Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Questionable Apple Behavior Regarding Original ACOT Research and Challenge Based Learning

This is a guest blog post by Sherman Nicodemus. This is my seventh post in a series this week on “Moving at the Speed of Creativity.” If you have questions about this post I’ll be glad to answer them via comments here.

I’ve been wrestling with a question for months now, and perhaps you can shed some light on the answer for me. Why did Apple remove the ACOT (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) research documents from its main website, if those “research results” were intended to help inform educational decision makers about the potential value of educational technologies through the dissemination of valid, reliable research results?

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) research was conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, and was at the time the longest longitudinal study of classroom technology integration conducted by anyone. The research was funded by Apple, and Apple certainly stood to gain financially from research findings which pointed to the positive impact which appropriately utilized technologies could have on teaching and learning inside as well as outside the classroom. ACOT2 (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow – Today) is a “next generation” research effort by Apple, which ostensibly seeks to carry on the successful research model and results of the original ACOT program which spanned ten years, from 1985 through 1995.

Here is what mystifies me: If ACOT2 is legitimate research which should be respected on a par with academic research published in journals not affiliated with commercial vendors, why are there not ANY linked references back to the original ACOT research on the ACOT2 website? Why does it appear Apple has removed/deleted all the original ACOT research reports from its corporate website? This seems very strange, and even fishy.

The published report, “Changing the Conversation About Teaching, Technology, & Learning ~ A Report on 10 Years of ACOT Research” was published at some point on and Those links are now broken. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine grabbed copies of the first PDF URL in 2006 and 2007, and the second in 2003 and 2005. Those dates do not necessarily reflect the only years during which this document was available online at those addresses, however. A Google search for the document title reveals it is still available as part of Marco Baeza’s old student portfolio for his Internet Masters of Educational Technology degree from Sacramento State. It appears Baeza’s archived copy was not authorized or sanctioned by Apple. I haven’t spent hours looking for it, but other than Baeza’s link and the Wayback Machine’s copies, I can’t locate this document online anywhere else. This seems REALLY strange.

A Google Scholar search for “Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow” yields over 20,000 results today. This reflects the authority and legitimacy with which ACOT research has been regarded by many. One of these websites includes archived copies of the periodic ACOT published research results. This is an example of ACOT Report #8. (PDF) Again I am mystified why Apple would remove these “research documents” from their own website.

The current Apple “Resource” page for Teachers & Professors does not include ANY references to original ACOT research, or links to any ACOT research materials. There IS a link to the “ACOT2 White Paper,” but again no link to original ACOT research publications or findings.

I think many of the ideas expressed in the ACOT2 documents are superb and needed. We absolutely need to rethink formal education, classrooms, and learning environments. It troubles me, however, that Apple has apparently jettisoned its “past research” (ACOT 1) in the publication of this new and updated, ACOT 2 framework. Why would legitimate academic or scientific researchers do this? They wouldn’t, which leads me to question the legitimacy and validity of both the original ACOT research as well as the ACOT2 research initiative.

The other thing which troubles me deeply about Apple’s ACOT2 initiative is its “Challenge Based Learning” framework. Project-based learning and problem-based learning are pedagogical approaches which have a relatively long history, particularly when compared with the short history of educational technology. EduTopia’s website portal for “Project Based Learning” includes a rich assortment of videos and other resources which clearly establish the academic history of PBL. In its ACOT2 initiative, rather than state something like, “Educational experts and researchers at Apple endorse and support project-based approaches to learning,” the Apple Challenge-Based Learning website states:

To address the need to create new ways of engaging students to achieve, Apple worked with educators across the country to develop the concept of Challenge Based Learning. Challenge Based Learning applies what is known about the emerging learning styles of high school students and leverages the powerful new technologies that provide new opportunities to learn to provide an authentic learning process that challenges students to make a difference. Challenge Based Learning is an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with other students, their teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to develop deeper knowledge of the subjects students are studying, accept and solve challenges, take action, share their experience, and enter into a global discussion about important issues.

Just as many of the ideas included in ACOT2 are great and ones with which I agree personally and professionally, many of the ideas embodied in “Challenge Based Learning” are on target. I think its disingenuous and unfortunate, however, for Apple to “lay claim” to the core concepts and principles of project-based learning as it has been developed for decades by numerous educators as well as researchers.

Perhaps it’s silly of me to worry about questions like these, but integrity is very important and I find it lacking in both of these situations regarding Apple. Why did Apple take down all its original ACOT research from its website, and by a lack of hyperlinks dis-associate itself with the body of recognized educational technology research which was ACOT? Furthermore, why is Apple attempting to rename “project based learning” as “challenge based learning” and give itself corporate credit for coming up with this pedagogical approach, when it is patently obvious “they” are not the originators of the concept and method?

