Further Thoughts On The Future Of Education

On November 20th, fellow Techpinions writer, Steve Wildstrom, wrote an interesting column on Education and the Future of MOOCs. As Steve put it:

(MOOCs are) massive, open, online courses that were supposed to replace traditional lectures and recitations and make free, or at least very cheap, higher education available to everyone.

Hmm. Color me highly skeptical.

My Background

My father was a school superintendent and I have a learning disability so I’ve always been fascinated with alternative ways to learn. Lectures — in my humble opinion and the humble of opinion of most of the world’s educational experts — are a lousy way to learn. So, of course, that’s the way the vast majority of students are taught. Go figure.

— Lectures are “telling.” In sales, there’s an expression that “telling” is not selling. Similarly, “telling” is not educating.

— Lectures are one size fits all. Enough said.

— Lectures are not interactive. Learning is.


When I was a kid, I thought that television would revolutionize education. I was wrong. Television can transmit all the knowledge in the world. But that’s not at all the same as teaching.

MOOCs are sort of like television on Steroids. They’re better than television…but they’re still not good at teaching.

In his article, Steve Wildstrom points out two problems with MOOCs:

First, the technology has a long way to go and no one seems to have figured out a completely effective way to deliver lectures on video

Second, and more important, MOOCs seem to work best for those who need them least … My experience is that MOOCs require very highly motivated students.

When MOOCs Work

When I graduated from law school, I took a review course to prepare for the bar exam. Some of the lectures were live but most were tapes (we used video tapes way back then). The lecturers were some of the best and brightest in the world. Most were infinitely better than my law school professors and, for the most part, the tapes were entertaining and extremely informative.

Still, the lectures would have been useless had I, and my classmates, not been so highly motivated. We sat in front of TVs for hours, took copious notes and studied those notes like madmen (and women). However, if we hadn’t had the deadline of the LSAT’s looming over us, we never would have gone through with it. We would have found the lectures intolerable.


There’s not a doubt in my mind that tablets are going to dominate education in the near future. Tablets are one-to-one, easy to transport, easy to learn and use and they already have access to a seemingly infinite catalog of educational materials.

— The big advantage of tablets in education is that they are blank slates – they can literally become most anything.
— The big disadvantage of tablets in education is that they are blank slates — they won’t teach you on their own, they need to have meaningful content.

My Vision

The ideal way to teach someone is a course specifically designed for them, taught at their pace, with repetition and infinite patience. No human — not even a tutor — can do this. Fortunately, computers are very strong in pace, repetition and patience. Unfortunately, it takes a LOT of programing to create a teaching program that adjusts to the needs of each of its users.

I always thought that we would have computer programs that led us step-by-step through a course, quizzing us along the way and adjusting the pace of the learning to match our level of skill, interest, and understanding. These courses could, naturally, be as interactive as required.

In this, I have been sadly disappointed. If such a software program exists, I don’t know of it and it’s certainly not mainstream.


In my opinion, MOOCs are a diversion. They will be extremely useful for the extremely few, but they will never become effective educational tools for the masses.

I still think – with zero evidence to support my hypothesis — that interactive educational programs should be the way to go. Hope springs eternal.

Perhaps you know something about MOOCs or educational software that I’ve neglected. If so, please be so kind as to put your thoughts in the comments. Or joint me on Twitter @johnkirk. I’d leave to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Tablets: The Future Of Education

“(O)ur share of tablets in education is 94%. I mean, it’s sort of unheard of. I’ve never seen a market share that high before. ~ Tim Cook

Which Computing Form Factor Is Most Likely To Dominate Education?

Handicapped students.Phones? No way. Too small.

Notebooks? Possible. They’re so much smaller and lighter these days. And they can be easily carried to and fro and set up on desktops.

Tablets? Far more likely. Tablets can be used in so very, many, more ways than notebooks can and they can be also used as a notebook, if required. The most flexible, the least expensive, the most likely choice for education.

Which Operating System Is Most Likely To Dominate Education?

