Education and the iPad’s architecture of control

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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.

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I'm the Chief Strategist for Red Hat's US Public Sector group, where I work with systems integrators and government agencies to encourage the use of open source software in government. I'm a founder of Open Source for America, one of Federal Computer Week's Fed 100 for 2010, and I've been voted one of the FedScoop 50 for industry leadership.


I think there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding this project and unfortunately it has slipped from a lot of people's perspective. Many people think the whole project is gone.

The iPad will probably work in school systems that can afford them, much how some schools have Apple computers in their computer lab or iBooks in their mobile computer labs.

For developing countries, though, while it looks like the "quick fix" your article helps point out how it isn't.

It all comes down the benevolence of the "king of the Apple" (Steve Jobs, and his successor when the time comes).

The title of your youtube clip is [b]Red Hat: Inside OLPC: Episode 4[/b]

I've not used a OLPC before so all I know about it is through blogs/articles. If I can correct, OLPC started with the great idea of openness and somehow lost its way and ended up with loading it with Windows.

If that is true, OLPC is as closed as iPad can get, one way or the other.

While Microsoft has supposedly whittled down Windows XP so it'll fit and run on an OLPC so that it is available as an option... to the best of my knowledge, no OLPC have been purchased nor shipped in this configuration so it might as well not exist. Did that answer your question?

in spite of being a happy user of apple hardware [albeit my ipod is jailbroken so i can do what i want with it], i was with you all the way there in your mistrust of apple's new closed-shop approach to their hardware & the software we're 'allowed' to run on it.

then you came out with this gem; <em>"...the same ease of installation and application management that open source users have been enjoying for years..."</em>

sorry. i cannae concentrate on the rest of the article now. i'm laughing too much. that was a joke, right?

But we shouldn't sell the community short. We're still ahead of other platforms in this area.

I think it's fair to say that a yum repo (for example) is a geeky, more open manifestation of the app store idea. My point was that tools like yum, apt, and friends have allowed Linux users to install, update, and remove applications from third parties with more ease and convenience than our Windows- or Mac-using peers, and we've been doing it for years.

Of course you're happy -- ignorance is bliss. :)

<code>apt-get install "application-name"</code>
...or use one of the many graphical package managers available these days which enable the user to install any one of thousands of applications with a few mouse clicks.

Seriously... how hard is it?

The fact that you had to 'jailbreak' your iPod to do what you want with it speaks volumes in support of the OLPC project. You realize Apple consider jailbreaking to be a violation of copyright and by implication prosecutable under the DMCA...right?

Who knows, it might.

The OLPC had a head start... and where is it at?

Even people trying to deride the iPad see the issues with OLPC and lack of delivery:

We can talk bad about the iPad until everyone is blue in the face, but here is the truth of the situation:

* The iPad is coming out for commercial availability in less than 2 months.
* Alot of these items are going to end up in the hands of children in developed countries, some rich, some not.
* There are going to be educational applications available on these day one.
* In all likelihood, more children will end up using an iPad worldwide for educational purposes than will use any model of OLPC.

I'm not an OLPC apologist -- you're right that the OLPC is fraught with problems. I'm not defending the OLPC as a commercially viable alternative. Instead, I'm highlighting the sacrifices we make when we use the iPad as a tool in education. Mr. DiMaio compared the OLPC to the iPad, and I don't believe it's a fair comparison. They have very different design goals: one encourages freedom, the other doesn't.

Gunnar, interesting article. The question I'd ask is if you or other readers see any parallels between Apple's closed architecture and the organizations that populate the American educational system below university level.

It seems to me what they have in common -- generalizing very broadly -- is a desire to control and cement lock-in on the part of their customer base. What they don't have in common, of course, is execution. Apple is an admired force in the business world and has an envious global franchise. American primary and secondary education have been saved from extinction by successfully managing to largely avoid any meaningful competition, and by our excellent universities.

So if that's the case, it seems to me the flavor of IT they use is a moot point if the overarching system can't take advantage of it.

Others already commented as well on the remark that Apple's App Store some was a Johnny-Come-Lately compared to Linux's open source package management tools us geeks had been "enjoying" for years. But the author's response to those comments that a "yum repo" is a more open manifestation of the App Store indicates that he does not grok the App Store at all.<p>
True enough, the technological underpinnings of the App Store are all proprietary as is the OS to which it provides its services but there was NOTHING that kept the open source community from building an App Store for Linux using yum repo technology for Linux. What makes the App Store unique is its tight management of what gets in. Has anyone ever had a problem installing an app from the App Store because it interfered with another app? How about a thwarted OS upgrade because some app depended on something from another app that depended on a feature only available in an app that runs under a certain flavor of OS kernel? I didn't think so.<p>
Now don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade my Linux boxen for the world but I would also hate to lose my iPhone and MacBook. The former let me develop and experiment whereas the latter let me get some work done. Comparing Apple against the open source community is a pointless exercise: if Apple were to open up its OS and devices it wouldn't be Apple anymore. I would suggest taking your Apple-envy and turning it towards building a yum repository where no matter what package I ask for I can be guaranteed I can install it on my Linux machine without a single further prompt. Show me that and I will consider letting go of my Apple devices.

