Apple’s newfound interest in harnessing the education potential of the iPad and by extension its closed ecosystem isn’t a great deal for society at large. Here’s why.

Overview

So lets look at the state of play of technology for education in 2016.

We have at our disposal tablets, laptops and desktops.

Desktops are either iMacs or Windows desktops (if you really fucking need Microsoft Office or some Windows only software for whatever reason).

Laptops are going to probably be Chromebooks, or maybe netbooks if you’re really obsessed with the Windows experience - and don’t interject with your Ubuntu suggestions because there’s no way a third grade teacher is going to learn and teach how to use Linux to kids; it’s a waste of everyone’s time in the current generation of teachers who think computers are a frivolous distraction.

And then we’ve got tablets. Most people agree that the Android tablet experience is still woeful and shitty; I don’t think it’s really suitable for use in the classroom as the good Android tablets that run apps well are probably too small (~7”) for educational purposes.

The good Windows tablets are the Surface tablets, and they’re still either too restrictive or too expensive to be purchasing for public schools.

Finally we have iPads. A good option for most it seems, as they are durable, have a reasonably good shelf life and are easy to use. I like the iPad, don’t get me wrong. I’m even willing to turn a blind eye to the lock in that is currently going on in high schools around the country. But Apple’s “Education Preview” introduced with iOS 9.3 rubs me the wrong way.

Apple have stated on their website:

"Technology can reshape education. And iPad, with its powerful features and apps, opens up new, more engaging ways of learning."

The irony in describing their platform as one that “opens” up technology is practically laughable. Sure, Apple has open sourced Swift, but where’s their open cooperation with serious mobile device management standards? If they really cared about education, if Apple genuinely believed in the future of learning, they would have given far more to the open source community in this space.

We should give kids platforms that can be semi-open, played with and hacked together. If we are serious about a digital innovation future (which we should be if we want our western economies to survive), we should be pushing them to learn how to code, how to build for themselves and not just let them rely on these user interface abstractions that hide the serious engineering work that goes on underneath each bit of Apple tech. 1

Instead, we’ve been given a dud deal purely to increase the lock in of the platform. We had the chance to truly streamline the publishing world and remove the shitty extorting and Darwinian publisher model of “promoting” and taking a cut of textbooks, but instead we’ve replaced it with yet another self-serving middleman: Apple.

"It’s easy to make volume purchases of books and apps...Now it’s even simpler for teachers to create and deliver lessons with iTunes U."

Simplicity and ease of use are the key themes in all of this glossy marketing material. Apple’s argument is compelling, but falls apart once you consider the context in which it operates. It’s all super easy until you want to consume that content on a cheap, non-Apple device. At the risk of sounding sincerely left-wing, Apple Education will only serve to further divide the haves from the have nots.

What are they doing to distribute education material to families who can’t afford to buy an iPhone for their child? The silence is resounding.

Cutting out the middleman is the best part of the digital revolution, and by sticking with Apple et al. we are missing out

We are living in a time where decentralised access of resources is accelerating faster than publishers can grow to block them; why aren’t we teaching our kids to cut out the publisher middleman and go directly to the beautiful sources of content that are available on the internet?

A wealth of information is already out there in our libraries, and the internet writ large.

“But what about quality control?” you might cry.

If you aren’t able to explain that no sources of information out there are canonical or definitive, and that wide reading is essential to good education, then we have a greater problem here than just the inability to guarantee equal student outcomes. And that’s not just running the risk of a digital fire in Alexandria.

I get it, these are higher-level concepts than you can teach a primary school student. As a counter to that, let me pose a question: why are we so eager to move them towards such oversimplified models of how the world works? Should they be even using such technologies at this age as Apple is encouraging? Is that a healthy thing to do?  Countless studies have drawn conclusions that could support either side.2

Point your students toward resources like Khan Academy, which at least makes apps and APIs available for all platforms, including the web. Give them sites and apps that have links. Embrace the open platforms where possible. By all means, let them use iTunes U, but remind them of the myriad selection of sources out there beyond the walled garden.

Ensure your students are aware of the flaws inherent in platforms like Wikipedia, but don’t discount it - the content there is taken more seriously and is probably more valuable than news sources by everyone outside of academia.

Apple still hasn't quite worked out how to make the iPad a content creation device

This next section applies more broadly to the tablet market, but Apple is well placed to be discussed here as they point to the iPad as the perfect educational device. Whilst yes, it is an excellent content consumption device and textbook reader, so are most other tablets and the inexpensive Kindle ereader, which are not merely pitched as education devices and don’t cost upwards of USD$300.

What can you do on it apart from read textbooks? Well you can browse websites, do a bit of fingerpainting in something like Paper, maybe write an email or two, muck around with Garageband or iMovie for iOS…but you’ll quickly get bored with most of these activities. And younger people, unless they have an avid interest in computing, will give up even sooner than you.

All of this is to say that Apple still hasn’t quite worked out how to make it a content creation device. This is an argument that rang true when it was initially released, and still is a problem to this very day, over five years on. 3 Touch interfaces are cumbersome to type on, and don’t provide a good starting place for serious, thoughtful writing of any sort. Workflows are pretty much all but impossible to sustain, because most apps are designed for single-tasking. The iPad (and by extension iOS) encourages passive consumption of content - and that’s okay. But, with the exception of the iPad Pro (which will certainly not be making its way into the public education system anytime soon based on its starting price), there is little way for the things to be used to write a longer creative piece or an essay, or even to get involved in many artistic pursuits.