Student holding digital tabletWindows? Not likely. First, Microsoft is still not making a true tablet. More fool they. Second, Microsoft’s tablet products are woefully behind in the app software market.

Android? Not likely. Security, anyone? No true tablet software. And putting your entire school’s data in the hands of the world’s largest advertising agency? Android’s chances seem highly dubious.

iOS? Far ahead already. Massive lead in education-specific software. Apple’s business model promotes user privacy and device security. The winner so far. The most probable winner in the near term.

If You Grow Up Using An Apple iPad In School, When You Graduate What Will You Want To Use At Work?

beauty childI haven’t seen any one talking about this, but if the current generation grows up using Apple iPads in school, what long-term effect will that have on their computing preferences?

The answer seems obvious. And the implications could be profound.

In Education, The Tablet Tide Has Turned…And It’s Turned Into a Tidal Wave

Apple introduced the modern day tablet in April 2010. That’s just a little over three years ago. Educational institutions are notoriously conservative – slow to change and slow to adopt new techniques. Yet, here are two stories that show just how quickly tablets are being adopted for use by school age children:

An iPad For Every Student In Los Angeles Public Schools

Los Angeles’ school system, the second largest in the country, is ordering iPads for all its students…$30 million worth of iPads as the first part of a multi-year commitment…Apple says the initial order is for more than 31,000 iPads.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has more than 640,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

It wasn’t even close. The vote of the school board was 6-0.

Despite PC’s “preferred” status, Maine schools go with tablets

Apple’s dominion over Maine schools looked like it would change in April when the Maine Governor’s office announced that the MLTI’s new preferred vendor was Hewlett-Packard – specifically, the HP ProBook 4440 running Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system.

Maine’s massive Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI)…(revealed) that of more than 69,000 machines, only 5,474 will be the preferred Windows laptops. More than 92 percent of state schools are staying with Apple, the majority of which are turning to iPads… 39,457 students and educators in the MLTI are using iPads for the first time.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Tablets

My father was a school superintendent, so I am painfully aware of how maddeningly slow the wheels of education turn. However, the stars may be aligning for a significant change.

1) A tablet for every school child is a done deal. Most people just don’t know it yet. It’s going to happen and it’s going to happen oh-so-very-fast.


The Pew Research Center has been tracking tablet ownership from May 2010 when it recorded that 3% of American’s 18 years and older owned a tablet. From its most recent survey in May of 2,252 adults 34% of American’s owned a tablet, almost a doubling from April 2012.

Tablets have become an accepted part of everyday life and soon they will become an accepted part of education too. In three short years, we’ve already moved from the “Tablets are a stupid idea and it should never be done” phase to the “Of course Tablets are a great idea in education and why haven’t we done it already?” phase.

padagogy-wheel-450x4502) The tablet software industry is already well-established. Mobile software can be purchased cheaply and easily and installed almost instantaneously.

3) Apple has pulled out all the stops to cater to the education sector in its latest iOS version. Microsoft is giving away Surfaces for $199 each. Heck, everyone is going to want a piece of this market.

4) Win-Win. With millions upon millions of children getting tablets, and with hundreds of thousands of app developers using their creativity to develop educational apps in order to make money, maybe – just maybe – we’re on the cusp of seeing a revolution in computing software for education.

I am cautiously optimistic.


In The Bizarro World In Which We Live, It’s Microsoft That Complains About Monopolies

Apple Inc. won a $30-million contract Tuesday from the Los Angeles Unified School District, paving the way for the company to provide every student with an iPad in the nation’s second-largest school system. ~ Los Angeles Times

Microsoft, unsurprisingly, objected to the purchase. But what was surprising was the rationale Microsoft used to support their position:

A Microsoft representative urged the board to try more than one product and not to rely on one platform. Doing so could cut off the district from future price reductions and innovations, said Robyn Hines, senior director of state government affairs for Microsoft.

But district staff countered that Apple offered the superior product.

Wow. Payback is a witch.

