Steve Jobs: Star of Informal Learning

The sad news today of the passing of Steve Jobs brings a deserved flurry of tributes and perspectives on his work. This morning, close to one-fifth of all Twitter comments had to do with Steve Jobs. American president Obama described Jobs as being “among the greatest of American innovators.” Besides the immense consumer appeal of the  iPad, iPod, and iPhone, there is the multi-faceted impact of Mac computers, and Jobs’ reinvention of film animation at Pixar. I would like to relate a personal story of how Jobs’ innovation both affected an industry and reveals the power of informal learning.

Steve Jobs in an early Stanford computer lab of Macs. Courtesy of The Seb on Flickr

When I studied computer programming in the 1980s, I worked on an IBM 360/370 with terminals. After graduation, I took a job with a printing company in Chicago and tried my hand at typesetting. My father was a printer; he used to set type the ancient way, with little pieces of metal held together in a mold. At my company, we used a new-fangled method called phototypesetting, a combination of computer tech and photography. I typed commands (which were strangely similar to html) at a terminal, pressed a few buttons, and out came the imprinted photographic paper dripping with fixing fluid, ready to be hung up to dry.

My husband was also from a family of printers. Once on a visit to their company, my mother-in-law showed me this little computer called a Macintosh. She demonstrated how she could set type in a wysiwyg environment, using both a keyboard and a mouse (which I could not get my head around). When I saw how simply I could select fonts and sizes and see the piece laid out on the screen, I had a feeling that everything was about to change. Indeed, the desktop publishing revolution was right around the corner, and everything did change.

The Mac was the first computer to pay any attention to typefaces. If you watch Jobs unveil the Mac in 1984 (worth a watch for many reasons), you can see how important he felt it was to get typefaces right. Jobs learned about typefaces in a college calligraphy class, which he attended after he dropped out of college. Without a degree yet with academic instinct, Jobs applied what he learnt and made it integral to the Macintosh. He famously insisted on quality design and beauty at every hidden level of all of Apple’s innovations.

First Macintosh showing off typefaces - from the demo video on YouTube

My current SCORE project about iTunes U as a channel of free learning resources ( has let me appreciate this public platform given to universities and educational institutions. It’s not all philanthropy; of course iTunes U shows off how nice multimedia looks on the various i-gadgets. And yet, my research into how iTunes U materials are used by ordinary folks has revealed their importance as informal learning resources. It’s almost as if Steve Jobs brought his academic experience full-circle, allowing lots of people to ‘audit classes’ even if they are dropouts or never accessed higher education.

Thanks, Steve, for a lifetime of innovation and inspiration.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

Please can we stop e-learning…

I tried a little experiment as I walked back from the Beyond Distance Research Alliance to the Department of Engineering the other day.  You could try it for yourself.

Walk around the university campus – or shopping centre – or another public place and count the number of people using mobile devices. Estimate the proportion of people using mobile devices – iPods, phones, whatever. Of the 48 people I counted, 20 were using mobile devices (most of them phones) – so about 40%.

Now try the same experiment at home. My wife, my son and I were sitting down supposedly watching television last night.  However, my wife was playing scrabble on her iPod with my son on his iPhone (in between both text messaging.)  I was emailing and generally browsing on my laptop.  So that’s more than 100%. And of course we were interacting in the real world too (if you count Eastenders as the real world …)

Slightly changing the subject – I’ve just acquired an iPhone – having had more conventional PDAs for as long as I can remember – certainly 20 years.  Of course it’s not a phone really.  Indeed, I’m not really sure how to make phone calls on it but I’m sure it’s quite easy if ever the need arises.  I use it for emails, social networking, running apps to tell me the tides in Teddington, entertaining my granddaughter …

I “attended” the Follow the Sun conference just before Easter.  I say “attended” as I was attending another conference in Canterbury at the time.  But I joined in and found myself talking to my laptop in a crowded junior common room – utilising the free WiFi there.  Ten years ago, people would have stopped and stared.  I don’t think anyone batted an eye lid – there’s nothing more usual than talking to your computer.

So can we really talk about the “virtual worlds” – about “online learning” – as if they’re something different to reality?  This is the world in which we live.  One which is densely interconnected. One in which the physical world that you observe is just one of several windows on the real world that you interact with.

