People that know me know that I didn’t always agree with Steve Jobs but I have no doubt of his creative skill and vision and his impact on modern life. I also think he had a huge impact on education and not always in the ways you might expect. I’ve been watching the Stanford University commencement address given by Steve Jobs in 2005. I had never seen it before his death on Thursday.

In his address he tells three stories about his life. The first is about his adoption and how his biological parents where determined that he be adopted by college graduates but that didn’t happen. In fact neither of his adopted parents had a college education. When Steve Jobs went to college himself he described how he effectively dropped out after six months. In his words what happened was that he then ‘dropped  in’. He spent the next 18 months going to classes that interested him including a class on calligraphy that sparked an interest in beautiful typography. Ten years later when building the first Apple computer he used his understanding and knowledge from those classes to create what he describes as the first computer with beautiful typography.

I love this story not just because of my own love of typography but because it in some ways it represented a rejection of commodified education in favour of education for education’s sake. I see echoes of this in the way that higher education may transform itself in future. We can see it already in the massive open online courses (MOOC) that are starting to be run by some academics and some institutions. There is a certain symmetry in noting that Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence course had 225,000 enrollments in early September 2011.  This initiative in turn has been built on the pioneering MOOCs run by Stephen Downes, Alec Couros and Jim Groom among many others. I hope it is the start of continuing movement provided by many other academics and institutions that will allow universities to fulfill their true role in higher education.

In describing myself I use the following phrase:

I’m an educational technologist and e-learning person who believes that the disruption caused by modern communication technologies will lead to better systems of higher education and a re-invention of what universities should be about.

I believe that we are starting to see this happen. Massive open online courses are an output of the disruptive nature of modern information technology and the choice that Steve Jobs made at his college to ‘drop in’ rather than ‘drop out’ will, I hope, become the norm and not the exception.

You can watch Steve’s address here:


62 thoughts on “Dropping out and dropping in – Steve Jobs and higher education

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