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April 7, 2018

Is Apple’s new Schoolwork simply a fancy LMS?

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

You have to give it to Apple, they have flair. Presenting in a school, including educators in the presentation and have participants go through classroom activities as if they were students is a great way to engage and explain how they are different. And they definitely are.

I’ve always been a big believer in elegance, simplicity and rich content creation for students, and that comes to me from my Apple days. 19 years worth. I like the iPad as an education device and I’ve been convinced of educational approaches Apple has supported since the 90s, such as project and challenge-based learning. Apple was the first company to help me understand the value of cross-curricular competencies (what we used to call 21st century skills, but which sounds silly 18 years into the said century). We now refer to these skills using other terms, such as the 4Cs, or 6Cs or life competencies of all sorts. It all means the same: competencies students develop which are actually as important (I’d say more) than even academic or subject knowledge.

Teach kids to think, and they will succeed more than by simply teaching them algebra.

And now, Apple is making software which aims at making things easier for schools and teachers to deploy and manage iPads, and give more control to teachers on how these devices are used in class, while still allowing students to generate content and be engaged. That’s fine I guess. Sometimes you need this.

But it really feels to me like this is just another step in the wrong direction. Here are my thoughts:

The whole point of developing the real competencies students need to be successful is to enable them to build their own path to autonomy and responsibility. Students cannot develop these things if a teacher is selecting “stuff to do” from a pick list. Apple’s Schoolwork replicates an age-old way of “giving homework”, where a teacher defines how a student will use their tools to respond to a teacher-driven situation. “Use this app to create a presentation”, “do this Math activity in this other app”, etc.

Sure, sometimes this is appropriate, there is curriculum to go through, and the teacher might know some good ways to “teach” this, but it seems to ma like a lot of energy spent on pretty tech to basically “guide” the student through activities. Everyone doing the same thing. Everyone learning the same way.

When you think about it, ClassKit, Apple’s API for developers, allows them to expose “Content” or aspects of their apps to teachers to pick as things to do for students. This seems very similar to LTI, a standard which Learning Management Systems have had for years, which allows developers to appear as activities within their LMS for teachers to send as activities for students.

ClassKit is a fancy LTI for iOS devices.

Is this bad? No, not at all. But it seems very focused on the wrong type of learning.

In an ideal world of personalized, challenge or project-based learning, the student gets to pick the tool they feel empowered by to respond to challenges or answer driving questions. Motivation to learn and explore is a driving force to get them to rise up to the challenge they have given themselves, with objectives and constraints the teacher will infuse into a lesson. Ultimately, the student can even pick their preferred tool: iPads, sure, but laptops, cell phones or pen and paper to create and explore.

This is probably possible even using a tool such as Schoolwork, I cannot tell yet as no one can really explore it, but I don’t think that was mentioned. In fact, all points to Apple mostly responding to Google’s widely popular G-Suite which makes it easy to manage devices in schools. I use G-Suite every day. It is a useful productivity and collaboration suite. But it’s not great for creativity. I find it awkward for many more creative tasks. I fell less enabled by it. Others feel the opposite though, and that’s fine. I should be able to use Keynote to build my presentations, and other should use G-Suite’s Slides if they like that. But having someone tell me I have to use the one I don’t feel proficient at is not great. I should be able to use any other tool even, why not iMovie or Clips, or PowerPoint or...

The new paradigms of Education are entrenched in student agency and student-driven learning. Yet, all this new technology feels so “traditional” to me.

I often refer to Chromebooks as yesterday’s technology, but cheaper (tongue in cheek here, I think Chromebooks do a great job of democratizing tech), because they encourage using office-like tools in a world of Instagram and modern mobile apps that can build much more engaging content or allow you to program cool physics-based games in under an hour. I know you can use more and more modern tools on a Chromebook, but at Studyo, we know how hard it is to reproduce the engaging visuals and dynamics of a mobile app in a browser, and I like to think we do a great job of that. With an amount of effort equivalent to twice what is required for mobile. Most companies don’t spend as much IMHO.

IPads have their own strengths and weaknesses of course. A bit more expensive (that’s another funny debate when schools used to deploy $2,000 laptops in 2003 and now we argue the iPad is expensive when it barely costs $100-$150 more as a really basic Chromebook) and editing larger documents is a frustrating experience without the fine control enabled by a mouse or trackpad (until the Pencil is included at that price perhaps, but even then).

But whatever a school prefers or choses, as long as that choice is driven by pedagogy, and you can defend it and have a plan, I respect that.

Don’t get me wrong, Apple’s Classroom and Schoolwork seem elegant and powerful. They seem like they will help those teachers who like to guide their students more or need to for any number of reasons. Maybe it is useful part of the time, not all the time. I’m happy Apple provides these tools.

What I deplore is that there is really nothing conceptually new here and that it is driving back attention to the mechanics of industrial-age teaching as opposed to exploring ways to differentiate more, empower students more and give them the agency that will truly help them build the skillset to succeed.

I’d like Apple to push the boundaries of what learning can be, by providing easier ways for teachers to shift their strategies towards students, to facilitate competency-based learning using new tools which facilitate the difficult planning and execution of Challenge-based activities. To leverage artificial intelligence to reinforce good practice and give better feedback to teachers on actual progress in collaboration and communication, or evaluate how a student is thinking critically. Get students to code, yes, but measure outcomes and give feedback to students on how efficient and creative their solution is and encourage that.

What I want is 22nd Century Learning I guess.