Steve Jobs, Apple … and education

(c) Katerha

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s superb biography on Steve Jobs – the first full book I read on my e-reader, btw.  I’m not an Apple fan.  I find many of their products overpriced and I don’t like the way they lock you into their software and file types.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book, because of Jobs’ achievements, co-founding a great and enduring company and disrupting various industries (animation, music, pc, phones, publishing, retail).

The end-to-end integration of hardware and software that distinguishes Apple from rivals such as Microsoft (before) and Google (now)is an important theme in the book.  In an open system operating systems would be licensed to different hardware manufacturers and hardware from different manufacturers would be easy to connect.  Adopting an open system has lead to a dominant position of Microsoft and may lead to a similar dominance of the Android OS.  An open system may also – over the long term – result in more innovation, because more people have access to the source code, resulting in more competition.  Apple still has a stellar team of designers and engineers, but it was the ‘magical genius’ of Jobs to focus on a few key products and have an incredible eye for perfection that glued everything together. Jobs himself is not an engineer and praises himself (and Apple) to be at the intersection of technology and ‘liberal arts’, giving them a better vantage point from which to detect people’s wishes and desires.

According to Jobs, a closed system is more than a clever strategy to lure the consumer into using exclusively Apple products. Apple’s vision is to create a seamless consumer experience, focused on simplicity and user-friendliness. iPhones suffer much less from baffling error messages, faulty apps or malware.  Separating hardware from software would reduce that vision.  Most people may well prefer a products that looks and works perfectly and don’t feel the urge to connect  different systems and start tinkering.  

Apple was very early to recognize the ‘digital hub’ strategy with a computer, and afterwards the cloud functioning as a digital storage place for data on iPods, iPhones etc. More and more people have multiple digital devices and Apple’s tight integration of software and hardware has clearly served them well, overpassing Microsoft in 2010 as the most valuable technology company.

Jobs has a strong-voiced opinion about nearly everything, including education.  Isaacson recalls a discussion between Jobs and Bill Gates during which they discuss education.  They both agree that technology has influenced education much less than it has other domains, such as medicine or law. Jobs mentions two main challenges:

1. Teachers should be treated as professionals and not as industry assembly workers. Principals should have more power to set the curriculum and to hire and fire teachers, based on their performance.  Schools should be open until 6 p.m. and 11 months per year.  This reminds me of a post in Larry Cuban’s blog in which he quotes two interviews with Steve Jobs:

I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.

The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer. Here – why does that fall? You know why? Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately but no one knows why. I don’t need a computer to get a kid interested in that, to spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand that and come up with reasons why.

2. Jobs does see an important role for digital learning materials, all available on one iPad, replacing the scores of heavy and over-priced textbooks. The book mentions it was one of his dreams to shake up the education market by developing digital resources for the iPad, not to replace teachers, but to enable them to deliver more personal instruction and motivational feedback.  The profusion of (educational) apps for the iPad may soon very well shake up the educational market.  As Audrey Watters notes in Hack Education:

There’s also an argument to be made, I think, that the explosion in educational apps for the Apple iOS ecosystem has changed everything — or at least, it’s helped change the ed-tech business landscape this year. If you look at the bestselling educational apps in the App Store, for example, you’ll see titles from startups and small companies, not just from the educational publishing giants. There’s the promise too, of course, that iPads will replace those heavy textbooks; no doubt, the educational publishers are scrambling to go digital, to stay relevant.

iPhone for sale in Phnom Penh

Despite the premium price, iPhones and iPads appear to be popular in Cambodia as well, with many people preferring them to cheaper devices and even going to lengths to acquire genuine ones instead of ubiquitously available fakes. It would be interesting to compare the effect of distributing (or subsidizing the purchase of) iPads compared to traditional notebooks to lecturers in teacher training colleges.  The visual attractiveness and amazing intuitiveness of iPads could lure teacher trainers into exploring multimedia for education, or it could be nothing more than a novelty effect, quickly wearing off if underlying barriers are not addressed.

