Sometimes What’s Broke in Education Can’t Be Fixed by Tech, Part 2: What Steve Jobs Said

Just before Apple announced it’s e-textbook/education event in late January, 9to5mac ran an article that harkened back to a 1996 Wired Magazine interview during which Steve Jobs famously said, “What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology.” Funny thing for someone to say who, in later years, was proud of the connection of this companies (Apple and NeXT) with education. In fact Phil Schiller began the January Apple event declaring that education and supporting education was in Apple’s DNA, beginning with putting Apple ][s in classrooms in the 1970s. And even though Schiller wanted us to focus on the newly minted iBooks 2, iBooks Author and the new iTunes U app, I could not help but notice that the salesmanship felt a bit forced with the iPad2 being continually promoted as the best possible realization of these new multimedia e-textbooks. It’s not that Schiller lacked Jobs’ reality-distortion-field as much as the message should have maintained the focus on what these new tools could empower educators and textbook authors to do without having to put so much emphasis on the already known qualities of the iPad2. Even though they pretended that the message was about how these new tools were going to revolutionize e-textbooks it kept feeling like an extended iPad commercial. Are they promoting a mission to change education or marketing a product? And how does all of this fit with Jobs’ comment about the failure(s) of education?

In fairness, the Jobs’ quote came from a Wired Magazine interview during the Pixar/NeXT years and covered more Jobs’ thoughts on the then emerging Internet and its effect on business and less his thoughts on education. In fact, his comments on education came after making an observation that, even though people were using technology to do amazing things, it wasn’t necessarily fixing society because, according to Jobs, problem-solvers weren’t attracted to the messed up political process. When the interviewer asked whether technology might improve education Jobs was quite forceful saying that no amount of technology could fix education.

Technology Management by lgb06

Throughout my 16-years as a classroom teacher I’ve been a strong advocate of the use of technology in the classroom, but I have to agree with Jobs when he said, “It’s a political problem. The problems are sociopolitical.” Unfortunately he didn’t stop there and added, “The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the NEA [National Education Association] and the dropping of SAT scores, and they’re inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I’m one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system.” For Jobs, who most would agree was a brilliant tech/design visionary, to make the connection between the rise of a teachers’ union with the drop of SAT scores showed the uneven thinking of an otherwise brilliant thinker. Thus, while I agree that education’s problems are not technological in nature, I believe that one cannot hope to address education’s problems if one doesn’t broaden the scope to include all participants and stakeholders in the process, beginning with teachers’ unions, school boards, textbook publishers, state politicians, federal DoE administrators… oh yes, let’s include broken communities, absentee parents, disenfranchise students… and we can’t forget our self-centered consumer culture and the “whatever you can get away with” amoral business climate.

In 2007 when speaking at a education reform conference in Texas, Jobs laid the whole mess on the back of teachers unions. According to PC World Jobs said, “What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in, they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? Not really great ones, because if you’re really smart, you go, ‘I can’t win.'” To Jobs the idea of tenure, where one could not remove a teacher, was where the whole system fell apart. And given his dictatorial management-style it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jobs would chaff under the idea that he couldn’t summarily fire anyone on the spot who did not meet with his expectations.

Back in the 2000s when talk about the use of vouchers was making the rounds in Southern California where I taught and the poor performance of public schools was often pitted against the pristine records of many private schools in the area. And I often felt like it was a non-starter to make the comparison for reasons somewhat related to Jobs’ problem with tenure and unions. See, as much as Jobs would chaff at not being able to hand-pick and occasionally trim his staff when he wasn’t satisfied with their performance, how would he have felt if he had to accept every student who came to his school regardless of their previous academic performance, skills sets or desire to even be there? Also, with this unselected group of student, how would he have managed them and their families and the community, because a school is not just about the butts in the seats but also every little thing that happens in their lives in the 17-hours when they are not in the classroom? How could one make the comparison of that versus a private school where one is not subject to high-risk testing and can choose whom to accept and whom to not accept? How could one complain about the inability to hand-pick one’s staff, but ignore the fact that one cannot also hand-pick one’s students.

See, this is where the current crop of education-reformers with no-education background completely miss the mark. And Jobs revealed a failure to understand this with his complaint about what small business could survive under these conditions. He failed because schools are not small businesses and students are not products. This goes back to what I wrote last month regarding the resistance that the original OLPC found when their educational mission was misread by Intel and Bill Gates as a potential market that Intel and Gates needed to exploit. Schools are not small businesses or markets to be exploited. Schools are communities where instructors, administrators and students work together to move both the students and the institution forward. And, schools are not places for the dispensation of data or knowledge, but schools are about relationships between instructors and students, students and students and everyone’s relationship to learning. This was the component that Wesch was seeing the need to emphasize, something that many who wanted to follow his techniques missed: that education is about relationships. It’s not about tools, techniques or some mass produces process. If anything the tools need to be used to free up the student and educator to foster stronger, more meaningful relationships. We’re not spitting out widgets. We’re contributing in the growth and development of human beings.

This is not a technological problem and it’s not a problem of breaking up evil teacher unions. It’s a problem of humans working together and getting past their own selfish needs or agendas. Educators need to have the freedom to do what they do best: to form teaching relationships. And sometimes that requires that educators come together to support one another in organized groups when someone in the political sphere makes uninformed decisions that get in the way of educators doing their job. Yes, Jobs was right, no amount of technology can fix education any more than buying a cutting-edge computer can make someone who is illiterate into an acclaimed wordsmith. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. We use technology, not because it’s going to somehow fix education, but because it’s part of our culture and there is the potential that it can help educators meet the needs of their students. Jobs was right that education’s problems are not technological in nature, but he didn’t draw a big enough target when he blamed unions and tenure for the failure.

So how does this play out with the new alliance of Apple with textbook publishers or educators wanting to create their own textbooks using these tools? It remains to be seen whether Apple has limited themselves too much by making it an iPad only initiative. And with collapsing educational budgets, it remains to be seen whether textbook publisher are really interested in selling e-textbooks for $15 that might normally draw fees much closer to $75 per book (granted there will be no physical printing, shipping or storage infrastructure to maintain, so their costs should also fall through the floor). Will they ride their partnership with Apple to a front-row position as textbooks transition to some form of non-paper e-textbook or will they fight for their own version that they have more control over? Yeah, Jobs was right, it’s almost hopelessly political. But while the publishing and political behemoths all clamor for their part of the pie, I’m more interested and invested in watching educators use the tools to create their own materials and take back control of their own classrooms, develop relationships with their university counterparts and walk away from the whole big bucks political game that’s led to this moment. Jobs was right about it being a political problem, entirely missed the target as to a constructive political solution, but may have given educators the tools to fix what technology alone could not fix.