Jobs’ passing: Who will bring our 1984 moment to learning?” by Bror Saxberg was originally published on Bror’s Blog: What Works for Learning.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs passing and the outflow of feelings says this is more than a mere corporate titan’s death. In the flood of remembrances, we can see how different he was from many technology-industry peers.

Although he never turned his relentless design sensibility on the building of full learning environments, there are lessons we can take away for what a “Jobs-like” focus in learning would be like.

Surprise, surprise, it might not look like almost anything that’s around yet – but could be.

Steve Jobs was dread focused on real design, not mere loveliness. From a Wired Magazine interview in 1996 with Gary Wolf:

“Design is a funny word. . .The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

A key part of Jobs’ vision was to focus on using state of the art technology and science in the service of making products and services simpler and simpler. Whether packing an impossible amount of rewriting code into the tiny 64kB chip of the original Mac to get a simple graphical interface in the 1980’s, or insisting on a glass screen over the easier-to-engineer plastic solution to give users a better iPhone experience, Jobs drove extreme engineering to make simple, elegant experiences users love. Especially users with work to do just trying to find their way in the world of information, media, technology, and software.

Steve Jobs rarely focused his laser eye on learning, but a few things he said are intriguing.

In the Stanford commencement address he gave in 2005, he described his own higher education experience as hard to value:

“. . . I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life.”

However, once unyoking himself from a conventional program, he found a way to build his own focus – something that millions of students (young and old) now are trying to do through community colleges, for-profit colleges, and a variety of burgeoning on-line open source and other kinds of learning environments.

This led him to think clearly about the need to restructure learning environments. From the Wired interview:

“When you have kids you think, What exactly do I want them to learn? Most of the stuff they study in school is completely useless. But some incredibly valuable things you don’t learn until you’re older – yet you could learn them when you’re younger. And you start to think, What would I do if I set a curriculum for a school?”

Although considered one of the great technology visionaries of the last 100 years, Jobs was clear that technology was not, itself, a solution for education. From the Wired interview:

“Unfortunately, technology isn’t it. You’re not going to solve [education] problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.

“. . .Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.”

So what might a Steve Jobs do now for education? What would the Apple of education be like?

In the service of making learning as simple as possible, and focused on life-long goals for learners, he’d expect to invest heavily up front on focused learning engineering and science. After all, in the computer space, as Jobs said in a 2000 interview with Fortune (as quoted by James Stewart in a very nice New York Times piece on Jobs and design):

“This is what customers pay us for — to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this.”

How much investment, truly, are we now putting up-front in deeply “grokking” what learners and teachers need? And then sweating it out with extreme cognitive and information technology to make it “easy and pleasant for them?” Are we “really good at this?”

Such a place would invest heavily in the professional design help (not just academic help) needed to get there. Don Norman, an incredibly influential designer and former Apple VP describes the Apple approach (quoted by James Stewart in his New York Times piece):

“Even the Apple II had some charm to it. It was the first personal computer that had professional industrial designers. Before that they were designed strictly by engineers, and they were ugly. Steve was always, if not an artist, then someone who was charmed by style. He had this dream of something beautiful. If it was going to cost more, it didn’t matter. This was in his genes.”

He would take a provocative stance, too, about listening to learners. From the Fortune magazine article in 2000 (as quoted by Stewart):

“That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

Such an organization would be about bold moves for learning environment redesign – and also be about the littlest things that affect the user. As Stephen Wolfram described Jobs’ help with his own development of Mathematica,

“Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.”

“But he made all sorts of “make it simpler” suggestions about the interface and the documentation.”

So where do we turn for our Macintosh 1984 moment for learning environments? Who will liberate us from the gray conformity of boxed learning, boxed classrooms, boxed faculty? Where are our three fingered swiping gestures for learning? Who will turn our faculty into the Genius Bar of learning – accessible and knowledgeable, human and approachable – yet powered by interconnected technologies with the student that efficiently make “the right things to do be the easy things to do?”

We’re all staying tuned. . .

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