Apple’s Longtime Education VP Shares Frustrations With Slow Pace of Change

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Apple’s Longtime Education VP Shares Frustrations With Slow Pace of Change

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 31, 2018

Apple’s Longtime Education VP Shares Frustrations With Slow Pace of Change

People love to try guess what Apple is up to—that’s true for the company’s education strategy as well. But often there’s not much to go on beyond press releases and speculation.

So when Apple’s longtime vice-president of education, John Couch, published a book this year with his thoughts on the future of education and accounts of his work at Apple, it opened a rare window into the company’s views on education.

The book is called “Rewiring Education: How Technology Can Unlock Every Student's Potential.” It offers some anecdotes about how Steve Jobs thought about computers in education, including how he referred to computers as an “amplifier for intellect” the same way a bicycle amplifies the physical push of the rider. In the book, Couch writes that Jobs predicted this mental bicycle would “allow us to go beyond—to discover, create and innovate like never before.”

But the book is also full of Couch’s frustration at the slow pace of change in schools. He argues that the machines Apple builds are still not being used to their full potential in education.

For this week’s podcast, EdSurge connected with Couch to talk about some of those frustrations, his time at Apple, and where he sees the company going next in education.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: How much was education really a topic and a concern in the earliest days of Apple?

Couch: Huge, huge. Right from the beginning. Steve would say, "Education is in our DNA."

What really got Apple started in education was the adoption by the Minnesota Education Consortium to go with Apple II's. So we probably had more education software in the early, early days of the PC than anyone else.

But Steve had a special place in his heart particularly for elementary schools. In fact, in the book, Steve is quoted saying, "If I could put one computer in a school and one person would find that computer, it would change their life."

That's what led to the first big marketing program, ‘kids can't wait’ where [Jobs] went to Congress and talked to the House of Representative to get a bill passed for a tax advantage if a computer was donated to an elementary school, like what existed at the university level. It did not pass out of the committee, but California heard about it and they adopted the law, and Apple was able to give every school in California an Apple II. Steve's passion for education is really what got Apple started.

You left Apple for a while and then came back as the vice president of education. When you first took on that role leading education strategy at Apple, what was your vision, and how did you see education then?

Simon Sinek I think says it best: "Start with why." Why are we in education? What's our vision? To me it was very clear—it was about the student. It wasn't about the institution itself. And that we were following Steve's vision in terms of the genius marketing program. So, my vision was that every student was a unique genius. It's really up to us in education to help them find that gift.

The second part of it was that we knew that the technology was continuing to grow. And that we would be able to build a learning environment based on technology that would eventually be all digital, that would meet the needs of all students. That content would become free, and it would be available on the Internet. And that assessment should not be something where you take the kids out of a learning environment, throw them into a lab and test them separately. But assessment should be part of the learning environment, of the ecosystem, so that the teacher knows immediately after the Northwest Educational Assessment test that Johnny and Susie don't understand quadratic equations. And the system will dynamically send to those students, maybe it's an app on quadratic equations, where the kids may work one hour a week. At the end of the week, they produce something that shows their mastery of quadratic equations. And we've seen test scores go from 29 percent to 68 percent in one semester when you can deliver the student the exact learning environment that they need to overcome the gap in their knowledge base.

I donated the first Apple II's to a Catholic school in California. They had no idea what to do with them. This was 1978. So they cleaned out the janitorial closet. They put the two Apple II's in there and they told the kids, ‘This is available to you during free time. Before school, recess, lunch, after school.’ I watched kids learn to read in that lab. At the end of the year, when they surveyed the students about their favorite class, they voted the janitorial closet. The eighth grade decided that their gift to the school would be four or six Apple II’s. Now the school had a dilemma. They didn't fit in a janitorial closet. What are they going to do?

I tell you what they did. They hired somebody's mom who used to work at IBM and she taught a class the next year called “computers.” I saw the first exam, and it was the front page of the manual, with certain words left blank that the kids had to fill in. Nothing about creativity. Nothing about exploration. So I wrote a paper. It was called How the Apple was Lost on the Way to School. I said if we're not careful, our institutions will take Steve's vision of a mental bicycle and turn it into an exercise cycle—something that's boring and doesn't go anywhere.

