I'm the tech industry's ideal customer. I love gadgets and spend thousands of dollars per year on hardware and software. I love to learn to use new "toys" and find ways to help teachers use those technologies with learners. But the past few years have seen few exciting innovations in computer technology and software functionality, with the exception of Apple Computer.
I'm sorry to sound like a platform partisan, but wireless networking, digital video editing, consumer DVD production, portable audio, Bluetooth, zero-config networking, video chat, floppy-less computers, Firewire, desktop audio and flat displays have either been invented, popularized or made accessible by Apple Computer. PC companies may have introduced a technology earlier or created competing products since, but few people can argue those products represent a better value or are easier to use than Apple's.
The company's iLife package (iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, iTunes and now Garageband) made the digital lifestyle era possible. It enhanced the value of multimedia peripherals and helped fuel the explosion of digital photography and video.
The iPod is at the heart of the most recent high-tech revolution. There were portable music players prior to the iPod. However, the elegant interface, large storage capacity, stunning industrial design and integration with the free iTunes software made portable digital music players a must-have item. One can imagine using the iTunes Music Store as a vehicle for distributing all sorts of classroom resources.
The iPod is more than a music player. Audiobooks may be loaded and Duke University recently gave every freshman an iPod loaded with important university information. The recent invention of Podcasting offers anyone the ability to create radio programs that download and install on a listener's iPod automatically. The iPod may even be used as a hard drive capable of booting a computer. This is invaluable for tech support and troubleshooting.
Ten million iPods were sold by the end of 2004; 4.5 million were sold during the '04 holiday season alone. The iPod Shuffle increases the likelihood that many more students will have storage capacity of one gigabyte or more on their persons while at school. Existing "thumb drives" were good for moving small text files, but not media files. The ability to carry your music and your homework on an affordable device smaller than a pack of gum changes the equation.
Here Comes the Revolution
The iPod's commercial success is responsible for the new Macintosh Mini. This $499 computer is smaller than a lunchbox, yet contains Ethernet, a modem, Firewire, USB 2, analog/digital video and a combo drive (CD-R/DVD). Best of all, the Mac Mini comes preloaded with iLife '05.
Steve Jobs understands that kids who can listen to music anywhere may want to make music as well. If the computational power exists and software can amplify human expression, then it should be available to everyone. The educational implications of this are mind-boggling. Forms of art and communication reserved for elites just a few years ago are now available to anyone with $500.
Educators will want Macintosh Minis due to their power, affordability and ability to use existing monitors, keyboards and mice. It is not hard to imagine teachers throwing a Mac Mini into their bag and schlepping it to their next classroom or home in order to view student video projects. Kids may do the same.
These trends offer greater evidence that the network-centric model of computing embraced by many schools is wrong-headed. If you want students to use computers in intellectually rich ways, then personal portability trumps centralization. Editing video over a network remains the elusive fantasy of IT managers. The personal computer will be increasingly more personal. Schools would be wise to build upon not only student fluency, but also the gadgets they own.
The new Macintosh hardware and software will not only be desired by many educators, but the retail success of the Macintosh Mini and iPod line will drive student demand for these technologies. Students will expect schools to support their creativity with materials at least as flexible, powerful and expressive as that which they have in their bookbags.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.