Education, Technology "Journalism," and the Apple PR Machine

I wasn’t planning to write anything about Apple’s media event yesterday. I tuned in to the livestream, but when all the announcements were made, it seemed clear to me that nothing that was revealed on stage in San Jose was that significant to education.

That hasn’t stopped the technology press from chiming in about the revolution that Apple has unleashed, about the company’s strong commitment to education, about the “radical” potential of iTextbooks, and about the newest device — the iPad Mini — as an amazing piece of hardware for our children and our schools.

Why doubt the media’s take on Apple and education?

"A Garden of Pure Ideology"

If you watched the livestream and listened to the cheering and clapping from those assembled there — “journalists” — it should be clear that the events that Apple puts on are more akin to marketing than media and that those who’ve been invited are not there to ask questions but rather to foment consumer desire.

The technology blogs do this quite willingly, knowing that desire doesn’t just sell iPads but generates pageviews (and subsequently ad revenue). A snapshot from yesterday’s tech news aggregation site Techmeme shows the hundreds of stories that were churned out, regurgitating all the details offered in Tim Cook and Phil Schiller’s presentations and in the Apple press releases and now featured on the Apple website.

New iMacs — so slim! The iPad Mini — shipping soon! The Fusion Drive! The Retina Display!

CEO Cook did tout Apple’s success in getting schools to buy iPads, and no doubt education has become an important market and marketing narrative for the company. That's not news.

Cook also revealed that iTextbooks, announced in January at the one Apple event I will ever be allowed to attend I’m sure, now cover 80% of the high school “core curriculum” and have made their way into some 2500 classrooms. That’s what happens when you partner with the publishing giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill who control 90% of the textbook market, of course — you cover the “core curriculum.” These iTextbooks are so great, Cook quipped, they are “enough to make you want to be a kid again.”

Obsolescence and the Manufacture of Desire

If there is a want and a yearning associated with Apple, we all know that isn’t it. But the want is there — you could hear it in the “ooooo’s” of the crowd, you could see it in the real-time responses via Twitter as well. And as Apple is ever shortening the planned obsolescence cycle for its devices, it wants us to want and to buy with increasing frequency.

Schools have traditionally worked with a much longer replacement cycle. For better or worse, textbooks and computer hardware both are expected to last for years. The iPad 3 was announced in March and discontinued yesterday. How will schools adapt? How will they reconcile technology budgets with a throw-away culture techno-consumerism (softened supposedly by Schiller's repetition of the company's environmental record) and with this incredible manufactured technology desire?

There’s the new iPad Mini now too that the press suggest might “hit the EDU sweet spot.” At $329, it is cheaper than other available models — a whole $70 cheaper than the educational discount given for those ancient (18-month old) but full-size iPad 2s.

The iPad Mini is lighter-weight and easier to hold in one hand. But the smaller size will also make it very difficult to compose notes or essays and annotate those amazing iTextbooks. And as Scott McLeod pointed out, the iPad Mini does not meet the minimum hardware specifications for the new computer-based Common Core assessments.

The PR Machine

Nobody in the technology press caught that detail — and it’s an important one, even though, sure, those specifications may well change and even though (good grief) assessments shouldn’t be the sole driving force behind tech procurement. But no one asked either why schools should be excited about the potential for creating their own iTextbooks with iBooks Author since that software still requires Macs.

And following the news that one of Apple’s major competitors, Amazon, had shut down a customer’s account and stripped her of all the Kindle books she’d purchased, no one asked why we’d want to step uncritically into a relationship with any technology maker who embraces DRM, who controls the app and e-book ecosystem, and who locks down both the operating system and the hardware.

The technology press doesn’t see it as its role to ask these questions. If it did, it wouldn’t be invited to the Apple events, and wouldn’t get to touch the iPad Mini first, well before consumers have the opportunity to even place their orders. Its job, it appears, is to serve as PR for the richest company in the world and to help fuel the desire for Apple products.

Where does education — and where do tech savvy educators — fit into this, we should ask? Where do we fit in in terms of technology, desire, product cycles, feel-good stories, and marketing? If the press has become PR, what will our responses be — as readers, thinkers, and yes, as consumers?

Image credits: Apple



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