Apple’s Education Event

Yesterday I took the time to watch the live blog of Apple’s “Field Trip” education event. Apple in education has been something that has been near and dear to me since my childhood. The very first computers I worked with were Apple IIe computers in our computer lab. I was even lucky enough to have a teacher-aide in the family who was able to bring one home for me over the summer for me to work with. Although my first computer that I owned was a Commodore 64, the Apple line was always present in my educational settings.

However, in recent years Apple has been getting it’s butt handed to it by Google in the education space. Specifically, the advent of the Chromebook and it’s associated Google services. Google took their model of cheap computers that can access web based applications, and brought it to schools that were suffering from lack of funds to keep expensive Mac computers refreshed. Google’s GSuite is a robust set of tools that allows for all sorts of productivity, and isn’t dependent on any specific piece of hardware from any specific manufacture. This is a perfect situation for schools that are often strapped for cash, and for system administrators. Google’s user-based design means that devices can be passed around from student to student, and everyone’s content stays with them, no matter which device they’re on.

Apple is still married to the old way of doing things, with documents stored locally and then sync’d to the cloud. Despite Apple’s best attempts at web based versions of their productivity suite, the best experience is still the locally installed fat clients on either a Mac or an iPad. This means that you’re tied to an expensive Apple device to use these services to the best of their ability. There is one area though that Apple shines… content creation.

Apple and MacOS/iOS have always been the king of creative digital creation. Ever since the first iMovie and Garageband apps hit the scene, they have ruled this lower-to-middle end of the creator space. Apple still has to compete in the high-end, professional market, but for the regular guy/gal, tools like iMovie and GarageBand are more than adequate to create amazing content, quickly and easily. This also applies to students who need nice and easy tools to learn and create things for school and for their budding creative endeavors. This type of simple creation just too hard to accomplish on a Chromebook, and get the same level of results.

Where I think many schools are landing is with a hybrid approach. They have dozens of Chromebooks lying around for students to do writing and create presentations. But then for creative content creations, such as music or video, they have a few Mac’s that students can use for those purposes. This is what one of my son’s school’s does, and it seems to work really well. The kids are able to move between the devices just fine and context switching just seems natural for them.

I feel bad that Apple has lost their lead in the education field, but they got beat fair and square by Google, who offers a better solution for cash and resource strapped schools. However, if they keep their focus on creativity, and things that simply can’t be done on the web, they still can have an important role in schools for a long, long time.

The death of Liberal Arts?

The other day I started thinking about my career path, and contrasted it with the career path that my children will most likely take. When I grew up in the 80’s, the Baby Boomer generation dominated the culture at large. That means that people from that generation were instrumental in defining how many of us viewed our unfolding futures. The mantra when I was young was that to be successful, you go to college, get a 4 year degree, and then you can get a good job and live the American Dream. My fellow Gen X’ers can attest… sometimes we feel like we’ve been handed a load of bullshit.

The reality of what many of us discovered is that getting a 4 year degree did help us get a job. However, the idea that we would be happy in these jobs, or that we could find fulfillment in them is a pipe dream that was rarely fulfilled. I can attest that my four year degree in Liberal Arts did a lot to help me become a rational and skilled thinker, but it did nothing to teach me skills for my eventual career. I wouldn’t trade my experience in my undergrad at all, it was a rich time of learning. But for my kids, I’m telling a different story.

For my children, I’m encouraging them to look in to the trades. Whether it’s the traditional construction/manufacturing areas, or healthcare, or even skilled technology/media. If they chose to go get a 4 year degree, I’m certainly not going to stop them, but unlike my experience, I’m not presenting it as the only path to achieving success. Why the change of heart? I believe that the Internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a liberal arts thinker.

In my youth, it was the scholars and academics that held the key to deep knowledge. If you wanted to learn something deeply, you had to first learn how to access that information. Liberal Arts folks like myself were masters at navigating academic libraries. We knew where all the materials were, and we knew how to find what we were looking for. Often that involved being able to page through a book, using it’s index and table of contents, to narrow down if it had any bits of knowledge for us. It was a very experiential and physical method of learning, but it’s what we mastered.

Fast forward 25 years, and the global information revolution has happened, and completely changed how we learn and research knowledge. No longer do we need to be masters of esoteric shelving systems, or archaic indexes. Now, we can use natural language queries to simply ask powerful computers for what we are looking for. The vast, combined, store of knowledge of humanity is literally at our fingertips. It’s simply a Google search away.

Though others may disagree with me, I don’t think this has led to the death of higher academic learning either. Just because you need to pass through a paywall to read academic articles does not mean that they are no longer relevant. I can’t even begin to imagine how much better my academic work would have been if I had access to the tools that we have now. To be able to create a hypothesis, test it, and then draw conclusions of that test, all in a single evening without leaving your computer, is insane. There’s a lot of garbage out there, but, to quote a famous show from my youth, “The Truth is Out There”.

So why the emphasis on trades? Is it because I don’t believe that my children should learn “how to learn” like I did? Not at all. I believe that we need to restructure how we educate in this country. Because of the intense emphasis on getting a 4 year degree, the high school years have turned into benign and neutered learning experiences. Much of high school is simply teaching some basic facts so that people can muddle their way towards what is supposed to be their eventual goal, that 4 year degree. We need to return to making High School a powerful learning experience that teaches kids how to think broadly. We need to bring Liberal Arts back into our kid’s teenage years.