So I hope we can stop talking about e-learning soon.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking about it – and I like writing about it and being a part of BDRA.  But I hope that we’ll just take it for granted that this is normal – why would we want to teach and learn in any other way?

Professor John Fothergill

Head of Engineering, University of Leicester

An iPod moment for e-readers?

While BDRA’s DUCKLING project investigates the viability of using e-readers / e-book readers for advanced delivery and enhanced presentation of curricula for remote learners, yesterday unveiled the Kindle DX version of its e-reader.

The DX is suggested as being just the thing for reading a range of media-like textbooks, newspapers, magazines and documents, as well as ‘a step in the direction of a paperless society’.

Primarily aimed at students, and heralded as a potential saviour by some voices in the newspaper industry, the device is 250% bigger than Amazon’s current offering of the Kindle 2.

The focus on the student demographic is an initial, encouraging sign for teams like ours which are engaged in exploring the effectiveness of e-readers for the delivery of learning content. Research, it seems, can walk in step with industry even in such a fluid technological age.

The Kindle DX, which goes on sale in the US this summer for $489 (£325), has a bigger, 9.7-inch screen (compared to the Kindle 2’s 6-inch screen) that displays larger pages, in better detail, from academic textbooks and newsprint titles.

‘You never have to pan, you never have to zoom, you never have to scroll. You just read,’ Amazon’s Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said at the New York launch. The DX can hold up to 3,500 books and currently claims access to 275,000 titles.

The device has a built-in PDF document reader and the company announced deals with three leading textbook publishers – Pearson, Wiley and Cengage – to put their content on the DX.

This, it is claimed, will give DX-users access to about 60% of higher education textbooks, an industry worth around $8 billion annually. For students, Bezos suggested, having access to hundreds of these titles in one device could be a ‘life-changing experience’.

The experience comes at high price and £325 or more would seriously dent the purchasing power of the average UK student in Higher Education. Never mind top-up fees, crushing student debts, shrinking employment prospects and the prevailing credit crunch, just the thought of stumping up £325 presents a steep price barrier.

What could a user get for the £325 then? Though vastly superior to reading off a computer monitor or mobile phone screen, the DX and their ilk are products of electronic-ink technology that creates clear, easy to read text even in bright sunlight.

However much excitement the launch of the DX generates in the ailing newsprint industry, there remain severe shortcomings, not least that content on the DX displays only in black and white and that it does not do video. So limited multimedia capability, then?

At the DX’s launch, Amazon also announced arrangements with three US news media giants – The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe – to put their editorial content on the device.

It is, however, not yet clear whether downloading a daily newspaper to an e-reader, rather than buying it in print, will be the panacea for the newspaper industry, already struggling with the cost of distributing paper products as well as facing plummeting circulation and advertising revenues in the face of online competition.

Why would someone, for instance, spend the equivalent of a year’s worth of newspapers on acquiring the DX when the same newspapers could be accessed on a smart-phone off the internet? Admittedly, the print would be smaller, but the reader is likely to get much more functionality out of a smart-phone.

Despite the high-profile launch, Amazon appears to be no closer to releasing the device in the UK. Amazon are locked in negotiations with mobile phone networks around Europe to try to agree a deal that would allow the Kindle’s Whispernet feature – which allows the device to update automatically using mobile phone technology – to work across Europe. Thus connectivity is a chimera, too!

Whether the DX storms the market or not, accompanying volumes (in print editions only!) that promise fuller use of the gadget, like The Complete User’s Guide to the Amazing Amazon Kindle and Kindle Formatting: The Complete Guide to Formatting Books for the Amazon Kindle are already available… on!

Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2007, Alan Rusbridger (Editor, The Guardian) had predicted that ‘For the newspaper, there will be an iPod moment where someone creates a device that is so brilliant at reading text, that the newspaper becomes irrelevant’.

The DX might promise a small step in that direction, but as long as price, multimedia capability and connectivity remain barriers, all of which the iPod ‘family’ of gadgets effortlessly surmounted, Rusbridger’s seminal ‘iPod moment’ for e-readers appears some distance away.

Jai Mukherjee. 8 May 2009

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