have to learn to figure out on your own.

    Down the road, I do see mobile being pretty normal in schools. And I think we'll see companies develop to create a sustainable ecosystem for the tech in edu not unlike an ecosystem has grown around Moodle. All of this of course adds to the layers and is fundamental to why we need to have this conversation.


  10. I think the last line in the post would suggest a real agreement with your notion that Apple doesn't do much to cater to education. That's a very real issue. And yet, they make a ton of money off of schools.

    I think the true alternative is bring-your-own device, multiple platforms, multiple hardware companies at the site level (buy iPads and netbooks, for example) and critical thinking.

    I find myself nodding in agreement with "As long as we are facilitating a critical mindset, I think we can work with the brand." My issue lately is that many education bloggers aren't doing that. The blind embrace of Apple is a little frightening.

  11. The questions you raise here are important, and I appreciate your courage in posting this. I have been puzzled by the way in which some educators have crossed into marketing, usually unwittingly.

    Another aspect of the discussion about Jobs that I have found troubling is how we have assigned all of the success of the Apple Corporation and its many employees to Jobs himself. By doing so, we seem to be diminishing the value of a truly collaborative process and the pooling of skills and imagination. It calls into question the collaborative values that make technology such an important tool.

    And a historical quibble: I'm not sure the model of education that we now think of as a factory model originates with the assembly line of the early 20th century. Rather, I think it comes with the earlier industrial revolution of the 18th century. But I might be wrong about that.

  12. The historical culmination of the factory model gets complicated. Ford and the social engineering movement played a critical role. As late as World War II, there were still many communities using a modified one-room schoolhouse approach.

    But we could go back to the 19th Century and the adoption of the German model (based largely upon militarism and social engineering), the industrial revolution, urbanism, assimilation schools (and the fear of the un-American). The factory school evolved incrementally often out of a common need for "job preparedness."

    I fear we are too often simply trying to create a newer factory in the name of 21st Century Job Skills. I want something human, organic, authentic and respectful of the dialogue throughout the ages. Some of the most innovative ideas are vintage.

  13. I'd like to point out that even though Apple kept a close system, you can always develop apps. If you want to see more apps for education, partner with an app developer and make it happen.

    The concept of "closed" isn't all bad. At some point, things have to be proprietary to make money. Google might seem more open, but ultimately the products are designed to work with one another. Apple isn't too far different in this respect.

    The bigger question involves how we define free and open and the extent to which we want to embrace both ideas socially.

  14. I like the bring your own device model as well. There are times when the different platforms bring different strengths and even different ways of thinking to the table. I am an unashamed promoter of all things Mac to my students. But that is because I am an art teacher, and teach technology based arts at that. In my experience, Adobe programs run effectively and without hitches on Macs and have strange glitches and issues with locking up on the Windows machines I have used. Also, Mac is the standard in the industry and most of them end up having to get one for their University or will have to when they start working.

    However, upstairs in the programing class, students are using Linux and other program languages on Windows based machines and doing such creative work. I would NEVER suggest to them to become Mac converts.

    But, there are inherent problems with the bring your own device approach for the students. Access and equity become difficult to negotiate. We are in a relatively wealthy district and as we are implementing a BYOD program over a 3 year span, we are having lots of questions. I can't imagine in a less wealthy district with parents that are less able, or willing, to contribute to this environment.

    Another disclosure: Despite being a Macophile, my district once offered to build me a Mac lab for my art department and I said no. It was a one time grant, and the sustainability of that lab was not realistic.

  15. curious

    start taking the survey of participants in these and other innovative discussions in education

    overwhelmingly creative...overwhelmingly OSX and IOS the moment

    that will change if the product is not invisible to the user

    windows is not that..
    but it is cheap
    so that is why it will be in schools
    that is why it is in business
    does the job
    good enough

    when i get money or have to buy one for myself..i'll get an apple!
    simple really

    schools settle for good enough, not quite second best but same thiung really

    on out conference and innovators circuit OSX users outnumber win7 10 to 1
    that is no accident or quirk of stats
    these people value theri time and have an opinion about the quality of their work

    technical excellence is not one of those criteria, soi the tech geeks who consistently argue apple is overpriced are not listened to as win is more difficult to use

    these children have one chance, to do it well

    later generations can argue their own case
    roderick..maybe the one off lab was the best idea..later generations are thankful you have a sustainable lab
    the early generation missed out
    not that they knew that, but you did
    and you chose to go less than the best...

    some hard thinking is needed
    some people are just too comfortable!

    maybe that's where the occupy movement comes from..challenge status quo
    have a few ideals and don't give them up for the money

    maybe apple can start production in the US...who has insisted that they do??

    no-one it's a free market!
    simple really..

  16. Great discussion here! All of this is relevant in light of Apple's upcoming announcement about its venture in to the world of digital textbooks. I have been musing about this on my blog. The ideas above got me started, especially by making me think about the various ways Apple could be open or closed. Some ways of being open include revealing source code, allowing content to be easily exported, encouraging user-created content, and--pragmatically speaking--drawing enough users and attention to one place so that meaningful exchanges can happen. Pricing could close people out if the products are presented as luxury items (think Macbooks), but it could open things up if selling content in small, convenient chunks (think iTunes) restores life to an industry needing a shot in the arm: the music industry a few years ago, and perhaps smaller publishers today. As the discussion above points out, Apple has a track record of being closed in some of these regards and open in others. It'll be interesting to see what Apple presents next week!

  17. Maybe he doesn't really intend to "fix the classroom" (as you say) maybe he just want to make things easier like instead of carrying tons of notes and books a simple Apple devices are enough to replace them, that is for people that can afford to buy it. For those who cannot they can still use the traditional way.
    Plus, Jobs didn't force those tech in someones life, It is our choice to buy them or not.

    Jobs Brisbane


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