Education and the iPad’s Architecture of Control

Like most of Jonathan Ive’s work, the  iPad is beautiful. Like most of Apple’s work, it also makes me uneasy. I was planning to write about this feeling of unease, so imagine my delight when I discovered that Timothy B. Lee and others have already done the work for me. In “Why Geeks Hate the iPad,” “Tinkerer’s Sunset,” and “Nothing Creative,” we’re treated to a thorough overview of what’s sacrificed when Apple compels you to trade flexibility and freedom for a shiny new platform. I believe you can apply this same analysis to the iPhone, the iTouch, and everything else in the Apple’s consumer electronics stable.

Put another way, the iPad and its siblings are not personal computing platforms. They’re Apple computing platforms. The hardware itself is sealed, discouraging anyone from seeing how it works or improving on it. The platform software is largely proprietary. The vaunted App Store, which brought to the computing public the same ease of installation and application management that open source users have been enjoying for years, is rigidly controlled to advance Apple’s interests. Just ask Google.

Now, this doesn’t make Apple evil. They’re obviously entitled to produce as many beautiful, locked-up devices as they like. It’s important, though, to understand just what you’re trading for Apple’s warm, comfortable architecture of control.

In this context, “Apple’s iPad Could Do For Governments More than the One-Laptop-Per-Child,” from Andrea DiMaio over at Gartner, makes a strange argument. I’ll forgive DiMaio’s enthusiasm for the iPad — it’s very pretty, indeed — but his suggestion that the iPad is superior to the One Laptop Per Child project for education betrays a pretty serious misunderstanding of the OLPC project. His argument is, in short: “it’s cheap and easy enough to use that governments could use it to overcome the digital divide in education.”

OLPC was conceived to provide students a creative platform, not just a cheap laptop. It is one thing to provide students a cheap copy of Microsoft Office and a $100 laptop. Anyone with enough money could do that. OLPC is exciting because the principle of hacking and sharing is built into the system. The laptop itself was built on open source software, ensuring that collaboration and innovation could extend to its deepest guts. The innovative mesh networking eliminated the need for a central network infrastructure — students are automatically connected to each other, and if one student has a connection to the Internet, they all have it. Connections are ad hoc, sharing is done by default, and the applications provided by the OLPC were built around creative work. Commercial viability notwithstanding, I think it’s an impressive pedagogical experiment. You can see the fruits of this experiment in Brazil:

Imagine, for a moment, the iPad as a platform for education. How can children collaborate on such a platform? How can they, like Mr. Lee, mess with the insides? How can students build their own applications? Students may do none of these things without Apple’s permission. That’s alarming.

Also alarming is how susceptible a closed platform like the iPad could be to exploitation by service and content providers. A closed platform makes it very simple to enforce rigid controls on what kind of content is made available to students. Just think of the AT&T strangehold on iPhone service, and scale that up to textbooks in an entire school district. This monopolistic control is annoying for well-funded, sophisticated consumers of technology. It is disastrous for the poor, and catastrophic for the developing world. Delivering 100 free iPads to a village in West Africa or a struggling school district in Mississippi isn’t charity, it’s a set of handcuffs.

So when Mr. DiMaio suggests that the iPad is superior to the OLPC for education, I have to wonder: what does he expect from a one-to-one laptop program? Is the goal to put a piece of networked hardware in the hands of students, at any cost to  freedom of the school or student, or should we instead provide tools that encourage students to learn from each other, share their success, and help create an environment where they can solve their own problems? I believe education is about creativity, ingenuity, and sharing  — all of which are more powerful than a portable web browser, no matter how pretty it is.

[Update: comments migrated to opensource.com, so go there if you’d like to discuss this. Also, I just found a French translation, which is pretty great example of what’s possible when you publish under a Creative Commons license.

3 responses

  1. I broadly agree with both you and Tim. Copying BASIC code out of games magazines on my Commodore 64 was definitely a formative experience. From a certain perspective, complaints about lack of hackability sounds a lot like the complaints older car guys make about computerized transmissions (Is that a thing? I know nothing about cars) and such depriving our generation of the joys of tinkering. But tinkering is a niche hobby. If computerized transmissions make for a better consumer product, the gain to consumers probably more than offsets the gain to tinkerers. But tinkering with cars and computers isn’t the same. Consumers can benefit from software tinkerers in ways they can’t benefit from car tinkerers. And Tim makes a persuasive case that there are real benefits to sharing a platform with tinkerers. But I think the obvious big question is whether, at any given point in time, the open-to-tinkering device is as good as the closed device in the respects most consumers care about. And I think one has to conclude that Apple has been trashing the field in delivering a powerful combination of functionality and phenomenal design (which is both intrinsically desirable and the basis for successful consumer status-signaling). I think one problem is that the tinkerer community is predominantly an engineering community, and so has been unable to really compete on design and cultural signification in the consumer market. Whether today’s 10 year olds will be given open-to-tinkering tablets for Christmas in two years I think depends largely on whether the design, usability, and status-signaling ability of open devices can compete with Apple.

    Anyway, all that’s probably old hat for you!

  2. Will, I think you’re right that it’s incumbent on pro-tinkering folks to address gaps in design and status signalling. At the same time, I think it’s a false choice. Tim suggests that Apple could easily make its platforms hackable and unlock a great deal of trapped value in the platform without sacrificing anything in the regular user’s experience. I think he’s right.

    Your argument addresses the plain-vanilla consumer market, but I think the game changes when we’re talking about a school district buying these locked-up platforms in bulk. Tinkering arguments aside, I think obligating a schoolhouse full of kids to Apple’s licensing and market restrictions is irresponsible.

  3. Gunnar, I suspect Apple has the iPhone, app store, and iPad locked down tight because they make more money that way. No?

    I’m ambivalent about the school market. They question is what a school district wants to buy. If what they want is a textbook reader able to support educational games, it’s not clear why they shouldn’t get that and only that. Conventional textbooks don’t come with a little typesetting kit, and obviously that’s fine. That said, I do think it’s worthwhile to try to sell school districts on the significant virtues of devices that let interested students tinker. And it is obviously irresponsible to pay more for devices that do less than the open alternatives.

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