It’s certainly been a very interesting week in consumer technology, thanks to Apple’s latest announcements at WWDC. As always, Apple has come up trumps in generating typically insane levels of marketing hype, and as always, the technorati are keen to explore the affordances of the technologies within the consumer tech sphere.
As an educator, I’m beginning to get quite cynical about what at the best of times seems to be a tenuous relationship between consumer tech and education. I think this kind of cynicism has its place when we consider the disparity between the profit-driven motives of large corporations and the learning outcomes-driven motives of good educators around the world.
Having implemented Google Apps for Education quite successfully in my school (at zero cost), I’m nonetheless keenly interested in some of the emerging cloud pedagogies now possible when we move away from device-centric computing and into the realm of real-time collaboration. It was in this light that I looked quite closely at some of the features of Apple’s new iCloud service. On the face of it, a few things come to mind:
1. iCloud is heavily monetized and incentivized – and has to be. On the back of failed MobileMe, Apple now appears to be realizing that when it comes to the cloud, free is the new black. I think it will be interesting to see just how far and how long Apple’s version of free will go. For one thing, I’ll be interested to see what Apple offers some of its so-called distinguished Apple Schools of Excellence. For another, I’ll be keen to know how far the free cloud goes when it comes to non-Apple devices in non-Apple proprietary contexts – like the developing world, or within open source communities that promote technology access for cash-strapped long tail markets.
2. Apple’s new cloud service is very much a part of the Apple eco-system that promotes the feel-good cult of Mac. As such, the profit-based agendas behind the service are all about selling units – iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks – and encouraging the user as much as possible to stay within the eco-system, even if the service itself never makes money. Educators need to be especially skeptical of locked-in experiences that rely on specific devices.
3. There’s a strategic approach behind the adoption of this technology geared towards the eco-system, with small perks built in at every stage. The announcement of Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5 along with iCloud more than suggests that the consumer is buying into the whole experience as a way of future-proofing, rather than selecting services and devices to meet existing needs. In many education contexts, existing needs far outweigh the hypothetical need for future-proofing.
4. Apple’s model of “the cloud as the hub” is in some respects a brave new world phenomenon and one that will take time for many consumers to absorb. In other respects, though, it’s been criticized as hardly new and much more a case of “iSync” – where data is merely pushed across devices using the Internet as a conduit- than than a genuine iCloud, where both storage and functionality live on the internet itself, making high-level processing and real-time collaboration possible for those with older devices, mobile devices and so on.
In saying all of these things, what bugs me the most is that education seems to come a distant second – and as much as I am a strong exponent of the cloud in education, I’m far from impressed by Apple’s latest announcements.
So the weather forecast?
– Competition has got to be good and the price of free is a keen driver to competition;
– Consumer tech will always be followed by tech in corporate spaces and then eventually education. It’s up to us to begin to explore the affordances and limitations of technologies – and then be the drivers of change.
– Openness is still important (in fact, never more so) and one needs to question the extent to which Apple’s business model – predicated on proprietary software running on proprietary hardware – will support openness.