Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once told Wired Magazine said that he probably “spear-headed giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet.”
It’s hard to verify that claim, but there’s no doubt that Apple has invested substantial time and money to put its products in public schools. As early as 1979, the computer company founded a division devoted to education and by the early 1980s, Apple was giving away tens of thousands of computers to schools. That commitment extends to today, when the iPad is appearing in more and more classrooms.
But in the 1996 Wired interview, Jobs also said that Apple’s efforts didn’t necessarily mean that he believed technology helped kids learn. “I used to think technology could help education,” Jobs said then. “What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”
At the time, Apple was still investing in schools and within three years, it would be the number one computer manufacturer in sales in the U.S education market. But the interview came at a time when Jobs wasn’t working at Apple and could perhaps talk more freely.
Jobs wasn’t the only one questioning the impact of technology at that point. In the 2002 book “The Flickering Mind,” Todd Oppenheimer writes that 1996 was also the year that Apple concluded a 10-year study called Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow, which looked at “computer-saturated” classrooms in all grades.
Oppenheimer notes that the studies were limited and flawed, but considering the self-interest involved, their conclusions were surprisingly honest. There was little evidence that computers improved student achievement. While standardized test scores didn’t go down in the Apple schools, they didn’t go up either.
“We can put a website in every school – none of this is bad,” Jobs told Wired in 1996, not referring to Apple’s study. “It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.”
Now, Apple is once again poised to have an impact on schools. In September 2011, Apple donated 9,000 iPads to the education nonprofit Teach For America in hopes of getting the tablets into low-income schools. In January 2012, only months after Jobs’ death, Apple brought students iBooks 2, interactive textbooks on iPad. By this point, the self-funding website, Donors Choose, was already inundated with proposals to get iPads into schools. Universities and companies around the country gave the devices away to schools to study ithe iPad’s effects on student achievement and engagement. The iPad “revolution” had begun.
There’s a rich history of educational technology easily capturing the imagination of thinkers and the public. Early in the 20th century, Thomas Edison envisioned a school without teachers where students derive all their education through motion pictures. In 1922, he said that “in 10 years, textbooks as the principal medium of teaching will be as obsolete as the horse and carriage are now.”
When Apple announced that its new classroom revolution would consist of digitized textbooks, those who envisioned Apple as pushing lagging U.S. classrooms into the 21st century were disappointed. Former school superintendent and tech-investor Tom Vander Ark lamented that textbooks were too 20th century, though nearly 100 years earlier they were far too 19th century for Edison.
But Apple’s push for textbooks might actually be strategic and entirely consistent with Jobs’ mid-1990s revelation about technology in the classroom. Year after year, new technologies are prophesied to change the way students learn. However, many say that real change never happens.
“There is really not an example in history of a technology that directly revolutionized the classroom,” said David Dockterman, a professor at Harvard University who also advises Scholastic Co. “You have technologies that have become part of the classroom fabric but generally they were adopted and adapted to basically perpetuate the structure.”
Even technologies like the blackboard, which was supposed to change the classroom, weren’t actually used at first. They were introduced into schools from universities in the early 19th century. At the time, universities were heavily dependent on lecturing. But in the classic one-room schools, all ages were taught together in a system of small group and peer tutoring. The blackboard took off when schools changed in the late 19th century to accommodate groups of similar ages.
“When you have technologies that are in a sense disruptive to the dominant pedagogy, you find some teachers who embrace it. But overall, it doesn’t really take hold,” said Dockterman.
Edison’s movies in the early 20th century and entire classes run on radio in the 1930s and 40s largely took teachers out of the equation and haven’t had any staying power. The overhead projector and the LCD projectors continue to be used because they give teachers value. Many teachers feel that if technology is used at all, it should be strategic.
“My personal philosophy is that you start with the learning experience and that should support the technology,” said librarian Laura Fleming. Fleming, who teaches at Cherry Hill Elementary School in New Jersey, uses technology in the classroom nearly every day. Her students create video series based on fiction they write and they use the internet to create and further discussion and critiques. Fleming stresses that each time she uses videos or computers, it’s to support concepts in her lessons. She rarely uses iPads.
But not everyone in her school thinks this way. She said that when her principal debated whether to invest in iPads for the school, he sent a note to the staff. “He said, ‘Please let me know how you’ll use iPads in your instruction so we know whether to get them or not,'” said Fleming. “To me, that’s backwards.”
Apple’s investment in digitized textbooks doesn’t seem to be an attempt to replace the teacher, but rather a way to foster tools like the whiteboard and the overhead projector. It’s something teachers can work into their lessons without taking away their autonomy, especially since teachers can write their own texts for their classrooms and self-publish them.
Dockterman doesn’t know what will happen to the iPad in the classroom but he knows it’s not the last wonder toy for schools. If Apple is working on their long game, they’re probably busy developing the next big thing for education to keep their hold on the market.
“We always think, this time for sure, now we really have it, said Dockterman. “I think we have to recognize that we’re never done.”