Still Looking through a Glass Darkly: Thoughts on Apple’s Education 2018 Event

Let me begin with an unequivocal statement: Anyone wishing to get a sense of the challenges before Apple in the education arena need look no further than Bradley Chamberswell reasoned and well written response on 9 to 5 Mac to the 2018 Apple Education Event. In his article, he clearly lays out the challenges facing Apple, as a hardware and service provider, and teachers as they try to implement solutions offered by Apple and others.[1]

And while I would not change a word, I would add one word to the title (which Chambers may or may not have written). I would argue that “Making the Grade: Why Apple’s Education Strategy is not Based on Reality” should read “Making the Grade: Why Apple’s Education Strategy is not Based on Today’s Reality”.[2]

Let me explain why.

As I wrote earlier, Apple included an interesting subtext in its event. It challenged the hegemony of the keyboard as the primary computing input device. In fact, there are no keyboards used in the entirety of the “Homework” video they produced to showcase the iPad in an educational setting — although the Pencil, I would note, appears on several occasions.

I don’t think this is Apple trying to hard sell the Pencil for the purpose of profit. If that were the case, we would not have seen the less expensive Logitech Crayon. Nor do I think it is an attempt to employ their famed Reality Distortion Field to deny the need for keyboards. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen the Logitech Rugged Combo 2 education-only keyboard.

What I do think is that Apple is trying to get the education market to rethink education’s relationship to technology.

Education, almost always, comes to technology as a tool to solve a known problem: How to we assess more efficiently? How do we maintain records? How do we process students in our systems? How do we crunch data? How to we produce a standard and secure testing environment? How do we make submitting assignments and grading assignment more efficient? How can we afford to deploy enough devices to make a difference?

That we ask these questions is no surprise. These are important questions — critically important questions. If we don’t get answers to them, the educational enterprise begins to unravel. And because of that, it is more than understandable that they form the backbone of Bradley Chambers’ article and the majority of the commentary behind most of the responses I have read or listened to. They are the questions that made Leo LaPorte keep coming back to his wish that Apple had somehow done more in Chicago when the event was being discussed on MacBreak Weekly.

What they are not, however, is the list of questions Apple was positioning itself to answer. As Rene Ritchie pointed out in his response to the event, Apple is focusing on creativity — not tech specs. And from what I have seen from a number of Learning Management Systems and other education technological products, it is an area that is very much underserved and undersupported by ed-tech providers.

Apple is trying to answer the questions: How do you get students to be engaged with the material they are learning? How do I get them to think critically? How do I get them to be creative and see the world in a new way?

Alex Lindsay pointed out in the above-mentioned MacBreak Weekly episode when he said that he was interested in his children (and, by extension, all students) learning as efficiently possible in school. To do that, students have to be engaged and challenged to do something more than the obvious provided in lowest common denominator solutions. Their future will also need them to do more than answer fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice questions on a test. They need to produce the kinds of projects that Apple put on display in Chicago.

Apple is offering the tools to do that.

I don’t think this is an idealized or theoretical response. If Apple wasn’t aware that these things were a challenge, they would not have made the teacher in the “Homework” video a harried individual trying to (barely) keep the attention of a room filled with too many students. Apple has hired too many teachers and gone into too many schools to not know what teachers are facing.

I would also point out that there is something to Apple’s answer. My daughter was in the room with me when I was watching the keynote. Her immediate response was that she wanted her homework to be like what she saw rather than what she did.[3]

Her school, I would point out here, uses Chromebooks. That she would jump that quickly at the chance to change should give anyone considering a Chromebook solution pause and make them look carefully at why they are making the choice they are.[4]

Nevertheless, Apple’s challenge is that it still has to address the questions Bradley Chambers and others have raised or their answers will only be partial solutions for educators.

Because Apple needs to answer these questions, I am very interested in the details of the Schoolwork app once it is released — even if it appears to be targeted at K-12 and not higher education.

I do think that we in education need to listen carefully to Apple’s answer, though. Our questions may be mission critical but they may not be the most important questions to answer. After all, if we are first and foremost not trying to answer “How do we get our students engaged?”, we have ceased to be engaged in education. And while I have a great deal of sympathy for my friends and colleagues in IT (and am grateful for their ongoing support at JCSU), they are there to support my students’ and my work — not the other way around. And every time we take a shortcut to make IT’s job easier,[5] as we have done too often when trying to answer how to assess student learning outcomes, we are decreasing our students’ chances for success.

For those placing long-term bets, however, I would point out one thing: Apple’s positioning itself as the source for solutions for generating curiosity and creativity is a better solution for education than Google’s positioning itself as the solution for how to create a new batch of emails for the next year’s worth of students.

[1] The most important section of the article, incidentally, is this section:

One of the things I’ve become concerned about is the number of items we tend to keep adding to a teacher’s plate. They have to manage a classroom of 15–30 kids, understand all of the material they teach, learn all of the systems their school uses, handle discipline issues, grade papers, and help students learn.

When do we start to take things off of a teacher’s plates? When do we give them more hours in the day? Whatever Apple envisioned in 2012, it’s clear that did not play out.