Adult Learning and Professional Development in Cambodia

Workshops and trainings are favourite instruments of donor organisations to develop capacity with their target groups.  Also VVOB Cambodia regularly organizes workshops, usually trainings on pedagogy and multimedia geared towards teacher trainers and government staff.  Measuring their success is notoriously hard.
Workshop evaluation sheets are invariably positive, and heavily affected by response and cultural bias.  Response bias means that participants write down what they think you would like them to fill in (‘the facilitator was great’) or what they think would be most beneficially to them  (‘We need more workshops’).  Cultural bias refers to the non-western organisation of Cambodia society.  Hofstede developed a five-dimensional model for describing cultural differences.  There’s a fair amount of critique on Hofstede’s model for over-generalizing individual differences and being based on a non-representative sample of highly-trained corporate workers.  Personally, I find the model useful as an attempt to make cultural differences explicit, and Hofstede’s book on ‘Culture and Organisations’ is on my reading list.

Hofstede’s 5 dimensional model of cultural differences

Berkvens et al. (2012) have made an analysis of Cambodia’s cultural position on Hofstede’s 5 dimensional model.

Briefly, Cambodian culture can be summarized as mainly collectivist with a small in-group and some individualism, extremely large power distance, including strong hierarchy, which people are willing to accept as long the country remains at peace in return, high uncertainty avoidance and a strong short-term orientation. (Berkvens et al, 2012)

The challenge is then to integrate this cultural analysis into the learning design. The article lists some suggestions and I add a few more:

  • need for safe learning environment in which trust is established among participants  and between participants and facilitator.
  • work collaboratively over extended period of time
  • explicit endorsement by people from higher hierarchical level
  • provide time for dialogue
  • create support system that allows for shifts in responsibility
  • discuss objectives and intended learning outcomes at start of workshop
  • determine collaboratively specific targets for follow-up at end of workshop
  • evaluate workshop not only at end of workshop, but also after few months (w/ interviews, survey…)
Guskey’s model for evaluating professional development initiatives

Guskey (2000) has developed a model for measuring the success of professional development initiatives.  It provides a template for evaluating workshops, urging evaluators to look beyond participants’ reactions immediately after the workshop.  I plan to try out the model during upcoming training initiatives in 2012.


Berkvens, J.B.Y., Kalyanpur, M., Kuiper, W. and Van den Akker, J. (2011) ‘Improving adult learning and professional development in a post-conflict area: The case of Cambodia’, International Journal of Educational Development, 32, pp. 241–251.


Vocational training in Cambodia

Technical and vocational training has received renewed attention by donors after a strong focus on general education in the 1990s.  The author focuses on the specific Cambodian context.  In Cambodia the formal vocational education (VE) component is very weak.  Only 0.7% of the country’s labour force comes from publicly-provided VE institutes.  There’s a widening skills gap in the country’s two main economic sectors, garment industry and tourism.  Its post-conflict society counts a large number of vulnerable youth, who dropped out of formal education and lack supporting family structures.

In a successful VE model should not only focus on employability, but also on social and psychological needs.  Hsuan stresses the need to empower students, working on their confidence, critical citizenship, moral values, identity and learning attitude.  He suggests a three-tier approach to create such an empowering learning environment.

It’s a strong article that compares and generalizes the approaches of 9 NGOs active in VE in  Cambodia.  It proposes a valuable model of how vocational education (not vocational training) could be strenghtened and moved beyond the sole focus on employable skills, taking into account the post-conflict and cultural background of Cambodia.  It remains to be seen though, whether public authorities share the underlying vision that all students should be educated to empowered and critical citizens, regardless whether they are in vocational or general education.

* Cheng, I-Hsuan (2010) ‘Case Studies of Integrated Pedagogy in Vocational Education: A Three-Tier Approach to Empowering Vulnerable Youth in Urban Cambodia’, International Journal of Educational Development, 30, pp. 438-446.

Reinventing Education with Khan Academy and AI Class

The Khan Academy and the Introduction to AI course at Stanford University are two examples of innovative use of the internet to increase access to quality education and challenge traditional educational  models.  Khan Academy is centered around a library of short videos on (mostly) science and mathematics.  The AI course from Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University attracted more than 58.000 students and 175 countries.

