Reflecting on 30 years of the Mac in education

Last Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh computer, the flagship product from Apple. The anniversary was marked by an impressive spread on Apple’s website dedicated to the computer’s three-decade-long legacy. Other tributes to the computer included a ceremonial deconstruction of the original Macintosh 128K and reflections on the original model’s introduction.

Conspicuously absent in coverage of the anniversary has been a reflection on the Macintosh’s impact on education. The Macintosh’s landmark innovation was the introduction of the graphical user interface, or GUI. While this made manipulating data and documents easier for everyone, its greatest impact was making computing easier for students. The Macintosh may be the grandfather of technology in education.

It is difficult to remember a time when computers did not have a GUI. The innovation had become standard before I was even born. Before the GUI, operating a computer required understanding a complex and confusing language of the machine. Commands were entered as text, navigating through files and documents required commands and memorization to be efficient. For adults, this limitation was frustrating, but with practice, navigation through the command line interface could be accomplished.

For children though, it was nearly impossible. There was no way that a child could be expected to remember or learn complex code in order to use a computer. In the ‘70s though, few people believed that children had any reason to use computers. Their application in the education space was considered an expense unnecessary to the learning process.

The Macintosh changed all of that. The introduction of the GUI allowed users to perceive data spatially, based on real-life analogues. This “skeuomorphism” allowed users to see their documents and files as visual windows, which could be manipulated by clicking and dragging them around. Settings and changes happened with visual menus. Users could visualize images with accuracy that was unheard of in a consumer machine.

The original Macintosh was expensive at $2,499 and had limited software, but it marked a major change in the use of computers in education. Computer labs began to fill with Macintoshes and their successors. Educators were able to focus on using computers as learning tools instead of spending time teaching students simply how to use the machine itself.  The Mac’s powerful graphics technology allowed students to work with pictures, type cleaner word documents, and visually learn concepts in mathematics and science.

We have come a tremendously long way since the first Macintosh in 1984. Today, GUIs are common, as are concepts that were never thought possible in 1984: video content, the Internet as a whole, interactive multimedia for education, and remote education and lessons.

30 years later, computers are an indispensable part of K-12 and college education. Universities depend on students having their own personal computers, while many public and private schools throughout the country are now providing computers to students for enhanced learning both in the classroom and at home.

Today, we use endless varieties of personal computers from dozens of manufacturers, but Apple is still one of the major players in ed tech. The iPad has taken the mantle as a key driving force in innovative technology in the classroom. Like the GUI before it, the iPad’s touch screen interface has removed major usability obstacles for young students, and boosted mobile productivity in adult education. Using our computers with touch has opened up even more possibilities in the fields of mathematics, science, English, and interactive education for students.

Ease of use is critical to the success of technology in education. Our devices must be portals into new forms of learning. They cannot be obstacles that distract from the lessons to be learned. Computers should be companions, not adversaries, in the world of education.

30 years later, it seems Apple and the Macintosh understood that fact.

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Filed Under: Technology