Technology and Education

What does Steve Jobs have in common with Eben Upton?

Both of them set out to make a computer for the purpose of education. When Steve left Apple to start NeXT, the goal was to build a computer which they could sell to universities in order to teach better.

Eben Upton set out to make a cheap computer in order to teach younger students programming. The Raspberry Pi has been highly successful, selling over a million units worldwide.

They were both interested in education, and both set out to make a product for that market. And both somehow made a product general enough to sell everywhere, and ended up being used in many other industries.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, spent time time teaching computers to 5th — 9th graders “because of the important role teachers play in students’ lives” (source)

Education has been important seemingly since the beginning of computers, and each innovator is making strides to improve education using technology. There have been incremental improvements, but yet, no disruption; no excellent solution which has become dominant. It’s one thing to improve your brick-and-mortar retail store; it’s another to move your store entirely online, putting several brick-and-mortar stores completely out of business. It’s one thing to improve education using technology; it’s another to accomplish the goal of education in a completely different, better way, which everybody ends up using.

Computers are good at three things: Counting, control and presenting information. As a teacher, this is most of what you do during the day. Count the grade points, control the classroom, present the information. But what do teachers love? Being creative. Making a difference. Spending time with students. Could there be a way to use technology in the classroom to do the mechanics of the above three things (which computers are good at); to free up teachers to mentor students, motivate them, inspire them?

Apple has a legacy in education, and I’m glad to see the new innovations they announced at WWDC. They’ve made an iPad app which can teach kids to code on an iPad; but the framework is flexible enough to teach just about anything in an immersive, interactive environment. Teachers are good and pen and paper, powerpoint, and sometimes promethean board; but here is this new tool, which I think could be highly effective in the classroom if it were used well.

Politics aside, I think what’s been lacking, and why disruption hasn’t happened yet is because the previous solutions have been focused on hardware. Thankfully now we have a ubiquity of cheap hardware. But that’s like focusing on paper and book supply chains. That doesn’t speak anything to the content. What I think is needed is for best-in-class teaching professionals to produce interactive lessons, which other teachers can modify for their classroom. The software will make the difference. Ideally this software would be tested and produced in schools, with constant data-driven feedback to improve the student/teacher experience.

Here’s the best case that software is about to disrupt education.

Here’s what I said over ten years ago on the topic.

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