The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

Conversational Code

You won’t find Swift anywhere on that map.

Speaking of computer science for all (as in a post from last week), Apple CEO Tim Cook was visiting a college in the UK to promote the company’s Everyone Can Code curriculum. The UK Guardian was one of the news organizations that covered Cook’s stop, as they might for a visiting rock star.

Although the headline (“Apple’s Tim Cook: ‘I don’t want my nephew on a social network’”) hints that the article will focus on the newly-discovered issue of tech overuse, most of it is a largely flattering profile of Cook. Plus some information about the financial and tax problems Apple is facing in both Europe and the US.

But buried in the small section about whether everyone should learning programming, we find this idea from Cook.

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

I’m one who would disagree.

Coding is largely a global standard, but it is not a language for communications. Learning to code does not help students understand the world outside their borders and offers no insight into another culture. It is not more important than learning a conversational language that is not their own.

If a school was, for some reason, forced to make a choice between the two, their students would be far better off in a Spanish or Chinese language course than they would be learning to code.

No Simple Case

You may have recently heard on the news about the conflict between the FBI and Apple. It’s one of those geek stories that leaks out into the mainstream media, which then completely drains the issues of all context and creates a simple, easy to tell, two-sided narrative.

Big brother demanding new spy tools vs. company trying to defend the privacy of it’s customers. Or noble law enforcement tracking down terrorists vs. evil company trying to defend their profits.

It ain’t that simple, as explained by a digital security expert in the Washington Post (ironically, about as mainstream media as you get).

What the FBI wants to do would make us less secure, even though it’s in the name of keeping us safe from harm. Powerful governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, want access to user data for both law enforcement and social control. We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

Either everyone gets security or no one does. Either everyone gets access or no one does.

There is much more to this story beyond one particular phone, including mistakes made by investigators and lots of uninformed, headline-grabbing rhetoric from politicians and others who should know better. Start with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s summary of the facts and the implications this controversy could have for everyone’s privacy.

Sadly I suspect the outcome will leave everyone’s devices – and the personal information they contain – just a little more open to both the “bad” guys and the “good” guys.

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Image: Sticker available from EFF Shop.

Who Owns The Media You Just “Bought”?

My cable company regularly sends me offers to buy movies. Amazon does the same, and for television shows as well. iTunes tells me they have thousands of video programs I can purchase.

Except they’re all lying.

They either claim, as in the cable ads, that I’ll “own them forever”, or imply that’s the case. But what happens if (more likely, when) Verizon’s contract with the owner of your movie ends and it’s no longer available from that particular store. Or if your cable company merges with another and the new accountants decide that season pass you “bought” was priced too low. Or Amazon goes out of business (it will happen someday).

When it comes to music, there are a half dozen or more streaming services, places where you can listen to all the tracks in the known universe. Build collections, assemble albums, play them on any device. At least you can until you stop paying the monthly charge, after which your music collection disappears.

Then there are digital books from Amazon and Apple, and audiobooks from Audible (which is owned by Amazon). They download to your device and you can read them when you’re not online, so it looks like you own them, but not really. Those files come with digital rights management (DRM), code that prevents you from doing what people have always done with paper-based books: give to family or friends when you are done, or allowing others to borrow them from your library. Except, it’s not “your” library.

The bottom line to all this ranting is simply that everyone needs to realize that when you pay for media and are not allowed to control the file, you don’t own it; you’re renting. And that’s the plan of the big copyright owners. They want to get us used to this kind of media marketplace, since it’s only a few steps from there to all music, video, and books being pay-per-view.

Just something to think about as you go about your holiday shopping this year.

Doing What’s Right, Not Necessarily Profitable

From Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in response to questions raised at a recent shareholder meeting about the company’s investment in sustainable energy and the it’s impact on profits.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind,” he said, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”1 He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.

He didn’t stop there, however, as he looked directly at the NCPPR representative and said, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”

Argue all you want about the merits of their products, iPhone vs. Android, Mac vs. PC, this is an attitude and corporate policy we should see from more CEOs.