Why did Education Stagnate with the Advent of the Digital Age?

The hierarchy imposed by education is merely a game of smoke and mirrors, with no true value lying beneath. It’s time to revive the legacy of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs: what did he want for education?

I recently read the biography ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, and I was struck by the similarity between myself, as an educational innovator, and the creative and multi-faceted disruptor that was Apple’s Steve. Maybe he wasn’t such a great guy to work with, or your typical family man. But, before he passed away in 2011, he had a discussion with Bill Gates, his longtime rival and firm friend, about the integration of technology in education.

You might say that we’ve moved towards that future somewhat. Schools with more funding are able to offer students iPads, educational software and other equipment that will enable them to flesh out their experience to a standard higher than what the national curriculum has to offer. However, this isn’t the case in schools across London and the UK, and therefore we are presented with a difficult problem: the hierarchy of access to technology. Say what you will about the tech leaders and tech monopolies of our time; they achieved what they wanted, whether it fits into your definition of data protection or not. They wanted humanity to advance, and it has done; for the majority of us. The minority continues to be neglected.

Most of the population under sixty, shall we say, and from varying financial backgrounds will have access to an iPhone, an Android, a tablet or a laptop/desktop computer. We can all search an unknown term, find a better job, or begin a new course at the drop of a hat; all thanks to our digital devices. I’m perfectly happy to give Google my data in exchange for being able to use Google Maps for free. But of course, there are those children and young people who grew up in impoverished families, those adults who have become bankrupt or homeless due to changing circumstances in their lives, and those elderly people with no access to the technology that could help them immeasurably, whether due to financial deficiency or simply due to lack of awareness.

Back in 2011 Gates and Jobs agreed that computers had made ‘surprisingly little impact’ on schools — far less than on other realms of society such as media, medicine and law. Gates recommended that for this to change, computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalised lessons and providing motivational feedback.

And this did occur. However, has it really changed anything for education?

Since 2011, we have been graced with a slew of apps that enable us to learn fast, cheaply and on the go (and nope, I’m not sponsored by Skillshare). Udemy, Coursera, Skillshare and edX all have their resources online in clear, accessible format. You can even study for an MBA, if you don’t mind about not actually receiving the qualification in full and just want access to the content. App SmartUp.io is another platform for peer-to-peer knowledge creation, sharing and exchange, developed by an estimable team of founders and investors who are behind Founders Forum, Spotify, Siri, lastminute.com and others.

Steve Jobs was initially reluctant to allow Android users to benefit from Apple’s innovations, and his persistent refusal to license Apple’s software, as Microsoft was so comparatively eager to do, is another example of how in the race to ensure products remain premium and high quality, the wishes of the more averagely earning consumer are pushed aside.

The public education system in the UK has made an industry out of a body that produces little revenue or innovation within the compulsory schooling system. Exam season, results days, graduate recruitment, internship programmes, ‘work experience’ ... the terms we recognise, have used for many years are that are constantly churned out by the media. But is all the clamour merely a cover for the archaic systems within our provision for education, that continue to have so much power over generations of young people?

With the introduction of coding as a mandatory aspect of the curriculum for children in primary school, on the outside it may seem like a lot of progress is being made. However, the innovation and technological advancement of education needs to be accelerated. The word ‘education’ needs to be rebranded. The term ‘EdTech’ is a buzzword that’s arriving rather late to the party. To other young and older adults who are interested in technology’s effect on every area in society — even the most traditionally ‘mundane’ but integral areas — there is a certain hesitancy to discuss education. Sometimes, people don’t knowingly want to cause disruption to industries that are so secure and established as part of our society. And as a society, we’re struggling to face up to the reality that innovating education is extremely important to our future progression and to solve social problems, such as the lack of standardised and ensured access to technology throughout compulsory education.

To preface this, I can only speak from my own experience at primary and secondary school in the UK. I am currently 21 years old, and my time in compulsory schooling was the most regressive educational experience of my life. For the record, I received two A*s and an A at A level. But did I ever, for one moment, think that this placed me ‘above’ any of my peers — that I was fully prepared for a glittering future, able to access the most premium jobs and universities on the strength of my A level grades?

No, I did not. Because I was lucky enough to learn at 19 that skills are the most important thing. Hard skills, such as the ability to build a web app in Python while also being able to write copy, and soft skills, such as the ability to manage relationships and build a profitable network for a business. These are the real skills of success in business and in life. I knew that the traditional education system that I was subjected to had failed to provide me with those skills.

There are excellent startups and initiatives out there such as Fire Tech Camp, Code First: Girls, Rails Girls, Founders of the Future, and more that are doing wonders to help bridge the gap between innovation and education. We have to consider, however, that this could produce an epidemic similar to the ‘Apple effect’ — the product, though meant to empower millions, only serves those who were already likely to gain access to it. Apple’s products work best when they are used in cohesion with Apple specific software and products. Speaking as someone with an Android phone, who is typing this on a Macbook Air (that I attempted to remove iTunes from), and who enjoys using a Chromebook, I want all those with similarly mismatched tastes and backgrounds to benefit from a dramatically improved education system that integrates technology the way Apple has integrated its software so deeply into every product, and into the culture of the Western world.

I don’t know if Steve Jobs would have wanted to burn the standard classroom structure, as I imply in the cover image to this article. However, I won’t ever stop wondering where he’d be pushing us to take education if he was alive today.

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to support the work I am doing in educating young people on innovative developments in tech, please follow @edifyldn on Instagram and @EdifyLDN on Twitter.

Software engineering apprentice. EdTech, FinTech, politics, innovation. Founder of EDIFY @edifyldn