My only conclusion is that for Apple today in 2010, it’s all about selling stuff– Whether you’re working for Apple Education or working in an Apple Store. It’s not about a learning revolution. It’s not about fundamentally changing education, it’s about trying to simply shift educational decisionmaker attention to Apple products so that quarterly profits can go up yet again.

I can’t fault Apple for being a corporation. They ARE a corporation. I always thought Apple stood for values which were far bigger and more important than “just” profits, however. I’ve even heard Apple leaders say as much in the past.

I guess when you get really big, some basic things can change.

I miss the old Apple, and the friends I thought I had who used to work for that old company.

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10 responses to “Questionable Apple Behavior Regarding Original ACOT Research and Challenge Based Learning”

  1. John Rudkin Avatar


    John, that’s me, has been a champion of exactly the same principles as you. It was the honesty and the altruistic/philanthropic approach that attracted me to want to work at Apple. And so I did, but Apple UK – where I discovered latterly that things were ‘a-changing’, but not, I felt in the spirit of intention. ACOT? Where did it go. I suspect it slipped into the background on the launch of ACOT 2. I guess at some point the ACOT research, by virtue of its name became less relevant – but wait a minute…. it was about children and learning (how does it date?).
    Information is out there about the ACOT Programme (lets call it ACOT 1 because it did seem to have a start and an end), but in reality it had more of a life that even Apple Inc knows in that it continued to be a core part of many global programmes. It value, and the thinking it gave rise to certainly has relevance alongside what has now emerged from it (Challenge based learning was part of the toolkit of ACOT anyway). I have been lucky enough ;-( , over the years to miss the initial ACOT programme – I wanted one where I taught. I did, however use ACOT (principles and lessons from its research) in various forms on projects while at Apple UK. Even back in 1998 some (still current) Apple Education people were not happy about that. I never did understand why – these people had dubious backgrounds as professional educators and did not really understand that research doesn’t date – it just becomes embedded or awaits its time. You will not be aware that in the UK Apple partnered some very influential professional bodies who were key in changing the vision for the Future. One such was QUILT, a programme that had grown into the most successful “Further Education” training programme in the UK before it was superceded. We also (I inherited a seemingly lost cause) ran a programme called “The Learning Interchange – note, no “Apple” – in Scotland. That programme helped, I honestly mean this, to regrow a declining market in Scotland because we used a solid base of ACOT principles adapting the approach to suit the Scottish Curriculum. We “Apple” trained over 10,000 teachers in the ways to bring relevance and structure into using ICT in the classroom. Again, very few people in Apple Inc were aware of this – and in the end it was a lifeline to Apple Education. It was a delight to have been part of it. So ACOT has been very important. Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, individuals certainly in Apple UK were keen to highlight its irrelevance to modern education – indeed they also argued that our “long standing friends” in education were not worth any attention. The same people were, even as Apple’s envoys into schools, openly quietly Windows PCs into schools rather than making the effort to show the customer what the real advantages where. Mind, it was a hard time for Apple in the mid to late 90s, but still – things like ACOT were standouts and added value.

    I’ve no axe to grind here – but I go back to that point. Where is ACOT. It is no secret that Apple Learning Interchange went through a problem period last year. I noticed that when it came back some features and materials were missing. Some has gone back in, others are still missing. They are not accepting new content, other than centrally, and as Apple Distinguished Educators. Changes are afoot soon. I hope links to the ACOT material will appear again. If not, well it is still out there and I’ll happily republish it. I have Apple UK materials, including some of the output from Apple UKs (my projects) Scottish Learning Interchange, Exemplar “Fact Sheets” on projects and material we produced for the “South Yorkshire eLearning Programme” – another one of the projects I initiated while part of that operation. That was a £35million prospect that personally I worked more hours than I can think of on, again using the same principles but partners from all over Educational Technology and training to deliver a “Trial” year to. Unfortunately the one part that I was not directly able to control, the Virtual Learning Environment. I wanted to use the ALI model, but I was over ruled by someone who knew better – and that part was never delivered, blowing a pretty certain £35m on Apple business in the UK.

    You may find this a strange “confessional”, but it harks back to the very good point you make about “friends” and the Apple you knew. It’s still there – and I think at its heart, make no mistake it is still happening – its just that in some places “interpretions” have been stretched. I know this for a fact.

  2. Barbara Avatar

    You express confusion and dismay, but that is not evidence to lead to your conclusion that missing or relocated files equals a loss of commitment to education and a new commitment to sales. Maybe it’s true, but you aren’t giving any evidence–wonder is not evidence.

