Steve Jobs's Legacy to Higher Education

Linda Cicero, Stanford News Service

Steve Jobs at Stanford U.'s commencement in 2005: Many key innovations at universities, now and into the future, can be traced to him.
October 06, 2011

Today at virtually every college in the country, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died Wednesday, lives on in far more than spirit alone because he is so much a part of the generation of students whose lives he transformed.

Try, if you will, to imagine a campus without Macintoshes, iPods, iPads, and iPhones (this exercise might give some—particularly professors—much pleasure). If you were to do that, you would be mentally time-traveling into history, into the pre-Steve Jobs era.

Is higher education better because students now have their music in their ears, rather than in their dorm rooms? We can argue.

Is higher education better because papers now come printed out and not hand- or typewritten? We can argue.

Is higher education better now that students sit there with computers open in front of them? We can argue.

Is higher education better now that student can carry around a tablet with access to the Library of Congress and every periodical in the world? We can even argue about that.

But what we can't argue about is that as a result of Steve Jobs our environment has permanently changed. His genius in making devices that are beautiful, fun, useful, and that—most of all—students and others wanted to have, essentially remade our institutions of higher learning.

And that has only been the beginning. Many of the key aspects of the university of the future—including the fast-approaching paperless, bookless, campus; downloaded and online video lectures, podcasts, and courses; and easily created student projects in multimedia—can be traced directly to Jobs's innovations and his great interest in education. If you doubt the commitment, just go search iTunes U.

Higher education will see the influence of Steve Jobs's products for years to come: Tiny, elegant devices doing more and more; the opening up of individual innovation through apps; all of one's own—and the world's­—texts, simulations, music, pictures, videos, and connections in one's pocket. But don't consider only the devices.

Students now carry around within themselves, either consciously or (in most cases, I suspect) unconsciously the idea that technology can be both beautiful and incredibly useful in one's life.

They carry around (or should) in their heads the modern saga of the humble launch in the garage, the successful start-up, the takeover by nasty corporate interests, and the triumphant return that made Apple the biggest tech company in the world. Every college student sees, or should be made to see, in that story Jobs's unyielding drive toward perfection, toward his ideals, toward, if you will, the very best. And he got there.

Of course, he did not work alone. Another important lesson Jobs has taught students is that real innovation and change can come from multiple minds binding together around a strong leader and a worthy purpose. Technical innovation happens, as the technologist Kevin Kelly says, when the "technium"—the system of all technologies—wants it, meaning when conditions are right. And, fortunately for today's students, conditions for innovation are right. But Jobs showed students that an individual can also matter: The form that innovation takes depends on who is running the show. And Jobs was the master of form.

He was also a master of strategy. Jobs was the first to realize that "seeding" his products into education—providing them to students at special prices—would reap enormous rewards later on in user loyalty. And because Jobs's products were so well-designed, it became cool, not geeky, for students to own and use them. That ownership created a bottom-up push for educational innovation that is still being felt.

Jobs was, by all reports, a hard taskmaster, always trying to come as close as technologically possible to his ideals. But he was also a great teacher. He inspired people to work harder, to produce Apple's "insanely great" never-before-seen products that have captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation and beyond.

Eventually, I imagine, without Jobs, Apple's products will blend with others into the rapidly advancing technological system. Yet the influence of Steve Jobs, the person and the legend, will endure much longer. He has joined a Pantheon of human heroes who fought long and hard for their great visions—and who won. That is Steve Jobs's legacy to higher education, and to us all.

Marc Prensky is an educational author and software designer. His book Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning was published by Corwin in 2010. His next book, From Digital natives to Digital Wisdom, will be published by Corwin in January.