“You can’t always get what you want.”

There’s a moment in the first segment of the 60 Minutes piece on Apple that ran last Sunday that I found kind of amazing. It’s in an exchange between Charlie Rose and Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, towards the end of that segment:

Rose: Is there danger of one product cannibalizing the other product?

Schiller: It’s not a danger, it’s almost by design. You need each of these products to try to fight for their space, their time with you. The iPhone has to become so great that you don’t know why you want an iPad. The iPad has to be so great that you don’t know why you want a notebook. The notebook has to be so great you don’t know why you want a desktop. Each one’s job is to compete with the other ones.

It’s not really the fact that there’s a tacit admission of planned obsolescence here. That’s expected with anything from a Silicon Valley tech company. It’s the fact that Schiller seems convinced that every new iteration of that planned obsolescence is actually going to be superior to the previous version.

Remember, this is the same company that brought us the Lisa and the Newton. With respect to more modern developments, I never saw the point of iPads. I certainly don’t see the point of Apple Watches unless you want to advertise your location to the NSA during every waking moment of your life. Yet Apple seems convinced that it knows what we want, even though they won’t release Apple Watch sales – probably, 60 Minutes suggested, because they’re really disappointing.

That explains why whether Apple actually knows what we need is a different question entirely.


Back in October, Audrey Watters, while speaking in South Africa, explained how

“California – the place, the concept, “the dream machine” – shapes (wants to shape) the future of technology and the future of education.”

On the way to explaining that California Ideology, she defined something similar. “The Silicon Valley Narrative,” she argued:

is interested in data extraction and monetization and standardization and scale. It is interested in markets and return on investment. “Education is broken,” and technology will fix it. It’s an old and tired refrain, but it’s a refrain nonetheless, repeated over and over.

Audrey is rightfully concerned about the effects of the California Ideology has on existing inequalities of race and class and gender – most notably the way it erases those concerns from our consciousness. Yet before the Silicon Valley Narrative and the California Ideology can do any of that to education, the ideologues behind then have to redefine what education is.

Since you can’t always get what you want, it’s worth asking exactly what you need in the educational space. What students need is a trained, caring teacher dedicated towards student success. Too many students per teacher and this becomes impossible. Edtech fixes are created almost by design to get around that problem – to replace people with technology, to make the previously unacceptable acceptable.

Somewhere rattling around the back of my head (and others apparently) is an old saying about the best form of education being “Socrates at one end of a log and a student at the other end.” Turning that log into a computer connection has the same fundamental effect as adding students to the other end of the log. It decreases the quality of education. Yes, you can do some flashy things when you’re no longer bound to one end of a log, but the impact that that change has on the immediacy of the educational experience will inevitably felt.

I’m not saying that this sacrifice shouldn’t be made. What I’m saying is that piling on the edtech pyrotechnics won’t improve the educational experience by definition – particularly if those pyrotechnics are provided by companies that are more concerned with setting up a situation of planned obsolescence than they are with improving the quality of the educational experience.


Of course, the story that set me off down this long, discursive path is about MOOCs:

“Less than 1 percent of the learners in the massive open online course partnership between Arizona State University and edX are eligible to earn credit for their work, according to enrollment numbers from the inaugural courses…

The number of learners who opt for credit may be even smaller. To be eligible, learners first have to pay $49 for an identity-verified certificate and earn a grade of C or better. Because of how the MOOCs are structured, learners can complete all the lessons and assignments and view their final grade before deciding whether to pay for a transcript from ASU. Learners have a year to make up their minds.

Hardly revolutionary is it? Back when edX and Arizona State introduced this program, I wrote that:

Arizona State is now the first predator university. They are willing to re-define what education is so that they can get more students from anywhere. If they don’t kill other universities by taking all their students with a cheap freshmen year, they’ll just steal their fish food by underselling 25% of the education that those schools provide and leaving them a quarter malnourished.

I still think that that might be right, but it turns out that this initial weapon is so big and so clunky that it can hardly kill anybody – at least not yet. As Matt Reed explains:

To the extent that folks watched MOOCs in the same way that they watch, say, TED talks, I don’t see the harm in it. But to the extent that the partnership was supposed to be about opening pathways to bachelor’s degrees, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the already-established route of starting at a community college — in this case, I used the tuition rate of Maricopa Community College, the largest feeder to ASU — and transferring.

Students, in other words, don’t get what we want them to get, they just get what they need.

But don’t despair for disruptive innovation! MIT’s Justin Reich tells us towards the end of the article linked at the top of this section:

“These numbers show it’s not an immediate breakthrough revolution in recruiting and enrollment, but that’s fine…It may still be worth exploring if this is a viable alternative path either for recruitment of students already likely to go to college or bringing new students into higher ed.”

As you might imagine, I disagree.

I may want an Apple Watch. Apple may want me to buy an Apple Watch. They may find the perfect color of paint for the strap so that my wrist starts twitching every time I see one. However, if there are simpler, cheaper, more effective ways to accomplish what my Apple Watch can accomplish, all the pyrotechnics in the world won’t make it a hit with consumers. The same is obviously true of Internet fridges, a product that the powers that be have been trying to push on unwilling consumers for over fifteen years now.

Sometimes the best tech is actually old tech. On the other hand, MOOC U, Apple Watches and Internet fridges seem a lot more like hoverboards to me, only much less funny.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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