The recent passing of Steve Jobs gives us a

photo credit: annasit

chance to remember his innovative spirit and influence which extended deeply into the education space. Jobs contributed much to education—far beyond the Mac labs that continue to shape high school students. But beyond his iconic Apple products and memorable university commencement speeches, the enduring legacy that education could benefit from most was his ability to find greatness and innovation by not being unduly afraid of failure. Some of his greatest contributions to education weren’t seen as successes until far later.

Defining Success

When Jobs unwillingly parted ways with Apple back in 1985, he could have considered it a personal failure and given up. But he didn’t. He founded another company—NeXT—that would have profound implications for new frontiers in online education and the evolution of education technology. NeXT focused heavily on selling computers specifically for education. They only sold about 50,000 computers, and by many standards, that constitutes failure. But in retrospect, the modern world of technology would look very different without the formation of NeXT. A NeXTcube workstation would form the inspiration for the first web server and web browser software. What many considered failure at the time gave us the tools we take for granted today. That’s the kind of risk taking and innovative spirit we need in education.

Innovation Can Produce Failure

The problem with introducing innovation into the current education model is that folks are so afraid of failure that innovation seems too risky. It’s true. Innovation can lead to mistakes. Steve Jobs said, “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.” This inherent understanding that innovation can result in occasional mistakes is what allowed Jobs so many great successes. The willingness to try for greatness requires this kind of attitude. But if we remain fearful of real innovation in education reform, it’s unlikely that we’ll encounter real workable post-industrial solutions for a pre-industrial education system.

Learning to Measure Success Differently

Most of the conversations that folks have about Steve Jobs dwell on his financial success and the marketing genius behind Apple’s iconic brand. But the extent to which his financial failures managed to create an environment that helped usher in our modern digital world shows us that we need to measure success differently. What success means in education is often such a narrow view that focuses strictly on education outcomes. That means that innovation that could result in better learning and information retention tends to be neglected in favor of essentially teaching to a test. Until we step back and have a serious conversation about what really constitutes success, it’s hard to see that changing significantly.