Dropping out and dropping in – Steve Jobs and higher education

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:


8 Comments On “Dropping out and dropping in – Steve Jobs and higher education”

  1. Nice post. It’s interesting that while at Stanford, he didn’t mention any positives for the current system. As you mentioned, he “effectively” dropped out. He dropped into what he liked specifically. College for me currently in the (USA) is a waste of time/money/income. We have a pointless 2 years of prerequisites. Then after that, a usual deprecated 2 more years for a 4 year degree.

    Point of my comment is this: College is a scam. If you are capable of learning what you want. Their should be recognized alternatives. Maybe it’s my bias from the USA. However, colleges reap rewards in profit.

    Btw, nice font-families…


  2. Tx Ryan, I agree and I don’t think that it’s just a US thing although it may be more apparent there as many things are. I’m hoping that we will end up in a situation where people learn what they want to when they want to and at a reasonable cost (if not for free). It’ll take a while to get there and many interests will attempt to slow the journey.

    PS. The fonts are just the ones from my current WP theme which I quite like at the moment.


  3. Hi Mark,

    I completely agree with your last statement: I also *think* we are at the beginning stages of seeing changes to higher education systems, particularly with Open Educational Resources, MOOC, and other online resource sharing systems. I’m especially excited about how technology could both change how folks pursue their interests (rather than forcing 2 years of required courses) and reach audiences that currently don’t have access to education. The later is something my organization – The Saylor Foundation (www.saylor.org) – is aiming to do. (If you haven’t heard of us – which is likely, as we’re fairly new – please check out our site. We’re offering over 200 free, peer-reviewed online college-level courses.)

    I just came across your blog today and am looking forward to future posts and musings!

    Best regards,


    • Hi Camie,

      Apologies for the delay in replying. Thanks for your kind words. They are much appreciated.

      Your site sounds very interesting. I just had a look at your site. It looks like a great venture. I hope you have every success with it.




  4. Hi Mark
    Great Post!

    I liked this quote that sums up one of the main points for me

    “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 couldn’t agree more. I went back to Uni to do a PhD about 10 years after my undergraduate education in medicine. I have notice a huge change in the climate of university learning in that time where we are now shifting into a business model of education – ie education in university is more like a commodity that can be bought, it seems to be about the endpoint (eg Degree) rather than the process and sprit of learning. To me this is an obvious change, and logical one given the cost of education rising, but to many it is not even apparent.

    Thank you for your article it raises a very important point – education for educations sake will encourage those who really want to learn.

    I often wonder what is the point in completing a degree when there seems to be little interest in improving the learning journey and so much focus on the endpoint – food for thought perhaps.

    I also like your article on blogging and trust – well done!


    I will comment on this separately

    Bishan 🙂


  5. Hi Mark!
    Thank you for the post, I’m totally agree with your vision of e-learning outlook.
    And especially thank you for sharing this video. I am ashamed to confess I’ve never seen it before, although I respect Steve Jobs a lot and often look for fresh information and media about him and his activities.


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