In this interesting 45’ video they discuss their experiences with online learning and how they see the future of education.  George Siemens, a lecturer from Athabasca University and pioneer of open courses such as the LAK11 course, provides some thoughts on the video discussion on his blog.

Elements that stood out for me were:

They expect a (further) decoupling of the teaching and the accreditation.  People will pay for rigorous assessment and subsequent accreditation, but they will have more options on how to prepare themselves.  They may enroll into a formal course, learn from work experience or use Open Educational Resources (OER).  This reminds me of the TOEFL test, which offers an internationally recognized accreditation for the level of English, but you can learn English in a variety of ways, not limited to the courses offered by the credentialing institute.  This tendency will force institutions to rethink their roles and business models, as their oligopoly on education and accreditation will be challenged.

One-shot high-stake game
Online learning opens up opportunities and removes stigmas for non-traditional student groups.  Many of the AI students and Khan Academy users are adults (as at the OU, btw).  Online learning enables combining learning with other commitments of life.  Also, online learning allows them revisiting concepts and asking questions that they might find embarrassing in a traditional classroom.  According to Sal Khan, traditional learning often is a one-shot high-stake game.  If you’re a bit too rebellious at 18 or have some personal problems, you may miss out on a degree with lifelong consequences.  Online learning makes that people can always start pursuing a degree, even if they-re 80 (as are some participants at the AI course!)

Online learning permits more easily ‘flipping’ the classroom. Students watch lectures at home, then work on problem sets in class, where the teacher can assist them one on one. More importantly though, students can work at their own pace. Khan is convinced that most students want to learn, as long as it is adapted to their pace and needs.

Both the AI course and the Khan Academy are creating tremendous possibilities for learning analytics.  The effect of small changes in content, learning experience or other motivating factors can be analysed or preference different explanations of a concept.

Science videos
I liked how Khan recalled the origins of Khan Academy and muses that the non-professional look-and-feel of the videos might actually be an important reason for their success.  The videos feel like it’s their elder brother explaining a concept to them.  Khan admits that if he would have received a million dollar grant to develop the videos, they would probably have looked like sleek McGraw-Hill videos with a polished voice-over.  In Cambodia VVOB has developed 185 short science videos, in which science teacher trainers explain low-cost science experiments.  In the programme we have given priority to quantity and content, rather than to production quality.  It would be great if some teacher trainers could continue the work and make their own short videos, explaining concepts or experiments, just as Salman Khan has done for his cousin and is now doing for thousands of students.

What Technology Wants

I found ‘WhatTechnology Wants’ from ex-Wired editor Kevin Kelly an inspiring book.  It doesn’t focus on a particular technology or a specific period in time, but it takes a wide philosophical sweep across the ‘technium’, the term coined by Kelly to describe everything useful that has been produced by a mind, including texts, laws and lines of code.  It’s an ecology of different artefacts that are interdependent and interlinked. It’s like a coexisting species with its own inherent biases and tendencies, a superorganism.  Kelly argues that technological evolution is an accelerated continuation of biological evolution.

Biological and Technological evolution
Biologicalevolution is determined by a triad of structural (inevitable), functional(adaptive) and historical (contingent) factors.  The structural relates to the inherent tendency towards certain forms, such as eyes or venomous spines.  The adaptive refers to the process of natural selection. The contingent refers to the accidental, but also to the limiting effect of past choices.  In technology there is also inevitability in the sequence of technologies.  Technologies open up possibilities for new combinations or applications leading in turn to new technologies.  Many inventions are developed simultaneously by several people.  The adaptive refers to the relentless engine of optimisation and creative innovation, resulting from the collective choices of free-willed individuals.  The contingent refers to the influence of past technologies exert on new ones, through standards or consumer habits.  23 people came up with the light bulb, butthe particulars on whether they were carbon or round were not inevitable. But the electric producing of incandescent lighting was.
Certain technologies are inevitable. No matter what happens, we were going to get cars, electricity, rocket propulsion and the Internet. And we’re going to get human cloning, gene therapy, nuclear fusion power, daily gene sequencing, brain implants anyway. But whereas certain technologies are inevitable, what we make of those technologies is not. The internet is inevitable, but is it going to be open sourced, run by the government, non-profit, commercialized, flexible, rigid or transparent?

