Playing with Gravity

Silicon Valley is trying to answer the question, "How can we use technology to help us learn?" Of course, this isn't a new question, it's been with us for at least two thousand years. Yet, with groundbreaking advances in hardware and software, we're reaching a new and previously unexplored point of both mobility and scalability. 

Now, more than ever, we're able to highly customize the user experience, specifically tailoring benchmarks as well as progress reports. With positive feedback systems, we can basically offer a personalized education based on the individual needs of the student. Needless to say, it's a really exciting time to be a part of the growing conversation, happening at the intersection of education and technology. Yet, it's also important to remember that education isn't just about technology. It's also about people.

You might be surprised by the following quote: "I used to think, when I was in my twenties, that technology was the solution to most of the world's problems. Unfortunately," says Steve Jobs, "it ain't so". Why? Well, because, as Steve Jobs explains, it takes people. Individuals have a unique ability to help guide and inspire other people. When people invest in other people, not only are they investing in themselves, they're also working to help make things just a little bit better for everyone else.

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In a wonderfully candid interview, conducted in 1995, Jobs was asked, "Some people say that...technology may be a way to bypass, 'the problems of education'. Are you optimistic about that?" Steve Jobs responded, rather enthusiastically. "I absolutely don't believe that. And as you pointed out, I've probably helped to put more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world...and I'm absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing."

What is the most important thing? Well, for Steve Jobs, to be sure, it was another person. As he goes on to explain, "Another person that incites your curiosity, that guides your curiosity, that feeds your curiosity, and machines cannot do that in the same way as people can." People have a special way of sharing their warmth and encouraging us to take things at least one step further. They also know when to hold us back until we're ready.

There are a number of criticisms against why technology shouldn't be employed as a mainstay of education. One could say, in no small measure, that Steve Jobs was very attuned to the general mischaracterizations and promises of education understood as either transference or absorption. Which is to say, Steve Jobs was wary of the idea that knowledge is something that can be downloaded as opposed to experienced, and that education can be acquired through absorption as opposed to active engagement. 

This reductive model of learning, perceived as passive, receptive and unengaged, has implications both for thinking through systems of education and for technological advances in the ways in which we learn. For Steve Jobs, education is, on the contrary, active, involved and engaging. More than anything though, education is about experimentation and discovery. It's about making mistakes and finding the courage that is needed to overcome them. Imagine, for instance, if we were all just a little better at identifying our own mistakes, instead of so adept at pointing out the fault lines of others.

Here's an interesting thought experiment: How do you develop a system that can accommodate user error and not dismiss or discourage the mishap, but guide and support the activity involved? How can you create positive feedback with a device that mimics the generosity as much as the inflexibility of an individual supporting your endeavors.

For Jobs, education is exploration, not reception. This is precisely what Steve Jobs has in mind when he states, "And, so, especially with computers the way they are now (1995). Computers are very reactive, but they are not proactive. They are not agents, if you will. They are very reactive. What children need is something much more proactive, and they need a guide. They don't need an assistant." The main criticism of the technologization of education, then, is primarily concerned with users conceived of as passive receptacles of information. 

In the same interview, Steve Jobs states: "The elements of discovery are around you. You don't need a computer to know..I mean, here..(Steve Jobs picks up and objects and let's it fall to the ground)…Why does that fall? You know why? Nobody knows why. Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately, but no one knows why. I don't need a computer to get a kid interested in that. To spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand it, and coming up with reasons why. You do need a person."

Needless to say, this interview was conducted before the launch of the tablets, and, arguably, before the birth of new types of systematized, personalized "online education". Still, in anticipatory mode, Steve Jobs is highly aware of any perceived criticisms of computer-focused educational experience. As Steve Jobs said, there are lessons to be learned from gravity that a computer cannot teach. "I feel very strongly about this. And I wish it was as simple as giving every kid a computer, but it won't work." 

As we all know, we are completely surrounded by technology. It's everywhere we look. We experience it at the grocery stores, and encounter it when we watch a movie or drive the car. Technology has become inescapable. It has helped to shape, inform and continues to work to advance our lives. Of course, there are as many advantages as their are disadvantages to technological incorporation, lessons that we're slowly coming to terms with.

Shifting gears, only just so, we'll leave you with a final perspective from Steve Jobs: "I'm a very big believer in equal opportunity, as opposed to equal outcome. Equal opportunity to me, more than anything, means a great education." Don't forget to play with gravity. And a great education, to be certain, involves people. It also involves learning how to play with gravity.

Originally published on Medium