[2] I wouldn’t run the word today in bold and italics, of course. I am using them here so you can easily find the word.

[3] Or thought she did. When I asked her what stopped her from doing her homework in that manner, she thought and said she didn’t know how she would get it to her teacher. I told her that I could help her with that.

[4] It still might be the best choice, of course. These decisions are a series of trade-offs. But I would point out that if she begins to use an iPad at home to do things her classmates cannot with their Chromebooks and gains a superior education because of her engagement with the material as a result, the argument for deploying Chromebook is significantly weakened.

[5] Making IT’s job easier, I would stress, is significantly different from asking if what is being proposed is technically and practically possible.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.

An Always Engaged Audience

Some background: For those in other parts of the world who may not know, this fall has been unusually rough when it comes to the bugs that have been floating around here in North Carolina. Like most parents, my wife and I have a working arrangement — subject to change based on the needs of the day — as to who will stay home with our daughter when she has to stay home from school. Since we are both professors, this pattern generally aligns with the Monday-Wednesday-Friday (MWF)/Tuesday-Thursday (TR) split. 

This semester, I have the MWF shift. This is counterintuitive, as my classes this semester are on MWF. She, however, has classes with more in-class assignments on MWF than I do. As a result, my MWF schedule is more open to alternate approaches.

I have been using Periscope to stream classes when I stay home. It is an imperfect vehicle for what I am attempting[1], but it gets the job done. 

In a strange way, I have noticed that I find it a surprisingly comfortable experience to hold class via Periscope. And after class today, I think I have settled on why this is. 

For those of you who have never taught, facing a room full of students can be a depressing task. I know that my students are more engaged than they look. Their questions and comments have, on more than one occasion, proved that just moments before I was about to succumb to despair. But if you know the semi-blank look that people assume when they watch television, you know what you will see looking out at a room full of students. Not all of them look like this, of course. Some are more animated and some are less. Nevertheless, there is a passive look that pervades the room. This can be true with the most engaged of students. If one is taking notes, for example, you do not get to see the animation in their face because they are looking down.[2]

When you broadcast on Periscope, you look at yourself. It is a feature that lets the broadcaster know what his audience is seeing. So, when I am talking about Mark Twain and H. G. Wells,[3] I am looking at someone who is actively engaged — not a classroom of students who are paying attention and trying to process what is being presented or discussed.[4] 

I know that when I present, I feed off of those who are actively engaged. Most people in front of an audience do. When that is happening, I feel like I am doing a better job (Whether I am or not is a different question.). With Periscope, I provide myself with a positive feedback loop.

As a result, classroom performance, in the literal sense of the nature of what is presented rather than its content, could (Let me stress: could.) improve on the in-room experience with access to this technology, if it can be successfully linked to a mechanism for student participation, as discussed in footnote one below. It might also be worth considering and weighing for those running experiments with classroom delivery, as can be seen at Minerva University or through on-demand services like Kahn Academy.  

[1] If you want to see what can be done with a streamed class that functions very much as an interactive seminar, I would highly recommend that you tune in to one of Signum University’s open classes. You will find me sitting in on “Exploring Lord of the Rings” most Tuesday evenings, beginning at roughly 9:30 PM Eastern. Professor Corey Olsen simultaneously broadcasts via Periscope/Twitter, Twitch, and Discord while being “present” in Lord of the Rings Online. The online version of Middle Earth allows for the classes to take field trips to locations of note every week. (The broadcasts are then made available on YouTube, as can be seen in this randomly chosen example.) He manages to juggle three chat areas (Discord is the primary location for the comments and questions.), where people ask questions and offer comments.

Since this blog is about the iPad in the educational space, I will let you know how I attend. I run  Twitch (which contains the video and audio stream I use) and Discord (where I am present in the chat) in split screen mode on my 10.5” iPad Pro. I find it quicker to type my comments on the Smart Keyboard but often use the onscreen keyboard. To get a fuller picture and sound, I AirPlay the Twitch stream to my Apple TV. That, however, is a creature comfort and allows me to avoid resizing the split screen view to see more of the slides presented on the screen and/or type. It is possible to have a decent experience doing it all on the iPad.

[2] In case you are a student and are wondering, your professors can tell when you are writing about their class rather than another. The rhythm of your engagement in the class and the engagement with the page are either aligned or are not.

[3] Today’s 9AM class, which is on the way people understand time and how that is expressed in art and society, wrapped up A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and started The Time Machine.

[4] For those who might want to offer a well-meaning critique here and talk about active learning, let me offer a quick distinction: The look on a student’s face is a function of what they are doing rather than the pedagogical structure they are existing within. The same look will pervade on the faces of students during the kind of discussion or activity you might suggest I try. There is a material difference in the look worn by a student when they are “on” — when they have the floor or are talking — and when they are not, whether they are in a lecture or working in a small group. As a practical matter, it is impossible for everyone to be fully active at once. It is a question of how often they are fully active, how often they are partially active, how often they are passively active, and how often they are disengaged.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at Academia.edu.