Thanks Paul for so eloquently stating what I truly feel would be obvious if we chose to see beyond our biases (for or against apple or open source).

"Now don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade my Linux boxen for the world but I would also hate to lose my iPhone and MacBook. The former let me develop and experiment whereas the latter let me get some work done."

That last sentence is what I mean. Pick the tool that works for you (based on your needs) and keep your mind and eyes open for alternatives.

This should not be a debate based on politics, personalities, preferences or philosophies, but on value as it relates to results (openness being a valid criterion). Apple may or may not win that debate, but at least the victor would be chosen for the right reasons.

For many consumers the lack of freedom is a feature not a defect. The virus and malware criminals have made many people fearful of computers. A closed "safe" environment is very VERY appealing to these consumers. I suspect this will become a major selling point of the device. Grandma doesn't care about hacking the kernel of her iPad anymore than she cares about hacking her VCR. For her the "open" OLPC would be a scary, confusing thing she would be afraid to use.

It's not really about kids hacking kernels. Although that would be awesome.

I was making a broader point about whether this device is a means to ensure a school's enduring fealty to Apple. My strong preference is for educational tools that don't strongly bind schools to a single ecosystem.

Put another way, when should schools trade choice and freedom for a closed ecosystem and a decidedly capricious platform owner? I'm as sympathetic as anyone to the "ease of use" argument, but the cost seems very dear.

I would think the obvious retort from an education system administrator's perspective [and maybe this is what the author of this article was phishing for all along (?)] is that a school system's education device should be one that is geared towards presenting curriculum correlated educational materials, not being an open source hackers platform. Most sys admins spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to properly profile a laptop to fit into a zero administration policy, or school systems have the parents purchase the laptop so they are responsible for keeping it running. My question on the iPad for education would be around durability, battery life and ability to outlive any first generation OS or application requirements.
Education isn't about freedom anyways...look at what happens to someone playing hooky!

I agree that a hackable platform isn't appealing to everyone, though I have a soft spot in my heart for those people. That's not the point I was making in the article. My concern is with the closed ecosystem that makes schools beholden to Apple in a uniquely damaging way.

How are schools beholden? Don't the educators tasked with deciding what will be used make the decision? Can't they also choose? Or do you have some intelligence or freedom they aren't privy to? Is this ego?

Beholden to Apple's terms of service and the network effects of their products. iPad encourages use of iTunes, for instance. That's what I mean by beholden.

Schools and educators abdicate the agency of their students and their school by institutionalizing closed platforms for learning. I don't think there's anything controversial about that. The question is whether you care a lot about that, or a little.

You're right that educators are free to make their own choices. I don't think the article is advocating for less choice, just more informed choice.

I find it very sad reading this thread and think of how Steve Wozniak took the view that all software should be Open Sourced, and that he designed the original Apple with Open Standards in mind.
From "Hackers- Wizards of the Electronic Age" about 2:45 for the short attention span:


I must agree with Gunnar. Apple's endeavor is profits (even at the risk of being unfair) and they do it cleverly. I was reading somewhere that the handsome sales figures of it's ipods relies to a significant extent on the fact that it's batteries cannot be replaced by the user himself. Rather he has to take it to a service center for replacement for a service fee. Rather than spend a good amount for this the user normally opts for a newer product. The argument is that this design helps the ipod remain slim. But these discarded ipods cause a big impact on the environment in terms of disposal not to mention the carbon emissions involved in producing each new ipod. The impact on Apples profitability is no doubt good. In such a scenario where Apples motto is "profit" I cannot envision how it can chart the same path as an education system where the primary motive is knowledge and innovation. The OLPC should be the preferred platform their objectives being the same.

I have watched the Open source community for may years and watched it move to a "MONEY IS BAD" attitude while on the active open source contributors' resume for "work to make Money" the laud their contributions.
Apple is an American company who was on the front of Time twice as "the fall of an american icon". While IBM which went the open hardware way no-longer makes hardware they gave away.
The problem here is not the iPad or the OLPC, the problem is the cost of building them and the ability to continue building new things it is costly.
Open source is great but it can not be the whole picture anymore than always eating apples and nothing else can be.
We in the community must stop ranting about the next "closed" gadget from (name the company) and move to provide applications that are meaningful for them...

Rant over ...

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