Google, Apple and Higher Ed’s Future

The approaches taken by the two technology giants offer differing lessons for how colleges might re-imagine themselves going forward, writes Mark Weedman.

October 20, 2011

I, like many others, have been thinking a lot about Apple since the untimely death of its co-founder, Steve Jobs. One theme that has consistently emerged in reflections on Jobs’ legacy is the extent to which he taught so many of us how to navigate the information age.  Jobs made his name by inventing a computer, but his most lasting impact will be the ways he gave consumers access to a range of devices that make the Internet indispensable.

Yet for all of his influence, Jobs’ vision for Apple is not the only model for how to manage the information age. Apple focuses on great hardware, but there is another approach that has been equally successful in getting people online. I am referring, of course, to Google. If Apple is hardware company, Google is a software company, one whose innovation and success resides in its ability create compelling internet – based software applications that help make the internet both manageable and productive.

I have been thinking about Apple vs. Google because story of these two companies helps us explore how higher education could navigate the new realities of the information age. The problem of higher education and the information age is an acute one. The basic structure of modern higher education has been in place, remarkably untouched, since the Middle Ages. It consists of three parts: campuses, including buildings for classrooms; professors, and libraries. Each part is equally important: a college is a place where a student goes to gain access to deposits of knowledge and expert professors, who will teach those students through lectures and other formalized ways. If the modern university has tweaked that model, it has only been to expand the idea of the campus to include student services, athletic facilities and so forth. Otherwise, the basic medieval structure remains largely intact.

This is a story that has been well told, but it is worth recalling here because life in the information age increasingly challenges the notion that the university must be a static place where students go to learn. It may even be that the current decentralization of social interaction will make the old structure of higher education obsolete, in which case the crisis of higher education has become very acute indeed.

So what possibilities for reform do Google and Apple offer? I begin with Apple, whose example suggests that traditional colleges can succeed by following Apple’s hardware-centered approach. Apple is a hardware company. Its primary purpose is to sell devices that provide the gateway to the information age: iPods, iPhones and iPads, along with more than a few computers. It has great software, but it uses software to enhance the hardware. Apple’s guiding principle is that the appliance--the device--is the key to unlocking the Internet, and its primary focus has been to produce and sell great Internet appliances.

One of Steve Jobs’ most firmly held principles is that the total user experience is what makes Apple’s devices so special, which is why Apple wants to control as much of the device’s “infrastructure” as possible in order to preserve that experience. At its best, an Apple device can at once draw you into using it and then, once you start using it, disappear so that you can focus on the task at hand. The reason people continue to be drawn to Apple products is that their total design stimulates the user’s creativity and productivity.

The infrastructure of a higher education institution in the Apple model should have the same effect. Entering an “Apple” campus should stimulate a student to want to learn, to engage in the life of the mind, to explore new ideas and avenues of inquiry. Design matters here for the same reasons Steve Jobs obsessed about design, because it is impossible to achieve this effect without intense planning, investment and attention to detail. Failure to attend to the totality of the student experience renders the campus experience less than immersive and, so, less than functional.

Likewise, hardware and software are intertwined in this model. The curriculum in an Apple - modeled university serves the same function as iOS (the software the drives Apple’s mobile devices) does in the iPhone: it is the means by which the student gets access to the total experience. This means that universities should take into account both hardware and software when designing that total experience. Questions such as how the physical location and facilities of the university shapes the curriculum, or how the curriculum shapes the physical location and infrastructure, are crucial.

In contrast to the Apple model’s emphasis on “hardware,” a Google approach suggests that there is also room in the educational spectrum for a software oriented model. Google is actually an advertising company, but it uses its innovative, easy-to-use software to get us on the Internet so that we will look at their ads. The tradeoff for the consumer is that Google’s products help users to access (through search) and manage (through Gmail and other applications) the Internet productively. Google’s products work as well as their desktop complements, but they are cloud-based, which means that they can exploit some of the features of the Internet (Google’s products excel at collaboration, for example), and that we can use them regardless of location and hardware configuration. I’ve written this essay on Google Apps using a seven-year-old laptop, an Internet terminal at the library, a smartphone during my daughter’s ballet practice, and a desktop computer. The result is an experience much different from being tethered to a single desk and hard drive.

A school in this Google model derives its identity from its faculty and curriculum, or its “software” while de-emphasizing the importance of its infrastructure, such as its classroom, library and other campus facilities. In other words, it is possible to provide a first-class education in a school without a full range of campus facilities (or maybe even a school without a traditional campus) as long as the curriculum gives students access to the right kind of critical thinking, formation and training. It used to be that to provide a first-class education required institutions to assemble all three components: faculty, library and classrooms. The Google model suggests that it is possible to re-conceive that structure entirely by shifting the focus to curriculum (and the necessary faculty to teach it) and then adapting whatever “hardware” is available to give the curriculum a platform.

The key to this model is the curriculum. There are a number of reasons why traditional higher education institutions have gotten away with fairly generic curricula (i.e., a series of courses taught in classrooms via lectures and discussion), but one of the most important is that the other components offset the inadequacies of curriculum. Stripping away the infrastructure exposes the curriculum and demands that it be effective and have integrity on its own. Stripping away the infrastructure, however, also frees the curriculum to provide new and dynamic ways of learning. If you have a classroom or library, you have to use it. If you do not have a classroom, then entirely new educational opportunities present themselves.

There have been curriculum-driven colleges for a long time, of course. St. John’s College in Annapolis, The Evergreen State College, Babson College and a number of others have occupied an important niche in American higher education precisely by offering innovative, non - traditional curricula. The Google model allows us to push this idea much further. Older generations of curriculum oriented schools have generally focused on very specific skills or objects of study, such as developing critical skills through an engagement with the Great Books. Modern educational technology, however, gives curriculum-based colleges access to new avenues of information and content delivery. So it is now possible to conceive of a school that uses an innovative curriculum for career preparation, perhaps by combining rigorous critical thinking with on-the-job training.

The Google model is not without significant risks. There is a real danger, for example, in trying to create efficiencies without recognizing what the Google model actually implies. Being curriculum centered frees both faculty and students to be innovative and distinctive without needing extensive infrastructure. What it does not do is force that college online or to do remote classrooms. To do this is simply to perpetuate the structures of a traditional university in a virtual environment, and it’s not clear that making a traditional university education more impersonal is conducive to good education. This is not a call to automate the classroom, nor is it an attempt to de-emphasize the centrality of trained, professional teachers and researchers.

In fact, my sense is that following the Google model will require more and better teachers because it will allow for a greater degree of personal contact between students and their teachers. Having access to reams of resources and information is a good thing, and all forms of higher education would do well to attend to those. But having access to information is not the same as being able to process that information, and finding skilled guides to sorting and generating new knowledge becomes essential to the future of higher education.

If it sounds like I am arguing for Google over Apple, that is not strictly true. Both models have the potential to offer compelling educational experiences that mirror how information age students actually think and learn. Part of my concern is that more and more higher educational institutions lack the resources or design savvy to pursue an infrastructure heavy model. The success of Google shows that there is another approach, one that authentically serves information age students while allowing universities to excel without having to produce the next iPad.


Mark Weedman is a professor of biblical studies at Crossroads College, in Minnesota.


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