Apple Reinvents Education

… no really it has. It’s come up with this fantastic product, the electronic book. It’s so much more than ‘book v1’, it’s interactive. ‘Books v2’ is so much better for the current generation of students. Apple thinks our current generation of students are too stupid to understand words and need pictures and too stupid to understand diagrams, so they need videos. Seriously Apple, is this meant to ‘change education’?

The announcement happened while I was at Lotusphere and I saw some tweets from some people I respect in the academic world about Apple ‘reinventing education’. With IBM failing to provide a working wireless network at Lotusphere I’ve only now had a chance to download the iBook Author and view the Apple announcement. Don’t get me wrong, Apple do a lot of good things with education and well designed ibooks will help provide a more engaging experience for many pupils, but there are so many things that are wrong with the way Apple made this announcement. Students who perform poorly in the Western world, do so because of factors such as:

  • Poor discipline – lack of respect from both students are parents
  • Poor teaching – poor wages and low requirements for teaching means that (sometimes) the best talent isn’t attracted to teaching
  • Large class sizes so students are allowed to fall behind
  • The over reliance on standardised testing often produces students who lack critical thinking abilities
  • Poor resources and old school infrastructure.
  • and simply a difficulty with engaging students with ‘difficult’ subjects such as maths and science in a society that makes them believe everything has a short cut (reality TV such as XFactor)

Many of the problems of Western education are due to society. The countries that perform best are often the countries with better discipline in society as a whole. Countries such as Finland who score highly, are countries were politeness and respect are still prevalent. There’s also a smaller degree of social depravation in Finland. In countries such as the UK and the US, we have generations of society who successively drop-out of school due to lack of encouragement from parents and the social pressures place on them.

The solution(s) to our educational problems are more complex than simply throwing electronic content at students. They require an education system that can engage with pupils who have little interest or encouragement from home. This is not a simple job and requires a completely radical overhaul of the education system, to one that is centred around a students interests and somehow engages not only with them but with them, but also their parents, who have ‘given up’ on the education system. (i.e. something ‘home schooling’ does very well)

So if we remove the ‘hype’ and look at the announcement. What have Apple announced?

  1. Electronic books that can be viewed on an iPad.
  2. A very simple tool to create electronic books.
  3. A simple mechanism to publish electronic books.

As somebody who’s been working in Learning Technology for nearly two decades, here’s my view:

  1. Electronic content for education has to be platform neutral. Content tied to an OS is not ‘opening up education’ but closing it off. I regularly count the ratio of student laptops when I leave work. The Macs to PC ratio has been as high as 25 PCs for every Mac. The lowest I’ve seen 2 PCs to every Mac (but there was a Art & Design hand-in that day). In general the ratio is about 10 PCs for every Mac. (Our log files show that 9% of accesses are from OSX, so I think this number is accurate). Increasingly we’re seeing accesses from Android tablets. Should I put our content into something that cannot be accessed by students who choose to use an Android tablet? I thought this was meant to be improving education not creating ‘haves and have nots’
  2. The new tool looks incredibly simple to use. But simple authoring tools have been available for two decades. Apple’s own Hypercard was a very simple tool to produce ‘interactive books’. There were tools such as Authorware, and Director, (even VB) that could be used to produce more interactive systems such as simulations, that actually could teach students. But the problem has always been to produce quality content is extremely time-consuming. As soon as it goes ‘multimedia’ it’s requires even more time to produce that a text book. It’s not something that can be knocked together from a few Powerpoints. But if you do manage to produce an interactive iBook, it’s nothing new. The majority of multimedia content produced since the 90s has tended to be nothing more than an electronic book, and these CD-ROMs and websites haven’t radicalised teaching. Books complement learning, but they rarely teach. That’s why we have teachers.
  3. Most worryingly for me. Who’s going to provide ‘quality assurance’ for the content? Apple? Do we want to see US religious freaks writing ‘science books’ that are based on a text written by 3000 years ago, yet presenting them as fact? For all their faults, good academic publishers have an editorial process that counteracts these religious zealots and try to ensure the content we present to our children is accurate, or at least follows the scientific method. (God help the US if it continues to allow these idiots to dictate it’s science teaching).
  4. There’s also the expense. Yes, you can load a lot of electronic books onto an iPad, but an iPad is a £400 outlay. For this to be successful in the UK, you need an iPad per student pre-loaded with all the courseware for a year, that means maths, physics, chemistry, biology, history, English, modern foreign languages, geography, design, art, music, PE, ICT, and citizenship. That won’t be cheap. As school with 2000 students would have to outlay at least half a million pounds to provide just the iPad and it’s not like Pearson’s are using this as an opportunity to vastly reduce costs with a new ‘software-like’ licensing model where a school can subscribe to a book on a ‘concurrent use’ basis. Every student would have to own a copy. How much would it cost say to provide the core English core texts on the iPad? It seems the profit margin on e-books are even larger than with a print-run. This is of course, unless of course Apple are proposing to give every pupil an iPad for free?

