Damn you, Apple Salesperson!

I drank a sip of Apple Kool-Aid on Friday. This is the beginning of a series on my experiences with some Apple hardware to see if it really can be transformative in the classroom.

Friday was a bad day. It's a good thing that I only had to work a half day thanks to Good Friday. I won't get into details, but suffice to say that it was one of those days that makes you want to go live on a farm and spend your days talking to corn rather than people. And to top it all off, my district's new Apple sales rep had scheduled a meeting with me for 10:00 Friday in a moment of weakness when he called a few weeks ago. Just what I needed - An Apple sales rep in my office the day before the iPad launched. Ugh.

I rolled in late to the meeting, ushered him into my office that has most recently become a graveyard for a bunch of ancient colored iMacs (of course) and tossed my own aging Macbook covered with Ubuntu stickers on my desk. He was very well-dressed. I was in no mood for an impeccably dressed, Gen-Y, cheerful Mac lover. Besides, knowing that my already barebones budget was probably going to be cut by at least 50% within 2 weeks (major cuts from the state will do that to you), I wasn't sure how I was going to afford replacement parts and a few SMART boards, let alone overpriced consumer toys and fancy ebook readers.

This was basically how I opened our conversation. Along with, "Sure, I know Apple makes nice products, but with no entry-level products, how am I going to inch any closer to 1:1 and maximize the number of computers in my students' hands? How am I going to reach the next level of technology integration in the curriculum with Macs? And by the way, the DRM and regional content control on the iPad doesn't sit well with me either."

I was on a roll, utterly unconcerned that I wasn't being fair to this guy. He was, after all, just doing his job. He just happened to set up a meeting with the wrong guy on the wrong day.

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We'll call him Frank, by the way. I'm not sure if he actually wants his name in print in this blog, which has traditionally not been terribly friendly to Apple. I have to hand it to him, though. He took me completely in stride. My mom, who I once watched sell a glass of water to a drowning man, would have been proud (well, he wasn't actually drowning, but I did grow up going with her on days off from school to the coffee/tea shop she ran; to this day, she is the consummate salesperson and I know good sales when I see it).

Seriously, he was good. So good that he not only piqued my curiosity about the iPad (I've been more than happy to wait for Linux/Android-based tablets to hit the market; we know the iPad's going to be cool, but just not cool enough for me to pull a Perlow and think about buying one), but got me thinking about ways that I could get teachers generating content on their own MacBook Pros and pushing it out to iPod Touches and iPads that the students used in a full 1:1 environment.

Had I just been bamboozled by Apple?!?!? Had a wily salesperson pulled me within the Apple reality distortion field? Where was my sense of fiscal responsibility? What about Ubuntu? Or Windows 7, for that matter? Commodity hardware is our friend, right? Thin clients, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

OK, so before I have a coronary here, let me explain the 4 hooks he used to at least get me to be a bit more open-minded about Apple in education.

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First, as we all know, the average teacher will struggle to create engaging content consistent with our students' expectations. Many have begun to use Web 2.0 tools and quite a few use email, chat, or websites to interact with students. But creating compelling video and audio content that is easily accessible by students would prove challenging for many teachers (or simply wouldn't occur to them, given the teaching methodologies that have been in place for so many years). However, most of us would agree (whether we actually like it or not) that the iLife suite does, in fact, make it easy to record lessons, distribute them as podcasts, develop videos, and create lesson-related audio files that students can use and review later. Sure, all of these things can be done on Windows or Linux, but getting teachers to do it easily and automatically would certainly be helped by a well-integrated software suite.

Not bad, but then, of course, he selected an article from the New York Times, had it read aloud, told me how to turn the text-to-speech into an MP4 file, and push it out to iTunes to sync with students' iPods. Well that's pretty cool. As he pointed out, it's one benefit of that closed ecosystem I tend to rant about.

