Does the Success of the iPad Hold Lessons for Higher Ed?

It’s been five years since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad.  As tech writer Tim Lee notes in his article about the anniversary, he and other reviewers at the time mostly scoffed at the new device.  They criticized it for having glaring omissions (no keyboard, mouse, or standard external ports), for its inadequate software, and for using a closed platform.  How could a company that prided itself on forward-thinking innovation create such a limited, simplistic product?

Consumers shrugged at the negative reviews and went on to buy about a quarter billion iPads to date.

Reflecting on the chasm between the negative reviews and the positive sales, Lee concludes, “The iPad wasn’t designed for people like me who spend all day in front of a computer.  It was designed for more casual users who value simplicity and convenience over power-user features.  And there are a lot more of them than there are people like me.”

This gulf was apparent even back in 2010 when the iPad was introduced.  Then, NY Times tech reporter David Pogue wrote, “The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people.”  The chasm was so great, that he wrote two separate reviews of the iPad, one for each audience.  (By the way, the iPad was criticized at the time of its release—rightly so in my opinion—for being primarily a consumption device that was inappropriate for higher ed.)

All of this should sound familiar to anyone working around educational technology.  The LMS, course platforms from commercial publishers, and other educational tech ventures periodically receive a sound thrashing from critics (often with good cause).  And yet such platforms keep chugging on year after year, with a majority of faculty saying the LMS is critical to their teaching.

For ed-tech power users, innovators, and early adopters, these platforms are known for their plain vanilla features and significant limitations.  While there may not be much love lost on such platforms, for regular faculty there is the comfort of familiarity and relative ease of use…at least for the basic features.

So the LMS and other commercial platforms are the iPads of higher ed—at least in the sense that they are often disliked by power users but relied upon by many faculty.  And the reasons for this gulf in higher ed are likely similar to those related to the iPad.  Faculty have basic course-related needs that can be met—if uninspiringly—by existing technology and spending time figuring out how to use new, often open, technology is not high on their list of priorities.  In contrast, learning such things is the bread-and-butter of instructional technologists, educational specialists, and other ed-tech-related folks.  Their careers depend on staying abreast of these newer developments.

In addition, faculty have been burned before.  “Innovation,” “disruption,” and “revolutions” in the form of new software, tech devices, and pedagogical innovations litter the higher ed landscape.  No wonder they can be a skeptical bunch when it comes to educational change.

So what might we learn from the iPad experience as analogy?

  1. It’s rarely either/or. The iPad illustrates again that we need to move beyond a binary good/evil approach to these debates.  Apple has been widely touted for its high-performing power-user laptops and its innovative and clean designs (though not its labor practices).  At the same time, the company was able to recognize and serve another segment of the market that was interested in something much simpler and more limited.  I suspect Apple was able to apply what it had learned from its higher-end ventures to serving this market, and in the process it learned more about reaching out beyond its more tech-saavy core customers.  Similarly, those of us working in higher ed needn’t focus exclusively on innovators nor limit ourselves to servicing existing needs.  There’s likely useful synergy in being involved in both efforts simultaneously.
  2. Less can be more. The iPad didn’t do a lot of things.  But it did a few things well enough to meet the needs of a significant customer base.  I suspect that figuring out what was essential and what was expendable in developing such a product was a valuable exercise.
    I wonder if we in higher ed might not benefit from focusing more on essentials and learning to do them exceptionally well.  We do a very good job of accessing and presenting content online but we are still in the infancy of developing other very basic capabilities such as facilitating meaningful discussion and enabling feedback.  As far as I can tell, blogs/comments and social media platforms rarely host substantive student discussion (and that’s one of the key reasons faculty cite in why online learning is inferior to face-to-face classes).  What could be done here?  Might it be time to reincarnate the classic discussion forum as a more fluid, easy-to-use, easy-to-read (and assess), and visually engaging space?   Or is there some other approach to this challenge?   And what about re-thinking how faculty provide feedback and interact with students in the online environment?  Perhaps a Genius-like application for higher ed? And what else do faculty consider essential to teaching well?  And how might we use technology to meet these needs?

It’s a loose and imperfect analogy, of course, but on this anniversary it seems worth asking whether we might learn something from the iPad…even if we dislike it.

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