These deep learning skills are the ones we ought to be ensuring are passed down to children; after all, anyone can learn to skim webpages for hours on end and feel like they’ve accomplished something. Ultimately, in this field the keyboard, or even pen and paper, trump pretty much every affordable tablet on the market.

Whilst I don’t advocate that everyone needs to be writing full length essays by the age of twelve, I do believe that there needs to be ample investment made into deeper learning and thinking skills that should be acquired in K-12 education, and this cannot be achieved by the costly implementation of the Apple iPad. A hybrid system could perhaps work more effectively, but clearly this is not part of Apple’s plan.

Educating students should include gradual erosion of GUI abstractions

To a certain extent, user interface abstractions are awesome. They allow us to easily get shit done, and most people probably don’t yearn for a return to the days of the CLI. But the existence of my generation (and maybe yours too) points to a future in which we need less, not more abstractions. Truth be told, most user interface guides are nowadays written for a much older audience - most kids just “get” it by experimenting. 4

At a young age, word processors confound most, and that’s fair enough. I didn’t graduate from writing stories in KidPix (which can be best described as a more full on version of Microsoft Paint for the Mac) till I was about eleven or twelve, but at that stage most of my peers had at least a basic understanding of Microsoft Word or what have you. I can recall by high school, we were teaching our teachers more about computers than they could help us.

Needless to say, we don’t need more mollycoddling in the tech space than already exists. Getting rid of the file system, for example, is probably one of the most shortsighted decisions we could make as a collective group of user interface designers and developers. The file system and related user interface metaphors are definitely due for a rethink, and have been for the last ten or fifteen years, but I am far from convinced that a flat system akin to the iPad model where dumping all files and just providing a simple search is the solution. Even Google Docs gave up and supported a light file system hierarchy in the form of Docs powered by Google Drive. It’s simply more efficient once you decide to do any file manipulation at scale, which most of us will do one day or another.

Almost all contemporary thought leaders, whether in positions of power or not, consider the advancements made in the information age crucial in overcoming problems that we face in the economy, the environment and society at large. The current prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, has been announcing huge swathes of money dedicated towards the digital transformation of the economy. Lets ensure our leaders make good on these promises of a digital revolution, and allow students in the near future to understand, rather than be patronised.

You have Obama 5 quoted stating that he believes it’s just as, if not more, important for kids to know how to develop video games as play them. Steve Jobs said everybody should learn how to program. Yet we are encouraging them to use essentially dumbed down devices from a young age? I don’t believe that’s a good outcome to be striving for, where the most customisation an eleven year old will have on their technology is changing their iPad wallpaper to yet another stock photo taken by some highly paid Apple photographer.

Where to from here?

Of course, it is easier to criticise existing processes than to suggest constructive ways of making things better, and makes you look cooler. It’s why ranty, sweary posts are so successful. But I want to propose at least some vague goals we can agree on that should be essential on the education roadmap of the next fifteen years.

  • Allow students to experiment working with both mobile and desktop user interface paradigms and integrating them into their workflows; WIMP 6 isn’t going away anytime soon, and nor should it - it brought most of the advances in the economy of the past forty years. Also, the young mind is still as yet empty of preconceptions that they can get a grasp of WIMP pretty easily.
  • Outcomes should be set for high school students to be able to not only read, but write basic Python scripts - Python is a simplistic and abstracted language, but it’s still low level enough that it’ll get children thinking about computers, and will open them up to the fantastic world of batch processing so they spend less time idly performing repetitive tasks
  • Encouraging use of the web as a platform for self expression and sharing of educational resources - the wonderful world of Tilde.club is indicative of what people can do with the creativity afforded by simple bits of HTML and CSS, and resources like Khan Academy which are cross platform should be championed over native publishing gatekeepers like Apple, and to a lesser extent Amazon

Conclusion

In recent years, technology has become integral to the way we educate, and this is only going to be more pronounced in the future. The capabilities that we have currently to educate children in both technology, and using technology, are powerful, and Apple is doing a lot to support that.

But this should not be enough for us to rest on our laurels, and allow vested interests such as Apple to become the sole benefactors of this ‘educational revolution’, if that’s what you wish to call it.

Encouraging a loosely federated learning marketplace, the learning of technical and engineering skills, and the experimentation with different user experience models are what I see as being essential to harnessing the revolution. Through the development of strategies that include the suggestions I’ve made above, I believe that the kids of tomorrow will be best placed to solve real world problems and contribute meaningfully.

  1. I’m aware that I just discounted the value of Linux in education, but this is a “here and now” case study that won’t go away if the education community continues to allow teaching of engineering and elementary computer science concepts fall by the wayside.

  2. “Ban computers from schools until children reach age 9, says expert”, Telegraph UK, 2010 “No, Tablets Aren’t Necessarily Rotting Kids Brains”, Lifehacker AU, 2015

  3. See iPad: A Consumption Device, After All? for an excellent rundown of how the iPad is still at heart a content consumption device, mainly due to the iOS constraint.

  4. I tried to research this topic but there’s surprisingly little on it besides anecdotal evidence. Bits and pieces exist around the oversimplification of instruction manuals, but that’s more of a complaint. Oh well.

  5. “President Obama, first president to write a line of code”, Whitehouse.gov

  6. Stands for Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers, the components a traditional desktop user interface is composed of.