In 2003, I had the great honor of leading Apple’s first ever One-to-One at St. Leo University in Dade City, Florida. This was a groundbreaking event, and in terms of scale alone it was a massive undertaking: Every student received their own electronic device (the first iBook — 880 of them in total), and the campus itself had to be wired (or rather, unwired) using Apple’s cutting edge wireless base station. The significance wasn’t just technological, but ideological, too — at the time, one of the biggest investments anyone had ever made into the notion that computers and personal electronics could be highly beneficial in classroom settings.
Fast-forward to 2017 and I see a lot of articles like this one,concerning “the enduring power of print in the digital world.” Let me say from the outset that I am a big believer in the power of print, and in fact I attribute much of my success to regular reading. I have to say, though, that the dichotomy between “print” and “digital” has always struck me as a faulty one. Aren’t the words on your iPad screen print, just as surely as the words in a physical book?
What people mean when they draw a line between print and digital is really more about paper versus LCD. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about books, regardless of whether they are printed in the traditional way or displayed on a screen. And there is no device that will ever replace books.
What devices like the iPhone and iPad do are make books more portable, more convenient; they allow us to further incorporate reading into our daily lives, just like the iPod allowed people to further integrate music. Of course, no one ever talks about the conflict between music and MP3 because they know that those are fraudulent categories. The iPod changed the medium but didn’t change the content of music. In much the same way, electronic devices may have changed the delivery system for the printed word, but the printed word it remains. The act of reading is a little more flexible these days, but otherwise it’s fundamentally unchanged.
To that end, it’s worth noting that most of the popular platforms for bringing the written word to electronic devices do not tamper with the base content at all; in fact, a lot of the reading I do on my iPhone is just based on PDF files. There aren’t “enhancements” made to the text, no bells or whistles, no sound effects or animations. None of that stuff is need; adding it wouldn’t make the reading process any richer.
So in thinking about how mobile devices have and haven’t changed the way we read and learn, I can’t help but go back to the basic approach we had at Apple — namely, that the simplest solution is almost always the best one. Or, to quote something John Gall said in 1975: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”
Education technology — when it works — is based on the pure and simple act of reading. Mobile devices have certainly presented us with more ways and more opportunities to read; that’s what that first One-to-One event was really about. But technology hasn’t replaced reading, nor altered the basic impact of the printed word. And it never will. Reading is still the simplest solution there is for anyone looking to expand their personal horizons — and that’s true whether you prefer your printed word on papyrus, in a leather-bound book, or from the glow of your iPhone.