Apple and the core of new technology

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Michael Russell on the gulf between Mac and Microsoftin education

* America, the political phrase "apple polishing" means an attempt to win favour by gifts or flattery. It arises, obviously, from the age-old saw about pupils bearing brightly-buffed fruit to school, in order to please their teachers.

In education, however, those days are past. Now, the Scottish Executive's healthy eating schemes notwithstanding, the only "apples" in class are likely to be electronic ones.

That change has taken place very quickly for, on April 1, Apple Computer - begetter of the Macintosh and officially one of the top half-dozen brands in the world - will be celebrating its 30th birthday. It is but a stripling.

The world is divided in many ways, but one of the most profound gulfs is between those who are Mac people, and those who are ensnared by Microsoft.

The corporate world seemingly has sold its soul to Bill Gates, and much of the personal computer market has fallen to him, too, although Apple keeps fighting back. But the education sector has always dared to "think different", to quote a long-term Apple advertising slogan.

Although their dominance is no longer quite as clear-cut, Apple still remains popular in schools. This is probably because, after a long period of sluggish growth and lack of significant innovation, Apple took, as my granny used to say, a jump to itself in the late 1990s. With the introduction of the iPod, the major uprating of its operating system (much easier to use and much more dynamic than Windows) and now with stylish designs and faster chips, the company once more is showing what it can do.

A classroom 30 years ago was a very different place, of course. There would not have been a computer to be seen. Even the earliest Sinclair device - the kit which preceded the pioneering British company's much better-selling Spectrum computer - was not yet on the market and the BBC Acorn was another four years away. Banda duplicators were the commonest, and smelliest, teaching tool.

Given the speed of electronic advance, it is sometimes very sobering to consider just that sort of fact. Anyone over 40 is unlikely to have had any experience of, or contact with, computing in school.

Technologically, for most pupils, education did not involve much more than rudimentary (and usually mechanical) calculators until the early 1980s - the first popular, though still expensive, battery calculator appearing on the market only in 1973. I was in my first job when I got one in 1975, but it was 1985 before I worked in an office which contained a computer of any description; the height of automation before that was IBM's "golfball"

typewriter, the Selectric. When I bought an Amstrad word processor in 1987 to use at home, my Lanarkshire neighbours thought I was at the cutting edge of technology.

By that time, there were computers appearing in many classrooms and now it is inconceivable that Scottish education could be undertaken without them and without the vast range of software that covers every subject.

But technology has not just progressed, it has mushroomed. Last week I had my first hands-on experience of smart boards, and I was immediately hooked.

The potential for any teacher is enormous and if - as should be mandatory but amazingly in some schools is not - it is combined with fast internet access and linked to elegantly efficient Apple software and hardware, then the result is almost miraculous. Or so it would have seemed if it had suddenly been spirited into any classroom in which I sat as a child.

How extraordinary it would have been, 30 years ago, to be able to access a whole world of information (in every medium) simply by tapping on a board on the wall. How sensational - in the literal sense - to allow children to write and comment and change in front of the whole class, and be able to share and build on such participation in a way that the whole class can experience.

Of course, more is possible. Individual tablet PCs linked to the smart board - already used in some schools - will allow every child to personalise the experience and to send information to and receive information from the teacher, allowing instant assessment and instant feedback.

And it will all go even further. Just as most present-day adults are out of date when it comes to what is going on in classrooms, those currently behind the desks will soon be the same.

I have, admittedly, done my best to keep up. I would be lost without a large screen on my desk, connected by fast broadband to all parts of the world, and with a laptop to substitute when I am away from home.

They are, of course, both Apple machines. Having spent the best part of two decades struggling with PCs (I bought my first in 1991 when I started my own production company), I became increasingly frustrated with sluggish performance, slow start-up, endless software glitches and constant re-booting. The final straw came when trying to edit some home video: my top-of-the range PC kept dropping frames, but my wife's bog-standard Apple iBook handled it like a Hollywood pro.

Add to that my experience of the iPod - surely the most remarkable innovation in sound reproduction in my lifetime - and I was hooked. I did not realise then that becoming a Mac owner is equivalent to joining a new religion.

Yet I believe I have measured up even to that standard. I have persuaded several of my friends to switch (they only have to come and see my machine to begin to be envious, for Macs not only work well but look tremendous).

When I gave my university student son a new computer of his own (as opposed to my cast-offs) for his 18th birthday, it was, inevitably, an Apple.

Polished, of course.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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