Then he pulled the Special Education trump card. Like the text-to-speech-to-MP4-to-iPod trick, he showed me the accessibility features built into Snow Leopard (and, to some extent, to OS 10.5). The zooming, the gesture support, the vision-impaired audio support for gestures, the speed variations capable in text-to-speech...you get the idea. The accessibility features built in are pretty darned good and are quite intuitive. They're the sort of things, along with the increased ability to address multimodal learning through the iLife tools, that start making Apples seem worth getting creative for in terms of our budget.

While many of these tools are actually available in a Linux environment, even the FOSS advocate in me has to admit that they simply aren't integrated, consistent, or intuitive in the same way that Apple's are. What struck me is that I've been a Mac user for quite a while, yet I've always used it just like any other PC. I've gotten my job done, I spend most of my time in the cloud, and I just don't feel like I got my money's worth out of the MacBook I bought a couple years ago. My wife just won't let me give it to my kid and buy a new computer for myself on which I can Ubuntu to my heart's content. Something about repairing the brakes on the car...

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Same goes for the Macs we deployed in 3 of our schools. They get used all the time, but the kids don't tend to do much with them that they couldn't do on a cheap PC. Our music teachers use GarageBand a lot, but they're hardly transformative classroom tools. I'm starting to get the feeling that this is a result of ignorance of their real power. It's also a result of the "computer time" mentality that I've struggled against for years instead of the "lesson-time-that-of-course-integrates-our-computers" mentality that good 1:1 programs have fostered.

There's that 1:1 term again. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that true integration really requires not just a low student-computer ratio, but a 1:1 ratio. But that will be hard enough to achieve without introducing more expensive hardware, won't it? Maybe, although the Apple rep and I talked about school-subsidized/sponsored teacher and student lease programs where students and teachers bear the majority of the hardware costs (subsidized for those who can't afford them), made affordable by leases at academic prices.

Hook #3? He's giving me a MacBook Pro and iPod Touch for 6 weeks through their "Executive Loaner" program. I'm going to produce a ton of content, put the computer through its paces, distribute content to as many kids and teachers with iPods as possible, and see if a better understanding of (and total immersion in) the tools that come with Apple hardware can make a real difference. What use cases can I envision for teachers and students? Can I enable 1:1 with an inexpensive iPod Touch? Can I make a real case for serious investments (or potentially controversial student/teacher buy programs) or is my skepticism about bloated hardware costs really justified?

Hook #4? As the rep was leaving, he pulled out his iPhone and said, "I'm really visual - do you mind if I take your picture so that I can place you with your name?" Of course, being visually and reading-oriented myself and totally incapable of remember a name (but never forgetting a face), I thought how useful something as simple as a visual cue that students could associate with a concept would be in the classroom. The Touch and iPad don't have cameras built in, but drawing is relatively easy. The important point is that this rep had been steeped in 21st century culture for long enough that he didn't even think twice about snapping a picture and making it part of my contact information.

All that talk of Digital Natives and how they think about things in a fundamentally different way than us Digital Immigrants? It's all true. Can a Mac ecosystem address that better than other, more open, less expensive ecosystems? I'll hopefully have a better answer once I've spent some time tapping the full potential of the MBP and Touch. My mind is certainly a bit more open than it was, but I'm hardly convinced; the call of Ubuntu, cheap hardware on TigerDirect, and the open cloud are strong. You'll be seeing lots of posts about this over the next 7 weeks (it will take a week to get the hardware to me). Who knows, maybe I'll get them to send me an XServe, too.

In the meantime, a couple big questions on which I'm waiting for answers from Apple:

  1. How do you manage an entire set/cart/school of iPod touches (or iPads for that matter)? Can a single computer sync playlists/books/videos with unlimited iPods? I thought there were restrictions on this.
  2. Any way yet of dealing with DRM on books? E.g., if I wanted a whole class of iPads to have a particular ebook, is there a way to purchase and deploy that book legally? And redeploy it to another class next semester?

Feel free to talk back with your experiences in Ed with Apple's ecosystem products. Lots more to come here.