The iPad Mini Could Spur an Education Revolution

Picture of iPad miniI have long been a skeptic about the role of personal computing in education, especially for K-12 schools. Yes, the internet has made a wealth of information accessible to students. But the instructional revolution promised by technology optimists seems to hover forever on the horizon. The tablet—and for now, at least, that really means the iPad for reasons I will get to—could be the tool that finally makes the difference. And the new iPad mini could greatly accelerate the trend.

There are many reasons why technology has been an educational disappointment for three decades. Probably the most significant is that the computer has never become students’ constant companion but remains instead an occasional tool.

There have been experiments that equip large groups of students with laptops, but they have been far from a roaring success. Laptops are expensive to buy and even more expensive to maintain—both hardware and software. They are heavy for kids to carry and often lack the battery power to get through a school day of steady use. While many textbooks and other instructional materials are available for Windows and Macs, reading on a laptop screen is a mediocre to terrible experience. In theory, laptops opened the door to new educational experiences, from rich media to a wide-range of custom generated instructional content. In practice, the device itself got in the way.

Tablets are fundamentally different. They are intensely personal and no more obtrusive than a textbook. Reading on them is a delight. While they can break if abused, they are far more rugged than laptops. Perhaps more important, their software is secure by design, making them all but immune to the malware and corruption that plague conventional PCs.

Apple is best equipped to take advantage of the K-12 tablet market. It has quietly worked with schools to develop tools for successful classroom use and to improve the manageability and delivery of custom content and applications. (A case study of a large-scale iPad school pilot in the Australian state of Victoria gives a lot of information on how this can be done.) Apple offers extensive training and support for educators. And the iPad Mobile Learning Lab is a charging cart designed for classroom sets of tablets.Apple is best equipped to take advantage of the K-12 tablet market..

There’s nothing like this in the fragmented Android world and Google does not appear to be taking on a leadership role in education. (It is promoting Chromebooks for educational use, but not Android.) Microsoft might have a shot with its new tablets, but an obscure technical decision will limit their appeal. One of the big attractions of Windows, at least to school system IT departments, is the ability to manage devices centrally, including deploying software and locking down systems. But Windows RT devices, including the Surface and other tablets based on ARM processors, are not able to join Windows Active Directory domains.

What seems like a really geeky move by Apple could greatly enhance the ability of educators to create custom instructional content for the iPad, especially in math and the sciences. Mathematical typesetting for ebooks of all types has been a source of enormous pain for as long as ebooks have been around. Apple has just made it easy. The just-released update to  the iBooks authoring app allows text to be created in three forms widely used for mathematical typesetting, LaTeX, MathML, and MathType. This is a simple example of text including LaTeX that I entered into iBooks Author in about a minute:

LaTeX text

This attention to the needs of education is likely to pay big dividends for Apple. And the iPad mini should prove particularly attractive to educators. Educational volume discounts could take the unit price well under $300. And the lighter weight and smaller size makes it better suited for younger students, who are likely to find the larger iPad heavy and bulky.

A lot has to happen in education before tablets can reach their potential. Most important, the people who run schools have to overcome their deep-seated fear of students in possession of connected devices. Yes, they can facilitate cheating and distractions, but teachers have always had to deal with cheating and distraction in classrooms and this is a terrible reason to deny students the advantages to students of everything from a library at their fingertips to instructional materials enabled by the tablet. The upfront cost of the tablets will be an issue, though savings on textbooks and other educational materials that will no longer be needed in physical form could allow a rapid recovery of the investment.

Schools, particularly K-12 education, is a sector that has lagged badly in the adoption and use of computer technology. The explosion of tablets may finally be about to change that.

Where in the App Store is Carmen Sandiego?

One of the goals we have in my household is to develop and maintain an inquisitive culture and the desire to learn. Being immersed in the technology industry as I am, I naturally add technology as a part of that process. One of my favorite examples of how we have done this was with an app called iBird Explorer Western.

