Software

How Apple wants to remake the classroom

Apple's VP of education on how ingenuity, online services and deformed frogs helped his son win his science fair and why that matters for our schools.

"Steve Jobs saw technology as an amplifier for our intellect" recalls John Couch, who first met Jobs in the early days of Apple.

Apple's vice-president of education remembers the then 20-year-old Apple co-founder comparing computing to a bicycle, referencing its power to augment humans' natural abilities.

As someone who exposed his children to computers from an early age, Couch claims to have witnessed this multiplier effect firsthand.

Jobs gave an Apple II to Couch's eldest son when he was aged just four, sparking in the boy a lifelong interest in digital design that years later led to him designing eBay's first website.

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Apple VP of education John Couch
Image: Apple

Decades afterwards, in 2001, Couch's youngest was taking part in a science fair and was adamant he wanted to do it on deformed frogs. After a spot of light Googling his son found a paper written by a professor linking the deformities to the presence of a parasite. Rather than stopping there Couch's son emailed the professor, who, after getting over his surprise, was able to help him locate the parasites and extract and amplify their DNA. His son then sent that DNA to an online service for analysis, which found a strong link between that and the protein involved in limb generation in frogs. Unsurprisingly Couch's son won the science fair, but that wasn't the end of the matter.

"He gets a call from Stanford University and asked 'How would you like to spend the summer continuing the research?' and he goes 'Nah, I play basketball in the summer'," Couch said at the Bett Conference in London.

"It's an example of a true learning environment, it's challenging, it's relevant, it's collaborative and engaging," he said saying it was everything education should be in a digital age.

His son's experience demonstrates how technology extends avenues for learning far beyond the teacher and the classroom and the traditional model of book learning, he said.

Each major new service created on the internet opens up new opportunities for next generation to learn, he said.

By Couch's reckoning the incoming Freshman class were three when Google was created, so probably never went to a library to look something up, were nine when Facebook came out, exposing them to a collaborative environment where sharing was easy, 11 years old when Twitter was launched, affording them the ability to easily share ideas, and 13 years old when the Apple App Store opened, creating an expectation that software should be available on-demand.

"Steve looked at this and said we need a new learning environment, we need a new ecosystem for learning. A learning environment that's going to meet the needs of this generation and also the needs of society as we move forward."

"There's an Albert Einstein quote: 'Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid'.

"We need to encourage every child to find their unique genius. Our goal really became how do we build a learning environment ."

Rather than classrooms focusing on rote learning and regurgitating facts from text books, Couch said, Apple studies found that in a digital age classrooms need to use technologies to make learning engaging, collaborative and challenging.

"It's not so important that we know that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, what's important is what was happening around the time, what impact it had and how did that change society."

But just buying computers and relying on digital content is not sufficient to improve teaching.

"I've seen too many institutions use technology as a substitution and it doesn't change the learning environment at all."

Instead, teachers and students should be doing "something you couldn't do without the technology", he said.

No-one's going to pay you for something they could look up online

Couch highlighted the numerous Apple services and schemes that help further education.

Apple has more than one million apps, more than two million books, almost one million media files available through its services, according to Couch, as well as more than 10,000 public courses through its online learning repository iTunes U - with Apple breaking down some of that content into categories and educational level to make it easier to browse.

Its iBook Author service allows people to create e-books and sell them through the Apple App Store, a move that has led to "a lot of schools and unis now creating their own books and bypassing the publishing industry". Apple has developed a curriculum based around one of the books published through the service, "E. O. Wilson's Life on Earth", and will be piloting around the world from this autumn.

The firm also works with teachers to show them how to use content available via its services in the classroom, with Couch saying the firm had trained 30,000 educators in the UK.

Beyond this the firm has developed a framework called Challenge-based Learning, where the student picks the project to pursue, rather than the teacher, which Couch says allows content to be more relevant, engaging and challenging.

"Never again is someone going to pay you to give them answers they could look up online, they're only going to pay you to solve problems to which they don't have answers. Our classrooms are out of step with what the world is looking for."

Increasingly teachers and students will turn to personalised learning services such as eSpark he said, where the students and teachers can choose the lessons that best suits the student, moving away from one size fits all education.

"Going forward technology will really empower teachers to meet the need of each individual student."

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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