So… Apple are in on the education game.

They have been for a while of course, as they pointed out this morning while discussing iTunes U. Now they’re in for the long haul, getting more invested, becoming more involved.

Is it a good thing?

Yes, it is. It definitely is. There’s something exciting about a company of Apple’s stature becoming so assertive in finding a role in education. Perhaps even, and for certain if you believe the chaps from Cupertino, making education better. There. I am down with iBooks 2, I think it’s a positive thing. Now time to air some of my reservations.

Here’s the thing. As an educator myself, I balk a little at complaints like “students don’t read” or “the textbook is out of date as soon as it’s printed” or “the book is heavy and cumbersome, they won’t take it to class.” Trust me, these statements are all accurate. Students don’t read. They don’t bother bringing books to class. Thing is, at what point do we stop coddling people? I mean, it’s this simple:

Bring. Your. Damn. Book. To. Class.

Read. The. Assignments. On. The. Syllabus.

Not rocket science. At some point when you’re teaching people you have to set standards and stick by them. Now, at the same time, you don’t want to leave people behind. In universities in particular, there can be a tendency to do that, to leave the majority behind to tailor content or even advice to the top level students. A large part of that derives from a noble goal: to keep standards high so that students have something at which to aim. Lowering the bar does a disservice both to students already at or above the bar and those below it. It helps no one. You just find yourself frequently looking back at the bottom half of the class and trying to think up ways to motivate them or at the very least make it clear that their time and their work is just as valuable to you as that of the student regularly handing in A material.

So, how are we looking to improve the education experience? In an ideal world, we want the better students to have opportunities to stretch their limits and to reach the fullness of their potential. We want students with less ability (or, more frequently, less ambition or intellectual self-confidence) to be encouraged and to become more engaged with the material and with the learning experience. Apple purports to be the harbinger of a world of magic, the expeditor of our ideal world, so it makes sense that they would aim high. I am happy. I am all for aiming high. I want my students to aim high.

For me, there’s so much more to any given class room than the small number of A and A- students. I wonder about the low Bs and Cs, I really do. Many of them are following the dictum that Cs will get you degrees. They turn up, they hand in work that took just enough time to get a C, and they’re out. That’s fine. Not everyone has to want an A, and it’s a free country. I’m particularly loathe to harbor a grudge against that approach in a system where I end up with Graphic Design majors and Finance majors and Theatre majors who need to fulfill History requirements to get their degree but need to focus their time on core classes in their field of interest. Thanks to the field I teach, I usually get non-History majors who are at least vaguely interested in the content. That doesn’t mean that they have any interest in putting in the time required for high B or A work.

So… are they learning? I often wonder this. How many of my students who turn in a paper about Confucius or the Chinese Civil War actually know more than they could be bothered to put on paper? Trust me, some of them have missed the point completely, and it’s my first duty as an educator to look at my own approach and see how I can tweak it to avoid such issues. But for others… I do wonder. Particularly when you’re teaching history to somebody who is developing an entirely different skill set, what is the aim here? First and foremost, you want to teach students how to examine sources, how to read a book and maintain their own opinion, not simply to accept whatever the author has said as Gospel. That’s the big aim, and frankly it is by far the most useful skill you can teach in a History classroom, particularly to people who may never take a History class again. After that, though… Are there students who take a Chinese History class because they want to know more about China, and submit just enough work to get a C, but walk away knowing more about Chinese history and culture, and are glad for it? Can they talk about the Cultural Revolution in the pub? Will they think of historical examples of the abuse of power or the vibrancy of a truly popular revolution while they’re watching CNN? Or, you know, a good news program on a channel that doesn’t suck?*

*Sorry, CNN is terrible. I have a brief and highly effective argument in support of this point. Piers Morgan. Argument concluded.

In that respect, I am utterly bewitched by iBooks 2 and the whole concept. But here’s the rub: how do I actually use this? I don’t have an iPad myself. I intend to get a tablet in 2012 but it may not be manufactured by Apple. Hey, that’s fine: if iBooks 2 was compelling enough maybe I would get an iPad rather than an Android tablet. That makes sense to me. What do I do next term, however, assuming there’s even a decent book on modern Chinese history available on iBooks? Tell my students they have to get an iPad? It just doesn’t make sense.

I understand that Apple already has an entire business strategy for this and they will get universities and high school systems to buy in and basically install iPad support systems for their students, but many institutions already use Desire 2 Learn or Blackboard, and have very little incentive to suddenly subsidize iPads. I love this picture of the brave new world that Apple wants us all to advance towards, but I am increasingly upset by the blatantly high price of entry. The monopoly of one company isn’t encouraging either but that’s a whole other argument. There’s a brave new world out there in education, if you have the money for an iPad. If you don’t, screw you. I can’t get on board with that. Surely we need to be trying harder than ever to make education accessible to those in difficult economic situations, not merely improving the lot of that wealthy tier of society that take a university education as a given? There’s a tendency in the United States to completely ignore everyone below the tier known as the “middle class”, a stunningly arbitrary label given to a large section of society that don’t want to admit that they are extremely wealthy and privileged. There are enough issues of disparity in wealth and affordability in education as it is, I’m not thrilled about introducing more and more barriers, and I have no interest in bringing them into the classroom. 

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