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Steve Jobs’ legacy and what we can learn from it

Monday, August 29th, 2011
iPod Headphones

Simplicity and functionality are Job's legacy as much as his entrepreneurial management style.

Last week, Steve Jobs stepped down as the CEO of Apple. Apple as a technology company has come to dominate the market in terms of portable devices and  in some ways has revolutionised the way many of us use computers. What has made Jobs and Apple so special and what can we learn in our approaches to learning design and technology?

Jobs’ key ability for me – beyond making his products extremely desirable –  was to take existing technologies and make them objects that worked for the everyday user. MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers were already invented but none of them had the impact of the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad. The reason why they have sold in their millions other than exceptional marketing, is the attention to utility and design.

The early iPod for example – a wonderful combination of pure white with a silver back, large screen, bevelled edges and of course the white ear buds (what a fashion statement!). Go beyond and there was the simplicity of the click wheel navigation. It was a joy to find your music on the move – no need to wrestle with complex buttons and menus.

The iPhone and the iPad have continued this progression with intuitive gestures on devices that just feel right. There is a care and attention to detail – dare I say beauty – that sets them apart from their competitors. Apple and Jobs have created an experience.

How should we take this user-centric approach and simplicity of design in higher education?  As Jobs showed us, simplicity does not equate to ‘dumbing down’ but is rather a mindset that focuses on the end-user and ensuring that technology fulfils a basic, stated purpose.

The technology fades into the background, to be replaced by an experience centred on content.  Whether that content is the latest music from iTunes, or an Open University lecture from iTunes U, there are clear principles that make it easy for the user to engage with (and enjoy) the experience.

The challenge to educators and educational designers  is to always place the student at the centre of the design.  In our Carpe Diem workshops, we employ an outsider (nominally titled the ‘reality checker’) who comes into the proposed course with no prior knowledge to provide a critical eye on the structure of the course and the nature of the e-tivities. This process often exposes the designers to the tricky questions;  Why did you do that?  Did you think how hard it is to do this? Or the ever-confronting what is this trying to achieve?

Coming up with the answers is often rather difficult.  If Steve Jobs has only one message for higher education it is to focus on a single word – simplicity.

Neil Martin – Learning Technologist (Co-Pilot)

Image credit: wmbreedweld, iPod earplugs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.