My family and I live just outside San Jose in an agricultural / rural part of the area and because of that we see quite a wide variety of birds we never encountered in the city. My oldest daughter (age 9) and I both have the app on our iDevices, mine on my iPhone and hers on the iPod Touch. It has been remarkable to see how quickly she can spot a new bird in the wild and quickly use the app to identify the bird and learn interesting facts.

Even more recently in this process she has begun playing a game called Stack the States fairly regularly. This game teaches her facts about US states as well as how to identify them and place them on a map. It does so in a way that makes learning fun and technology at its best should accomplish that goal when it comes to education.

Because of my desire to integrate technology into the learning process and inquisitive nature of my kids, I began thinking of games I appreciated as a kid that did the same. The first one that came to mind, for my wife and I, was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

This game did a great job, in my opinion, of integrating game play with lessons on geography and other facts that was fun and educational. I had been watching for a while, and still to no avail, the arrival of this game in the iTunes App Store. This game seems like an ideal game for iOS devices and I am still surprised it is not there. The company that owns the rights called The Learning Company also owns the rights to The Oregon Trail, a game that is available for iOS and quite popular.

Game developers are smart to be using legacy franchises to bring games into the touch computing era. As devices like the iPad get integrated more into the learning process at different age levels, these games can provide a solid base to build upon and bring to tablets and more.

Apple’s re-invigoration of the software community is creating new possibilities with game software on computing devices and especially those that are touch based.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is one of many legacy franchises that I hope make it to touch devices. Such software and the software development communities focus on creating games that are fun and educational are positive trends that I would like to see continue.

The iPad: The Perfect Learning Companion

If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that our country’s educational system has some serious fundamental issues. Our educational infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world and seems like it declines even more every passing year. For a country that has always prided itself on progress our educational system has progressed very little. Apple and the iPad could stand a chance to change all of that. If the powers that be are smart, they would jump on the iPad bandwagon and begin integrating it at every level–especially elementary school.

Credit - OnlineEducation.net

I came across a recent info-graphic from the folks at OnlineEducation.net which visualizes quite a bit of good data about the state of US education. The graphic shows the bad and then presents some of the hopeful points from successful iPad trials in schools. The most encouraging statistic so far shares that through multimedia platforms student interest and retention goes up 25%. I encourage you to check out the full info-graphic here.

As much as I believe the iPad, and tablets in general, present one of the most exciting advancements for education in some time integrating it successfully will not be easy. For this to work, the system has to change and we need to begin to think more creatively about how we educate our youth.

One of the most important and fundamental principles that has at least been acknowledged over the past 20 years is that not everyone learns the same way. My 8-year-old, for example, has no problem learning through repetition and busy work. For her the system works. There are of course ways the system can develop and be more effective even for her learning style but the point is it works. For my youngest, who is now seven, the system does not work. She learns very differently, she learns through interaction and engagement, needs more hands on work filled with examples, and more importantly (just like me) she learns through trial and error most effectively. She gets frustrated with the current systems process but that doesn’t change the fact that she is hungry to learn. She simply needs a better tool. She is not alone.

That is why I have been integrating the iPad into both their learning processes since it first came out. That is why I stated in a previous column, as well as in my TIME column, that I believe the iPad is one of the best investments in a child’s future. You can choose to agree with me or not.

As I stated earlier, the system needs to be reformed. The iPad, and technology in general, present the best opportunity at a fundamental level to re-build our current system. It won’t be easy but there are several keys required for this to work.

Integrate Technology Early
Getting kids started early with technology is key. We want them to be comfortable and embrace technology as a part of their lives. This doesn’t mean they need to be entertained in order to learn but rather technology presents a way for them to engage with what they are learning in ways not possible before.

As we understand and experiment with how best to integrate things like the iPad into the classroom, we will make progress in better understanding the right approach and educational philosophy. The key is not for educators to be afraid of this change but to embrace the iPad as a new tool in their toolbox to better lay learning fundamentals and prepare our kids for the future.

We Need New Software
The second thing that needs to happen is dedicated software or apps for teachers and kids at every learning level. We are constantly taking steps in this direction but the software development community has yet to fully catch on and take this category as seriously as they should.