  3. Scott Avatar

    You’re surprised by this? I figured it out over a year ago when I realized that I’d have to substantially upgrade a 5 year old PowerBook (including buying a new OS, even though it was another “flavor” of OSX) in order to use a new iPod…but if I’d had a 5 year old PC running Windows XP, I would be able to use the new iPod without issue and without upgrade. Apple screwed their own customers, and I decided to spend the money I would have used on the upgrades on a brand new Windows laptop…and I tell everyone I can about it. With so much available in the cloud, it doesn’t make sense to me to spend twice as much on an Apple product.

  4. sean lancaster Avatar

    I believe nearly all of the findings of the original ACOT study have been published in various scholarly journals and ERIC documents, which are all still available to the field. I don’t have any studies handy since I just swung by, but the authors I remember being involved are among the following names: Sandholtz, Ringstaff, Dwyer and maybe Yocam . . . and more, I suspect.

    ACOT2 is supposed to be more cutting edge and current . . . more aligned with relevant national technology goals, so it doesn’t surprise me that Apple would promote their recent research instead of technology-based research collected 20 and 30 years ago. i doubt there is an ulterior motive.

  5. Scott Garrigan Avatar

    As Sean commented, the ACOT studies have been published and should be available outside of the Apple bubble. I agree that ACOT represents some of the most valuable research ever done on instructional technology, but let’s look at the context. First, Apple is a corporation that used to focus heavily on education, but does so a bit less today (what products have they focused on the education market lately?). Apple is now focused on building an unparalleled “user experience” in media consumption and media production. Their website is part of that effort and must be tightly focused on that goal. Additionally, the original ACOT studies were at a time when most students didn’t have a computer at home, when most teachers weren’t trained to use technology, networking was in its infancy, and the Web didn’t yet exist. As good as ACOT was, the world really has changed, and we need to view ACOT through a lens that is partly historic to determine what remains of value (a lot but not all). I can’t fault Apple for removing links that the uninformed may think reflects outdated research, especially since it’s available as published research.

    Apple is to be congratulated for pursuing ACOT2 … how many other technology companies sponsor real educational research? I don’t mind that they discuss “challenge-based learning.” One of the salient features of both project-based and inquiry-based models is the inherent challenge. Perhaps “challenge” is a more productive way?or at least a reasonable way?to focus the new research. I hope ACOT2 is as valuable to educators and technologists today as ACOT was in its time.

  6. John Rudkin Avatar

    Scott, The question about “what products have they focused on the education market lately?” is easy to answer, but its harder to see. Look at Apple Learning Interchange, Academic Interchange, iTunes U, look at the Accessibility support across almost all products. It is no “eMate”, or Education Series software, but usually it is real investment in ensuring education is catered for in mainstream product. eMate, after all, was an adaption of Newton. If not serendipity and luck have been incredibly successful. I know that Apple have been exploring the possibilities behind the scenes and keep education in consideration, if not to the fore all of the time. Why did they bring John Couch back? I’ve been luck enough to meet a number of teh global Education people – and some of them are very “in tune”. I think that iPad is going to show itself to be an example of this thinking. I also believe (and I’m on a limb here, but holding on with some security) that we are about to see a massive additional example of this soon. The new data centre is a sign of direction also. Agreed re: ACOT2. It has the possibility of being as big in future value (to us all) as ACOT was in the first place. The trouble is, Apple were not good at getting the benefits of that(and many other programmes) to those who needed to be aware. But then, in some geos Apple has shown that it was not interested in it. Practically, Apple is a business with local targets (I hate targets…it created this situation!) and the inability to leverage ACOT etc is is down to a lack of vision and understanding about Education.

  7. A. Frisbie Avatar
    A. Frisbie

    Dear Mr. Nicodemus,
    How is the “Apple today in 2010, it’s all about selling stuff” different than it was in 1997 or even earlier?  Getting early adopters is key to Sandholz’s research?

  8. RideLikeTheWind Avatar

    I think the issue is that Apple uses the connection with Education to push products, rather than using their interest in education (and their financial position) as a way of actually improving education. That is not to say they don’t have an interest in education or improving it, but that their interpretation is that schools are better primarily because of the use of their technology. CBL is a (viable, in my opinion) alternative to PBL, as it focusses on a physical solution to an issue that relates to a community, but that said i can accomplish it without technology, or with. Given, it might be more “engaging” with technology, but I have had just as much success running basic experiments as I have using Apple technologies to make the experience better.

  9. anon Avatar

    What ever happened to ACOT2? The site is still up but it doesn’t seem that there have been any updates since 2008.

  10. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    I’m not sure… I’ll see what I can find out.