The Amish
An important question in the book is how to deal with the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives.  The Amish have an elaborate and surprisingly scientific way to deal with new technologies.  They’re often portrayed as Luddites, but in reality they’re active technology hackers and tinkerers.   They adopt technology but:
  • They are selective
  • They evaluate technology use wit criteria. These include whether technologies enhance family and community values. Technologies can be rejected again after evaluation.
  • Their choices are communal.

For example, they have horse and buggies because horse and buggies have a 15-mile limit. It allows them to stay in their community, shop in their community, visit the sick and their friends. It’s not that they don’t use cars, they just don’t own them. They’re allowed to use the Internet at libraries. They just don’t want it in their house because people will face outward instead of facing the family.

Conviviality of technologies
Kelly introduces the concept of ‘conviviality’to evaluate manifestations of technology. Manifestations with a high conviviality are more sustainable, because they align with the fundamental evolution of the technium.
  • Cooperation (It promotes collaboration between people and institutions)
  • Transparency (Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are intelligible to non-experts. There is noasymmetrical advantage of knowledge to some of its users.)
  • Decentralization (Its ownership, production and control are distributed. It is not monopolized by a professional elite.)
  • Flexibility (It is easy for users to modify, adapt, improve, or inspect its core. Individuals may freelychoose to use it or give it up.)
  • Redundancy (It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options.)
  • Efficiency (It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has high efficiency for energy and materials and it is easy to reuse).

Despite the strong evolutionary forces that direct technology evolution the predictability of technologies is low.  Initially new technologies are often used to do the old job better, like the first generation of e-books are little more than scanned paper versions. Innovative uses of technology in learning don’t try to recreate, but question the traditional classroom and educational structures. 

Technology empowers
By taking this broad view on human and technological evolution Kelly let me realise how intertwined technology is in our lives.  Switching off technologies is no longer an option.  Symbiosis really is the appropriate term to use, as technology still requires human ingenuity, but humans are utterly dependent on technology for their survival.  Kelly doesn’t share the pessimism that technologies make humans less happy.  Technology allows people to excel, to encounter new ideas, a chance to be different from their parents and to create something. Technology empowers and create choices.  Technology provides the tools to allow each person to develop his/ her unique combination of latent abilities, handy skills, nascent insights, and potential experiences that no one else shares,like the technology of vibrating strings opened up the potential for a virtuoso violin player.

If the best cathedral builder who ever lived was born now, instead of 1,000 years ago, he would still find a few cathedrals being built to spotlight his glory.Sonnets are still being written and manuscripts still being illuminated. But can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented the technology of the harpsichord? Or if Mozart had preceded the technologies of piano and symphony? How vacant our collective imaginations would be if Vincent van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint? What kind of modern world would we have if Edison,Greene and Dickson had not developed cinematic technology before Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin grew up? (pp. 349-350)

How many geniuses at the level of Bach and Van Gogh died before the needed technologies were available for their talents to take root? How many people will die without ever having encountered the technological possibilities that they would have excelled in? I have three children, and though we shower them with opportunities, their ultimate potential may be thwarted because the ideal technology for their talents has yet to be invented. There is a genius alive today, some Shakespeare of our time, whose masterworks society will never own because she was born before the technology (holodeck, wormhole, telepathy,magic pen) of her greatness was invented. Without these manufactured possibilities, she is diminished, and by extension all of us are diminished.(p. 350)

I agree with many of the points Kelly makes in his book, and the idea of thoughtfully selecting the technologies we use based on their potential to serve convivial ends in our lives as well as enhance our autonomy and choices are right on target. Too often I think people consider “technology” as a monolithic concept, and want to embrace or reject it as a whole rather than take a more discriminating and thoughtful approach.  It’s good to have criteria for your technology use and reflect how certain technologies affect your time and life.  Similarly, in education, it’s good to reflect on how certain technologies affect how students learn, relations within schools and relations between the school and the wider community.  Criteria such as Kelly’s conviviality characteristics or the practices of the Amish can help us with that.