Recently I have been interviewed twice by EdSurge regarding education initiatives by the Big Five tech companies (Amazon and Apple, specifically). The first interview centered on iPads for all and Swift programming initiative at the Ohio State University.
Hill believes Apple’s main motivation to do this collaboration with Ohio State was to sell devices.
“The way I sort of look at them, Apple is like the Godot of education, where they’re the world's largest company, and people keep waiting for them to do something meaningful in education, and not just sell devices, but actually get involved in education, change the game somehow,” says Hill.
That has been a pattern with Apple, he argues, pointing to a big iPod program at Duke University in the early 2000s, which many see as failing to live up to the hype, or the failed iPad program at Los Angeles Unified School District more recently.
Beyond the device sales, however, the more significant part of the initiative centered on programming skills:
[The Apple / OSU collaboration] seeks to “integrate learning technology throughout the university experience,” an iOS design laboratory and opportunities for students to learn coding skills to make the ready for a career in the “app economy.”
This plan is based on Apple's "Everyone Can Code" initiative that sets up labs and a curriculum to teach students to program in Swift, Apple's app language primarily designed for iOS, tvOS, watchOS, and macOS (although there are a small number cases of using it for Windows and Android). Just two weeks after the Ohio State news, Apple announced that "Australia’s RMIT Joins More Than 20 International Universities in Adopting Apple Curriculum".
Apple today announced the global expansion of its Everyone Can Code initiative to more than 20 colleges and universities outside of the US. These schools will now offer the App Development with Swift Curriculum, a full-year course designed by Apple engineers and educators to teach coding and app design to students of all levels and backgrounds. Now hundreds of thousands of students from around the world gain the opportunity to become proficient in the Swift programming language and build the fundamental skills they need to pursue careers in the booming app economy.
In a second interview with EdSurge, I was asked about recent support from Amazon giving away Echo devices and promoting Alexa.
In August, Amazon gifted 1,600 Echo Dots to engineering students at Arizona State University living in a new dorm. John German, an ASU spokesperson, said at the time that the university’s motivation was to develop an opportunity for its engineering students to get skills in the “emerging field” of voice technology. An Amazon spokesperson explained in August that Amazon officials imagine a world where their devices are entwined in student life.
To push these efforts further, Amazon launched the Alexa Prize, a research competition where university teams developing new ideas for conversational artificial intelligence can get monetary prizes. A team from the University of Washington won the 2017 competition, getting $500,000. Applications are now open for the 2018 competition.
My comments on the combination of moves by Apple and Amazon:
For Phil Hill, an edtech consultant and blogger at e-Literate, it’s no surprise that big tech companies want college graduates to be familiar, if not well-versed, with their tools. He says these companies want to fill the gap “between traditional corporate training and higher education,” creating a “tighter connection” between students getting a college degree and an initial job with the needed skills.
It’s not a new endeavor by any means. Hill remembers that in the 1980s, Sun Microsystems provided workstations for university students. The company’s business plan explicitly stated under its marketing approach to put “SUN workstations into selected universities to gain visibility.” The idea, says Hill, was to get people “sort of hooked on using Unix” and programming skills that could be used in the workforce.
Sun also worked closely with schools to establish physical training centers. In 1999 the company and the University of Pittsburgh opened an “Academic Java Center” meant to train and certify students in Java technology.
Beyond showing my age, what I wanted to highlight with the SUN comments is that there has been a big change in tech industry that colleges and universities should be cautious about. The big five tech companies operate on closed ecosystems, with custom programming languages, custom devices, and proprietary platforms. Whereas the focus on Java in the 80s and 90s enabled students to learn a general-purpose language that could run on any number of platforms, Swift is primarily for the Apple devices, and Alexa is for Echo. Company-specific languages and technology.
The initiatives from Apple and Amazon are not just to give out freebies, they intend to get more students learning their proprietary languages and coming out of college with skills applicable to their closed ecosystems. Also mentioned by EdSurge is an initiative from Google to promote its virtual reality platform Daydream. These efforts specifically include designing curricula for higher education institutions to adopt.
Perhaps it would be useful to compare these recent initiatives with the Cisco Networking Academy, which provides curriculum and support for 9,500 schools and over 1 million students worldwide that "identifies and develops the skills people and businesses need to thrive in a digital economy".1 The Networking Academy also includes Cisco hardware and software as part of their package, and there is a focus on Cisco-specific platforms.
One difference, however, is that the Networking Academy can lead to general-purpose certifications in addition to Cisco-specific ones, including those for C, C++, Linux, and CompTIA entry-level computer installation.
What we see here is an evolution of big-tech support for colleges and universities that mirrors the general tech industry migration from more-open to more-closed ecosystems. Higher education institutions need to be fully aware of and cautious of these changes, as the more recent efforts lose most of the general-purpose educational outcomes and encourage students to move into a closed ecosystem. An Ohio State U graduate of the future who has gone through the Everyone Can Code curriculum will be much more likely to remain an iOS app programmer than an Android programmer, for example. This means that the schools entering into the new partnerships are tying themselves much more closely with specific companies than was the case in the past.
There are real benefits to these initiatives (even though the iPads for all benefits are overblown), but these decisions should not be taken lightly just for the promise of free stuff. There are real implications to tying curriculum to specific company ecosystems. And maybe schools would do well to insist that these partnerships include support for alternative languages and more general-purpose learning outcomes.
Update 12/30: Clarified language that while Swift is primarily designed for Apple devices, it can be used in cases for others. See comments below for additional info.
- Disclosure: Cisco is a past client of MindWires, our consulting business, including advice on Networking Academy. Amazon is also a past client. [↩]