I think there's still some truth [to that] today. We put computers in schools and we basically substitute. We say, "Well, we're going to do the same thing we always did before, but this time we're going to do it digitally." Rather than looking up the information in a book, we're going to look up the information on the internet. Yeah, it's a little bit better because it's in real time, but we haven't fundamentally changed the way the classroom works—the way we learn and the way we teach.

And that's what technology can do. Technology can reach each individual.

I noticed that in the book you criticize people who say we should just throw out our education system and replace it with some gadget or some totally new system. So what do you mean when you say you want to “rewire” education?

So if you look at the two spectrums, one is throw the whole education system out and start from scratch. The other one is patch it. We equated it to writing a software program. You write the first half of the program, and it has errors, so you patch it, patch it, patch it and you patch it. That hasn't worked.

Throwing the whole thing out is not the solution either.

We need to rewire it, and we need to rewire it in such a way that it's scalable, and that it's editable and that it's adjustable. So the process is what's important. Our [textbooks] are not about problem-solving. Our books are saying, ‘here's the answer, here's the formula for the quadratic equation. Apply it.’

We saw a big push by schools back in 2010 and 2011 to adopt iPads on a large scale. It feels like that’s faded out a little bit. Would you say the problem or challenge for some of those schools that have either backed away from huge iPad programs is that they didn’t change their teaching methods?

The majority of schools—I would say 80 to 90 percent of schools—have bought technology for the sake of buying technology. But they've never employed that technology. There's another [education model] that says there's a symbiotic relationship between the technology, the content and the pedagogy. And you need to change all three. Most schools have not changed all three.

I once told Steve Jobs, "You know Steve, if all the schools do is buy the iPad because it's cheaper—because they think they can replace the cost of the textbooks—but they don't change the fundamental way they teach, we will have failed." And I think there's a lot of iPads out there that are simply being used in a substitute manner. It's kind of like the [digital] whiteboard. Did the whiteboard really change education? No. A lot of schools bought white boards and they said, "Look at our technology. We're ahead of the game." No. You're just using technology as a substitute.

And because of that, technology's got a bad name.

That must be a really interesting and frustrating position to be in as someone at a company like Apple, to feel like your product is not being used effectively but not being able to change that. Are there things you tried over the years to encourage the cultural change you’re talking about?

The key to any change is really leadership. And I think probably the most frustrating thing to me is how quickly school leadership changes. The headmaster or the superintendent stays two to three years and then moves someplace else. So there's never time for change. I've seen incredible change, incredible, incredible change that is undone as soon as that headmaster leaves, or that superintendent leaves. It's incredible.

In fact, the best example right now is probably Essa Academy in the UK. It was the poorest performing school in the UK. Abdul [Chohan] turned the whole thing around with technology—so much that the government built them a brand new school. Now, the new headmaster has come in and said, "There will be no more technology in our school." Just like that. So it's undone. That's the frustrating thing.

You are just now retiring from your role at Apple. But, I’m curious about where you see Apple’s strategy going next. These days we’re seeing a big push by Microsoft and Google in education, but I don't hear as much from Apple as we once did. How do you see Apple's strategy at the moment and what do you think of these threats from a variety of companies trying to be in this space, too?

I think Steve's original vision for education still holds true. Tim Cook is hugely supportive of education. In fact, you saw the big event in Chicago recently, [revealing] increased investment in education.

Some of the things that Apple is trying to do take time from a tactical implementation standpoint. I've told people for the last three or four years, I'm not working to sell boxes. I have 16 grandkids. I'm trying to change education so that they reach their full potential—so that they're intrinsically motivated, that they're excited about not only school, but learning the rest of their lives.

So I'm going to dedicate the rest of my life to focusing on the student… The reason I wrote the book was to start a conversation. In fact, we don't talk about technology until Chapter 13. And the last chapter is Gandhi's quote, "Be the change."

You just mentioned that Apple is doing things in its education strategy that will take time. Is there one example or could you give us of what that might be or what you mean by that?

Well, I think there are parts. There's the iTunesU portion which allows you to distribute curriculum all over the world. There's a new application called Classroom, which allows a teacher to monitor the classroom. There's iBooks.

If I were still calling the shots today, it would be about, “How do I take those individual functionalities and [put] them all together in a dynamic learning environment that's well integrated.” It's sort of the holy grail.

People use the word personalized learning, but it's kind of a misnomer because real learning takes place not as an individual person, but in a collaborative environment where there's intrinsically-motivated challenges.


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