We need to start graduating robust, well rounded, thinkers from high school. Not just people who are looking at getting by until they get to the “real” educational experience in college. Kids young minds are fresh for molding, and a solid Liberal Arts background is what we should be instilling. Then, when they get out of high school they can start to think about what they want to do with their lives. Plus, they can avoid the massive crushing debt that many people in my generation have found themselves in.

This also means that we need to start doing something that is incredibly difficult for me… distance my search from happiness and fulfillment from what I do for a day job. I’m talked about my own career angst in the past, so I won’t drag that out here, but in general I believe we need to change the conversation for our youth. Many of the most fulfilling careers out there are ones that may not be glamorous, but they can provide a solid income so that you can do the things you love in your personal time. This is certainly not the message I grew up with, and it’s one that I struggle with almost every single day. But, as I look at the world my kids are inheriting, it forces me to challenge my experiences.

As often happens, I’ve now rambled for close to 1000 words, and perhaps I’ve made sense, or maybe I’ve left some things even muddier than before. What I’m hoping in this exercise is to get people thinking about what it means to be a real-thinker in the Internet world. How do we take this incredible access to knowledge, and reshape what we expect out of our lives? Is it time to re-think what we look at as the normal educational path and change it up? How do we build up strong adults, who are perhaps much braver than my generation was?

Gen X’ers went along with the status quo because our parents told us to. Those that follow us see the boomers as the aging grandparents who “don’t get it”. That freedom is something we never had, and it opens up new possibilities, not just for our kids, but for us as well. I know plenty of people my age who would love to shake up the status quo. Maybe our children will lead us.

Churches and education

With the appointment of DeVos as education secretary social media has been a hotbed of discussion around publicly funded education, and the apparent desire of Ms. DeVos to enable more faith based schools. Much of this argument hinges on a desire by people to see more Christian based education permeate the society at large. Therefore, it makes sense that people would support someone like DeVos and the perceived agenda to Christianize our schools.

I really can’t comment on what DeVos will or won’t do, as her past practices may not pan out in her new public life. However, what I do want to state is how utterly opposed I am, as a Christian and an American, to any notion of bringing Christianity more deeply into our public schools. This is once again another instance where the separation of Church and State needs to be upheld, for the good of all society.

Education in our schools is about fact based learning to foster an educated society. The only agenda of education should be to teach our children the best that they can, with the facts that they have. That’s the problem with trying to interject religion into schools, because religion is not based upon facts, but on belief and experience.

That is why the biggest issue in putting religion in schools is religion itself. Religion in the world is splintered. Even within Christianity there are dozens and dozens of variations of faith that all claim to hold a particular truth that makes them more “right” than others. When we start to have a conversation about religion in schools we first need to ask, “Which religion?” Unfortunately, many people in America believe that we are a Christian nation, and therefore Christianity is the only way to answer that question.

But that opens up a whole new can of worms, since you then need to define which denomination or branch of Christianity is the one that should be taught? There are fundamental differences in the worldviews of Catholics vs. Lutherans vs. Baptists. These differences have deep theological roots, for which I’ve spent years of my life studying in my own personal education. But, when we talk about the public good of a secular society, it becomes impossible to pick any one denomination as the right one, and advocate for it’s inclusion into school curriculum (fact based or not).

If publically funded schools were allowed to teach religion, and specifically Christianity, one of two things would happen. The first thing that might happen is that we would enter into a strange holy war between the various groups, fighting over the correct “facts” to be taught in schools. The conservative Baptists would insist on teaching the sanctity of hetrosexual marriage, while the liberal UCC might want to downplay any Scripture or teaching that would alienate LGBT people. Some Charismatic segments may want to emphasize creationism as a valid scientific method, whereas scholarly Catholics would want to give credence to the scientific method and the factual study of creation.

These struggles would continue ad nauseam, which would lead to the second outcome of religion in publicly funded schools; regression into homogenous communities. Either through an extended struggle to cooperate, or right off the bat, religion schools would find themselves building walls around themselves to protect their worldview and ideology from the other religious school down the street. Instead of teaching our children how to engage with a beautiful and diverse world, we would promote the ultimate echo-chamber of religious self-aggrandizing. Our communities would become villages surrounded with moats, to keep out anyone who thinks differently than them. The pluralism and diversity that has created an amazing global tapestry would fade into colonial America, where religious lines manifested themselves in actual boundaries between states.

Secular education is the key to building a society of people who can think for themselves, and make choices about their own religious beliefs. Stifling critical thought for the promotion of maintaining a faith-based worldview is anathema to the very nature of our role as creations of God. If we are strong in our faith, our children will grow up thriving on our examples. We don’t need to open the can of worms of publicly funded education and all of the chaos that it would entail.

Brief jaunt down memory lane

My youngest son and I are looking at high schools for him and tonight we visited the most recent incarnation of the school where I went to high school. I went to a very small outcome based education school where my graduating class was about 12 students. It’s moved buildings a few times, and none of the teachers are still there, but it still had a character that was prevalent when I attended there, namely very strong community.

It’s also changed drastically in terms of its academic structure. When I attended, there were no grades and everything was outcome based. Now, there are grades, and a strong emphasis on continuous improvement towards proficiency. They utilize the expeditionary learning model now, which is tied closely to Outward Bound. It’s a different model than what I experienced, but some things stayed the same, including calling teachers by their first names.

I’m not sure that it’s the school we’ll chose, but it was cool to spend some time reminiscing about my own high school adventure, if even for just a night.