I flew down to Houston today, and had an opportunity to listen in the airport, in the air, and a bit on the cab ride to my hotel to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates’ recent interview at the D5 conference. The interview and subsequent Q&A lasts 1.5 hours, and is available as a free download from iTunes in both audio and video versions. (Thanks to my cousin, Devin Henley, for sharing the link.)I opted for the smaller audio version at about 80 MB, the video version was almost 1 gigabyte in size!!! The very idea of that seems outlandish… yet here we are in 2007, being able to download (thanks to high speed Internet connections) HUGE media files to both laptop computers and mobile media devices like iPods. Amazing.

The interviewers both tried repeatedly to get Bill and Steve to look into their crystal balls and project what the future is going to hold in the next five or ten years. Bill talked about alternate computing interfaces a bit, where the computer will respond to visual cues as well as speech, but Steve mainly said “I don’t know.” It struck me how apt Miguel Guhlin’s keynote presentation title for the TUANZ conference in March was: “The Future is Unwritten.” I haven’t listened to it yet, and actually plan to take it in later this evening, but Miguel and I were visiting last night as he was preparing to spend some time speaking with administrators in El Paso, Texas, about our digital landscape and the role of educational leaders in it. That is my topic also for a day-long workshop tomorrow with principals and assistant principals in Humble, Texas, just outside of Houston. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity.

When asked about what things they wish they’d known or skills they’d possessed earlier in their careers that the other person seemed to have, Bill and Steve had interesting answers near the end of the interview. Bill talked about Steve’s intuition and ability to make decisions (especially about consumer products) based not just on engineering rationales (which is how Bill said his mind works) but on aesthetic values of taste and intuition. Steve also talked about intuition, and the value of being able to identify, hire and surround yourself with amazingly talented people– often based on limited information and more an intuitive sense of who they are and the creativity they could bring to a company or project.

After viewing the most recent advertisements for the iPhone, I admit I’m really looking forward to what new “post-PC” devices (to use the parlance of Steve) like the iPhone are going to mean not only for education, but also just living life. The phone will certainly be one of the “killer apps” of the iPhone, but I think the GPS is going to give that functionality and title a close run for its money. Wow. As Steve said, who would have thought you’d put maps on a phone five years ago, and have what you can do now on an iPhone? (Or what you’ll be able to do when you finally get to buy one, I should say.)

The importance of PARTNERSHIPS and COLLABORATION also came through strongly in the comments of both these leaders. As Steve said, Apple isn’t doing world-class search and back-end maps right now, so they have intelligently partnered with other companies who are doing that. The ability to mashup technologies and invent new ways to work and communicate, not only more efficiently but also in fundamentally different ways, is really an extraordinary thing. My taxi driver today in Houston could have used an iPhone quite handily, to quickly obtain turn-by-turn directions to my hotel. I’m sure many of the functionalities possible with the iPhone and other “post-PC” handheld devices are not even on our radar screens yet, because creative people haven’t come up with the applications yet. But they will.

How do we prepare students for an unwritten future? Certainly we have to study the past, but as Steve also said in the interview, we can’t just be always looking to the past. We have to look to the future. We need to collaborate, create, struggle and build together now to develop and refine those skills which will serve us well in the uncertain yet amazingly exciting world of our present and future.

It was very interesting and perhaps telling that when the interviewers asked Bill and Steve about social networking online and the impact/role they see that having in the future, both were silent. They didn’t have responses! I wonder how many of our administrators would be similarly challenged to address that question in the context of schools. Bill certainly did address education, and in fact identified it as one of the number one issues about which we (as citizens and voters in the United States) should be concerned in the upcoming elections. They seemed to vaguely reference the potential which collaborative technologies are and can have on helping learners connect with each other and learn together, but they didn’t have specific examples of this or seem to have a real handle on that subject– particularly digital social networking. I was hoping one of them would mention the K12 Online Conference, but of course they didn’t!

As is the case with many adults in our society, I think that both Bill and Steve have strong senses of the potential of technology tools to empower individuals (including learners) but perhaps not a roadmap for how that sort of paradigm shift and transformation should be best facilitated. Bill did say the challenges we face in education do not have purely technological solutions, but are more institutional and cultural. (“institutional” was his word, “cultural” is my paraphrase.) I did really resonate with the words Steve shared about how, in the context of the music and now Hollywood movie industry, Apple has attempted to provide options for companies and helped corporate leaders in those industries map out alternatives and options for doing business in a very different digital environment. I think the same thing needs to be done for schools and for school leaders.