So sorry Apple, if you want to change education, start talking to some people who really understand the problems in the education system and society. Throw some of your vast cash reserves at initiatives to support new ways of engaging disadvantaged students. Something I know the Bill Gates foundation has done. But do not present your new profitable income stream as an ‘education revolution’ as if you’re ‘doing education a favour’.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Some comments to your article:

    “Most worryingly for me. Who’s going to provide ‘quality assurance’ for the content? Apple?”

    I think you shouldn’t confuse the authoring tool (and the option to sell/provide stuff) with the education part. As far as I understand these are two topics. As with the music Apple did the trick by getting those delivering the certified content in their side. So they work together with those who create the certified schoolbooks to deliver proven and accepted content.

    I agree that the “hardest” part may be the Hardware. But if Apple is serious with the initiative they may offer a stripped down version of the iPad (for those without a full iPas) or may offer student/institutional prices. Comparing the prize of written schoolbooks their may be even the option that it might be cheaper in the long run for educational institutions to provide the hardware. I think with this being at the beginning we should give them some time to make this into real-life solutions.

    “Countries such as Finland who score highly, are countries were politeness and respect are still prevalent”

    But don’t overlook that these are also countries that are on top with the current technology. E.g. Internet isn’t something special – it’s natural for every houshold. (Free) wireless density is much greater then elswere.

    Offering up-to-date technology may be a driving force in regards of creating interest and motivation. Those kids play with their iphones, ipads and laptops already. So why not move their interest from dull games to stuff that get’s them educated. Can you imagine how boring it is to read an old, dirty book (maybe with notes in it or missing pages) instead of playing on your tech stuff that currently can’t be used in class? I can remember how often I left a needed book at home because I was to lazy (or it was to heavy in my already full backpack)!

    There are indeed a lot of open questions … but this is an initiative that shouldn’t be killed right away just because we can’t imagine that it may work … as mostly with Apple “it just works” ;-)

  2. Paul says:

    On your first point. What ‘quality’ has Apple encouraged? We have easier access to all kinds of music, but the same rubbish dominates the charts. The iOS app store still has rubbish apps. There’s no quality control over what books are available in the iBooks store. ITunesU allows Uni’s to post any old rubbish. (for every good resource, there’s a bad resource). So why will text books be any different. I could knock a ‘textbook’ together in a few hours and apple would let me sell it. That is not educational quality control.

    If somebody wants to publish a ‘science’ text that says the world is 6000 years old and that global warming is lies, I suspect Apple would not stop it.

    We have been producing electronic books for 20 years, they have not radicalised education. The schools which are turned from bad schools into good schools, do so by overhauling their teaching and putting students first and engaging with parents. Yes, providing better resources helps, but increasing IT without changing teaching, hasn’t Teachers make the difference and we should put the money into helping them.

    A decade ago the UK government vastly increased IT provision in schools and that failed to revolutionise education. The solution to education problems requires engagement with the problems schools face in the Western world and this means looking outside of the classroom at society. This requires radical solutions to new tech to paper over the cracks. The tech can greatly help facilitate this, but it is not the solution, only part of it. So Apple was being ludicrous to claim it was revolutionising education, so despite loving Apple, that was the point of my rant. If they want to help, start using their money to produce the high school graduates they complain no longer exist in the US

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