Steve Jobs, technology and education

The late Steve Jobs of Apple was not smart in the conventional sense. Instead, as his biographer Walter Isaacson tells us in the bestseller “Steve Jobs,” he was a genius. “His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical.”

One of the toughest problems America faces today is in education. Assessing the impact of technology in raising the quality of K-14 education has become a particularly thorny issue, considering that the future of the nation, and billions of dollars, are at stake.

It is instructive to consider Jobs’ view on this. Unique among his peers, he positioned himself at the intersection of science and humanities and showed time and again that his gut feeling – intuition – was right in the products he envisioned and helped create.

Jobs didn’t think of technology as the silver bullet of education. As Isaacson points out, he was “somewhat dismissive of the idea that technology could transform education.”  The ability to focus, think through problems and solve them requires patience, perseverance and hard work, qualities that technology is unlikely to foster.

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Microsoft’s Bill Gates, on the other hand, and with whom Jobs had a contentious professional relationship, has more faith in the power of technology to transform education.  His foundation has spent billions of dollars equipping classrooms across the country with state-of-the-art technology. As Gates sees it, it is a crucial innovation to use interactive technology to deliver high-quality materials for teachers and students. He feels that software can be used to tailor lessons for individual students so that they do not waste time on the things they already know and focus on areas they do not.  “That’s the kind of innovation that can lead to a brighter future for everyone,” says Gates.

Well, we have had over a decade of technology in classrooms – laptops, big interactive screens, software – in school districts from California and Arizona to New York and Maine. Analysis of the vast amount of data collected shows that, so far at least, Jobs’ view is holding out. Despite the extensive presence of technology in the school curricula, test scores remain stubbornly stagnant in reading, math and science.

In contrast, consider the successful Waldorf School in Los Altos, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The school, attended by children of local high-tech executives, operates on the principle that computers and schools don’t mix. Computers, according to the school, constrain creative thinking, reduce human interaction and play havoc with attention spans. Students and their parents couldn’t be more in sync with the Waldorf objectives.

This, of course, does not mean that technology will disappear from the nation’s classrooms. If anything, there will be even more technology in the future. The Waldorf is probably an exception. What it does mean, however, is that we haven’t yet found the best way to use technology to take education to a higher level.

There was one area in education where Jobs had strong feelings. He wanted to blow away the harmful and monopolistic textbook business through digital learning materials. As Isaacson writes, the “textbook industry was $8 billion a year, ripe for digital destruction. That was the next business he wanted to transform. His method was iPad. He wanted to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad.” Jobs’ clearly saw that “the process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt. But if we can make textbooks free, and they come with this iPad, then they don’t have to be certified.” What was left unsaid was that the relief it would provide to students – mental, financial, physical – would be incalculable.

A cynic might suggest that Jobs’ real goal was to make the iPad ubiquitous in the nation’s classrooms, like other Apple products. But they would be missing the point. Jobs understood that creating new textbooks by world-class authors offered the best chance to free the nation’s students from the unethical and destructive practices of textbook publishers. In spite of earnest recommendations by well-meaning educators, the textbook industry continues to become even more powerful and monopolistic. The digital versions of their bloated and confusing textbooks are offered mostly as options, adding to the already sky-high cost of education. Jobs had the right vision. Recall how he converted music executives to his viewpoint and what he did for music with the iPod. If the iPad was his preferred medium of delivery, in all fairness, could anyone object to that?

One wonders if Apple now has leaders as bold, brash and intuitive as Jobs was, leaders who can “think different” and launch projects to turn America’s moribund school system around. If not, high-tech companies specializing in so-called “educational technology” will clean up on the billions of educational dollars available through federal grants and private foundations without making any difference, even as thousands of teachers are laid off and school budgets shrink to disastrous levels.

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