What we need is something akin to a fund, whether a specialized VC fund or government grant fund, to encourage our best and brightest software developers to use their talents and invest not just in gaming apps but education apps as well.

Apple Needs to Lead
Apple has taken a leadership position with the iPad and we need them to do so with their educational strategy as well. Luckily this is exactly what they are doing. This section of their website is dedicated to providing resources and education on using the iPad in education.

Apple is continuing to develop a dedicated ecosystem around the iPad and education. iBooks Author and iTunes U are good examples of Apple continuing to invest and focus on this area. As Apple actively engages the academic community, I hope we continue to see a mass of quality multi-touch textbooks as well as educational apps for every subject at every learning level.

The one area I would personally like to see more progress is in the app curating part of the iTunes App Store. There are so many apps that “app shopping” can become a burden. Apple already curates some areas of this with their “Apps For” categories. It would be great to see a more expansive curating process for education like breaking out apps for learning by age, or subject, or topical interest.

Teaching Teachers
Lastly, we need to teach our teaches as well about the benefits of using technology and specifically the iPad in the classroom. My wife is a teacher, and she like many of her friends who are teachers, needs a little help when it comes to technology. Generally speaking, they are not the tip of the early adopter iceberg.

Along those lines having courses at the college level or as a part of the teaching credential process on using things like the iPad would be extremely helpful. I assume that over time this will happen but hopefully it happens sooner than later.

Our teachers are valuable assets to this nation. Empowering them with the right tools to educate and encourage our youth is a legacy the technology industry needs to focus on.

For further interesting reading I encourage you to check out this online Ning social forum that was created for teachers to share stories and leaning experiences on using iPad in the classroom. http://ipadeducators.ning.com/

Why the iPad is an Investment in Your Child’s Future

Whether or not Apple uses this positioning, it is perhaps one of the best angles for the iPad. When friends, family, colleagues, or anyone who asks me, asks for my recommendation about iPad, I always add the benefit to kids – if they have them.

From the first iPad, and ever since, I have marveled at how my kids have taken to the iPad and more importantly how I have been able to use very helpful apps to assist in building critical skills. My kids both used the digital version of the popular “Bob Books” to help them prepare to read for kindergarten. I have been able to find apps at nearly every level of their education to let them engage more with relevant age-based subject matter.

I can say with conviction that the iPad has helped my kids learn to identify objects, colors, learn to read, build critical observational and critical thinking skills and more. This is not to say they could not have built these skills without the iPad, of course they could, only that the iPad has made the process more engaging, fun, and natural.

Touch Computing is the Future
When I was young, everyone was pushing to teach kids how to type as well as overall computer literacy. If you think about it, touch computing as well as things like the iPad in general, make computer literacy instant. My kids didn’t need to go sit through computer literacy classes to start using an iPad and begin computing. They picked it up and from day one used it to its full potential – for them. I would argue this is the case with any age group.

I have written extensively on the subject of touch computing, constantly highlighting its importance to our computing future. I believe touch represents the most natural computing paradigm, along with speech computing (which has not fully come to fruition). Touch breaks down traditional barriers to computing that a mouse and keyboard had traditionally created. Mouse and keyboard computing paradigms are still relevant, but have been designated to task specific usage.

Although touch computing is natural, exposing children to it at a young age will set their expectations for computing higher and potentially help create the next generation of leaders. Growing up with touch computing as the driving computer paradigm will lay an important base for our children’s future.

Related Columns Mentioned:
Why Tablets Represent the Future of Computing – at TIME.com
From Click to Touch – iPad and the Era of Touch Computing – At SlashGear.com

Re-Inventing The Book
Today Apple took that truth one step further with their announcement of iBooks 2 and the Author toolset. Today’s announcement on the surface is re-inventing the textbook and providing next generation publishing tool kits. It is however, quite a bit more. This announcement lays the foundation for the complete and total re-invention of books in general.

