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 (http://www.le.ac.uk/spider) 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

European Apple Leadership Summit – Part 2

This is the conclusion of my report on the European Apple Leadership Summit, which took place 11 January at the Mayfair Hotel in London. Three impressive case studies were highlighted:

University of Plymouth teaches iOS programming
It all started couple of years ago in Computer Science lecturer Nick Outram’s programming class. A student announced that his project was going to be to make an Apple App Store app, with the stated objective to make money on the sales. Nick didn’t know what to expect, but within a week or so, the student had created the app. Apple rejected it at first, but after some fixes, the student app passed. Not only so, but by the end of the term the student had earned £2k. Suddenly, people wanted to make apps. Nick started up a CPD class for students, charging a modest amount. In addition, the university began to offer 3-day app workshops to external developers.

University of Leeds Medical School loans iPhones to students
Gareth Frith of the Leeds Medical School reported that when the medical school CETL wanted to innovate, they decided to loan pay-as-you-go iPhones to students. Preloaded with the most important learning materials: the Oxford Handbook and the BNF prescription manual, students used their iPhones for information access anywhere, even in clinical training. The medical school plans to continue and expand the programme.

IMD Business School in Switzerland launches paperless courses with the iPad
Iain Cooke of IMD reported the executive business school was looking for a way to reduce the hassle and cost of printing 1000 sheets of paper per student per week,which was the norm. Their solution: paperless courses were launched with course materials and apps supplied on loaned iPads. Iain reported a savings of 10 Swiss Francs per student per day, and the programme paid for itself in 6 months just on the cost savings of printing alone.

I won’t go into detail about the app-making workshop I attended, except to say that I made a simple RSS -feeding app with the Apple SDK in about 15 minutes. But there are so many things which must be in place before one can quickly make those apps, that I can’t say it is a simple matter.

In sum, Apple made a pretty good claim to a history of technological innovation for education. Judging from the comments of other attendees, I was not alone in that positive opinion.

And it is only right to say, “Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Steve Jobs.”

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

Is the Pad a Fad?

The only Apple device I own and use (reluctantly) is a very old iPod. When my mobile phone contract expired last month, I spent a whole weekend researching alternatives to the ubiquitous to the iPhone, so popular in Beyond Distance. My post today, therefore, is not meant to add another voice to the chorus of adoration for Steve Jobs’ toys. Rather, it is about the technological promise for learning which his latest device, the oh-so-discussed iPad brought. The Economist dubbed it the Tablet of Hope, Twitter is teeming with jokes about its name. In the midst of it all I came across two accounts which felt like glimpses into a fortune teller’s crystal ball – the future….:

 

Here they are, two generations firmly outside the scope of formal learning, discovering new information, using it in novel ways, creating and communicating, in one word – learning. And learning intuitively, seamlessly and enthusiastically. Now when the learning technology for learning technophobes seems to have arrived, we need to create and adapt pedagogical frameworks which will make its use meaningful and efficient. As to what exactly the windows for learning opened up by the iPad might be, my guess is to do with tactile learning. After the revival of voice, brought in by podcasting, learning by touch may be another of the very primal and early ways in which human beings learn to be rediscovered as a learning technology. Tactile learning will be more object oriented, with smaller elements, with a closer blend of content and collaboration and increased use of video stories and images. The two and a half year-old and the ninety-nine year-old from the videos above are happy enough to learn using a tablet. When enough research evidence accumulates, perhaps academics will be happy to teach using a tablet. Only the future will tell…

Sandra Romenska, 04 May 2010

Mice and Creativity

Given it’s April 1st, I woke up this morning with the powerful urge to post a BDRA version of Orson Welles’ radio show of 1938:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0617_050617_warworlds.html

Now, after having played a few pranks to relatives, friends and colleagues, the practical joke impulse has been subdued somewhat. Still, it is Fool’s Day and one needs a lot of inspiration and creativity to come up with amusing (for one) and believable (for one’s victim) pranks, I decided that my post will be about bright ideas, creativity and insight.

I read yesterday the story of the invention and evolution of the computer mouse. It all started in the 1970s with the Xerox PARC mouse that cost 400$ to which an extra 300$ needed to be added for the interface connecting the mouse to the computer. A picture can say more than a thousand words, so just take a look at the image below and you will see why people were eager to improve the technology.

 (http://www.techdigest.tv/2008/12/galleries/top_10_tuesday_6.php?pic=1#galtitle)

 Then, Steve Jobs from Apple contracted two young designers to come up with something 90% cheaper (he wanted the manufacturing costs to be no more than 25-30$), sturdier and more functional. This is where the story becomes fascinating. The two designers – Dean Hovey and David Kelley, found inspiration for the prototype of the mice we use today from the design of roll-on deodorants. In Hovey’s words:

“The first place I went was to Walgreens, and I bought all the roll-on deodorants I could find on the shelves. They had these plastic balls in them that roll around. Then I went over to the housewares area and bought some butter dishes and plastic things that were about the size I might need to prototype something. Over the weekend I hacked together a simple spatial prototype of what this thing might be, with Teflon and a ball. The first mouse had a Ban Roll-On ball.”

http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/2002/3/2002_3_48.shtml

 I have been reading lots and lots of scenarios about the future lately. When discussing change in the future and where it may come from, very often the authors of these scenarios seem to believe that the more extraordinary, “unthinkable” and unusual the sources of change and its consequences are, the more authentic and believable and “expert” their scenarios will be. And yet, to me, the story of the invention of the mouse shows how often ground-breaking change happens when little, unnoticeable, everyday things are arranged by people or by chance into novel combinations, or used for innovative purposes.

Happy Fool’s Day!

Sandra Romenska, BDRA

 the20first20mouse1

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