Can Apple Products Pave the Way to Personalized Learning?

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San Francisco middle school students watch instructional videos on their school-issued iPads.

Apple held a press event today at its Cupertino headquarters, unveiling a variety of improvements to its line of iPods and iPhones, including an update to its mobile operating system and a brand new version of its wildly popular iPhone. As always happens around these Apple announcements, there's a flurry of excitement -- before, during, and after -- about what the company will reveal. Other tech companies hold similar press events, sure, but few seem to garner as much buzz as Apple's.

Some of that allure came from its former CEO. When Steve Jobs announced in August that he was stepping down from his position as CEO, there was a massive outpouring of reflections and analyses by the technology press about the impact that he and his company have had on technology -- on both hardware and software. Indeed, it's hard to understate that impact when you look at the role that Apple played in the development and adoption of personal computers, portable music devices, mobile phones, and tablets. By extension, Apple's influence has helped usher in new opportunities for digital content in the entertainment and publishing industries.

And, of course, the company has had a huge impact on education. Apple has had a long history of pushing its computers into the classrooms. For many years, a child's first exposure to a computer had been at school, and often that computer was an Apple. The company made a push back in the 1980s to get its PCs into the classroom, and even with the ascendancy of Microsoft and Windows in the personal computing market, schools have remained a stronghold for Apple.

The shift to mobile devices -- first the iPods, then the iPhones, and now the iPads -- has once again put Apple in the lead in the consumer market, and it's interesting to think about how the company continues to be embraced by schools and to influence education. Indeed, Steve Jobs often said that the company exists at the "intersection of technology and the liberal arts," and as such arguably has had a very different approach to the devices it's produced -- their design and their capabilities -- as well as to these devices' applications and the types of software that runs on them.

The buzz around Apple products often seems to prompt both the company and its users to make sweeping predictions about their "magic" and about their "revolutionary" impact on the world. That's particularly true for education. On stage today in Cupertino, Apple's new CEO Tim Cook told the audience that iPads are "showing up everywhere" and that in schools they are "changing the way teachers teach and kids learn, and many educators agree with us." He added that there is an iPad deployment program in every state.


But as ZDNet's Christopher Dawson recently noted, "the jury's still out" on the success of these deployments. Despite the move towards a more paper-free classroom and despite all the new apps and e-books available, it's hard to know if the adoption of the Apple devices -- the tablets as well as iPod Touches -- is necessarily changing things. Without adjusting classroom instruction to take full advantage of a one-to-one classroom, many of these schools are just doing the "same old thing" but using more expensive tools to do so. And the operative word here may be "expensive" too.

The idea of a one-to-one classroom does mean that students have their own computing devices, ones they carry with them at all times, at school and at home. That helps support mobile learning opportunities, as students have access to the Internet, to their digital textbooks, to their assignments and so on, no matter where they are. The desirability for Apple devices seems to have pushed forward the one-to-one "buzz" at a level that laptops and netbooks, the devices typically associated with one-to-one, never has.

But Apple's mobile devices are at their core consumer products. It's important to remember that its mobile operating system is thoroughly integrated with its App Store, which raises questions about the control of content there. (There is, obviously, still access to the Web on these devices, giving users and developers some opportunity to skirt iTunes.) Despite the rush to adopt Apple devices, it's still not easy to sync them simultaneously to one administrative account, nor is it possible to blend a school's iTunes account with a student's school account with her or his personal account. That may be a great stumbling block for the promise of having a truly personalized computing device with all its associated software and applications.

The promise of a personalized device was the "big reveal" at the end of today's Apple event, when the company unveiled its plans to integrate the Siri personal assistant technology into its iPhones. Siri allows users to now control many aspects of their iPhones with their voices, including asking research questions (among its resources are Wikipedia and WolframAlpha) and listening to, dictating and transcribing messages.

Of course, personalization in education (and education technology) means a lot more than just having a device that recognizes your voice. It could mean a technology that knows what you "like" (arguably, of course, that's Facebook). It could mean one that knows your academic strengths and weaknesses -- what you could or should be studying. It could mean recommending courses, books, and apps. I'm not sure that the artificial intelligence that underlies the new iPhone personal assistant is a first step towards any of this (not to mention if it's something that's possible or something we'd want), but considering the continued love of Apple products by teachers and students, I'm curious to see how the next generation of Apple devices will impact education.