Up to this point, I have been disappointed with the publishing industries strategy to simply re-purpose books in e-reading form. Last year I wrote about the need to re-invent the book and to date it still hasn’t happened.

Hopefully with the toolkits Apple has developed and will continue to develop, publishers will get savvy and start being more creative with how they create package content. Which is essentially all a book is—the packaging of content. This packaging of content was limited to static words on a page, but with iPad the packaging of content is taken to a new level.

Publishers will get disrupted if they do not embrace this wholly and quickly. What is to stop smart people with a great idea to create the next era of interactive books? If the publishing industry is not careful, they could face the same fate as the music industry but perhaps to an even bigger extent.

Interactive books are the future and the iPad is the perfect platform for them to thrive. We will soon hopefully have not only next generation text books, but next generation children’s books, novels, graphic novels, biographies, and more.

For now, I intend to purchase these new interactive books for my kids and get them engaging with educational content. Since I truly do believe that having them use the iPad and integrating it into their educational routine is an investment in their future.

Related Columns Mentioned:
Re-Inventing the Book in the Digital Age – at SlashGear

Mamas (and Dads), Help Your Babies Grow Up To Be Coders

My kids were lucky. They were born at about the same time as the Apple ][ and they grew up during the all-too-brief period when learning to program a computer was considered part of a normal elementary school education. That window only lasted from around 1980 to the early 90s, when the complexities of graphical user interfaces began to kill amateur programming.

It’s time to bring back coding as part of kids’ education. Not because it is important to know how to program a computer to use one anymore than understanding of how engines work is important to driving a car. The virtue of learning programming is that it develops some very useful good habits, especially clear, precise, and careful thinking.

Unlike so much else in life and education, there’s no such thing as a good-enough piece of code. It either runs or it doesn’t and it either produces a correct result or not. But coding does provide instant gratification for doing the job right. Coding problems are inherently fair and objective, giving them all the characteristics of great pedagogical tools.

I don’t have any illusions about programming returning to elementary school curricula any time soon. There’s too much competition for classroom time, and way too few qualified teachers. There’s no one lobbying for it, and no studies showing that learning programming improves scores on standardized tests (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.)

Fortunately, excellent free tools exist that will let kids learn programming at home. For younger children, Kodu, a project of Microsoft Research, offers a graphical, drag-and-drop approach.  Kids can use it to design simples games while learning priciples of programming.

Kodu screen shot
A Kodu programming screen
Codeacademy screenshot
Interactive instruction at Codeacademy

Lots of folks in the tech world (venture capitalist Fred Wilson, for example) responded to a campaign by Codeacademy.com by offering new year’s resolutions to revive or improve their coding skills. But I think it is even more important for kids. Codeacademy offers interactive lessons in convenient small bytes designed to teach the basics of programming JavaScript.

(One note of learning programming: The choice of a language is largely irrelevant. The principles of programming are the same regardless of language, and the mainstream languages used today all derive their syntax from C++ and in most ways are more alike than different.)

For a deeper dive into coding, the estimable Khan Academy’s computer science section  provides more formal training in coding techniques. There’s more of a do-it-yourself element to the Khan approach: To actually work the examples and do problem sets, you’ll have to set up a Python development on your computer. Fortunately, that’s about a five-minute job.

I learned coding in completely haphazard fashion back in the mainframe era. In those days, the only way to do anything with a computer was to program it yourself and the data processing I needed to do for an undergraduate research project forced me to learn Fortran—and debug code by reading a printout of a core dump. In truth, I never became more than a marginally adequate programmer, but I believe the experience made me a better, more analytical thinker.

My kids made better use of their opportunities. One is now a mathematician working at the boundary of math, computer science, and operations research. The other is a down-to-the-silicon operating system developer for IBM Research. The might have gotten their without their expeience as young boys banging away at an Apple ][ (and later, in high school, a MicroVAX), but I think those formative experiences were critical.

So take the resolution yourself and make this the years your kids (and please, don’t forget the girls) learn to code. Some day, they’ll thank you.