My workshop tomorrow is not going to focus explicitly on policy-level changes that we need in our country and perhaps other countries to facilitate a transition to a truly learner-centered, constructivist educational paradigm which provides students with both the foundational content knowledge as well as process skills they need to thrive in a digitally interconnected informational environment. We will, however, touch on these issues, and I am personally thrilled to have an opportunity to work with educational leaders grappling with these topics. I know I certainly grow through processes and opportunities like this, and I hope the participants will as well.

I listened to the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope podcast “Double Sunsets in Distant Skies” this past weekend driving in the car. Perhaps strangely, I was inspired and affirmed to not be frustrated and pessimistic about the slow rate of change we see in many formal educational settings by the words the research scientists shared in the podcast. Consider the following:

  • According to the current article WikiPedia for the Milky Way, our own galaxy contains somewhere between 200 billion and 400 billion stars, depending on the definition of “star” that is used.
  • According to the Spitzer podcast I heard, scientists estimate two-thirds to three-fourths of all stars in our Milky Way are binary systems, meaning there are two stars together. These are the sorts of stars which could have solar systems and planets like Tatooine, portrayed graphically in Episode IV of the Star Wars original trilogy when Luke watches the sunset after a day of work for his Uncle Owen.
  • Also according to the scientists interviewed in the Spitzer podcast, “planet hunter” scientists are not even looking at present at these binary Milky Way stars for other planets, in part because the gravitational complexities of binary star systems are orders of magnitude more complex than single star systems. So “planet hunters” are basically ignoring two-thirds to three-fourths of the potential stars out there that might have planets and therefore life forms! Amazing!

suns of Tatooine

So why did I find these scientific estimations to be inspiring? The reason is that we are living in an amazing era of rapid, discontinuous change, and the places we, our children, and our grandchildren are going to go both ideologically as well as physically in our lifetimes seems beyond our meager abilities to imagine.

Of course our schools are going to change. Of course we are going to move beyond our current paradigm of paying for seat time, and our ridiculous and widespread myopic focus on high-stakes, summative assessments. As Carl Honore wrote on page 206 in his excellent text, “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed”:

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the norm has been to pay people for the hours they spend on the job rather than for what they produce.

This pervasive pattern of paying people for their time rather than their productivity or creativity extended naturally from the factory into the school of the 19th century. We have inherited that educational system and the predominant mindsets which accompany it. Yet in our own lifetimes, I sense that we are going to transcend this paradigm of thinking and move into more authentic, valid and helpful patterns of both thinking and behavior when it comes to learning in formal as well as informal contexts. As I have written and said before, this is an opportunity for leadership. The reactionary and fear-laden voices will continue all around us, but that context provides the opportunity we need for visionary leaders to step forward. Now is the time for these leaders to both realize and define their destiny, and the destiny of us all, as we move forward amidst the seemingly chaotic forces of history.

The future is unwritten. Steve Jobs can’t predict it with much accuracy, and neither can Bill Gates. Neither can your school board, your school superintendent, or your PTA. Given that reality, we must commit ourselves to prepare students for success in a world which is SO much more dynamic but also laden with possibilities than the world of the 20th century in which all of today’s adults grew up.

Let’s look to the stars, as Luke did in Episode IV, and take heart. Yes, there is an amazingly large galaxy “out there,” and there are (according to the current WikiPedia article for “galaxy”):

…probably more than one hundred billion (10 to the 11th power) galaxies in the observable universe.

To take that amazing statistic even one step further, consider that some astronomical physicists theorize there may be multiple universes. (See Dr. Alex Filippenko of UC Berkeley’s lecture on “A Multiverse: The Search for Life” from Astro C10 / LS C70U – Fall 2005: Introduction to General Astronomy in December 2005 for more on that subject.)

We live in a world that seems to be getting smaller thanks to technology, in a universe that appears to literally be growing ever-larger at scales we cannot begin to fathom. The collaborative tools we have at our fingertips TODAY are staggering in their power and current reach. Who can predict what constructive things we’ll be able to do with these tools tomorrow? It’s an exciting day to be alive, and I’m tickled as I can be to share in this educational journey with you.

Thanks to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for sharing some thought-provoking ideas with me today as a traveled 450 miles from Edmond, Oklahoma, to Houston, Texas! 🙂

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2 Responses to The future is unwritten

  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    There is no GPS on the iPhone.

  2. Looking to the future, missing the present…

    Wes Fryer had an interesting post yesterday, The Future is Unwritten. He said a lot of especially smart things (as usual) about changing policies to move beyond 19th century factory models of school. However, there was one part that got my mind spinni…

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