The news that Apple Inc. co-founder and chief executive Steve Jobs is taking a health hiatus until the end of June sent the company’s shares tumbling 4 percent last week, reportedly wiping out some $10 billion in shareholder wealth. But in considering what the news might mean for schools, educational technology leaders who spoke with eSchool News were more measured in their response.
"Steve Jobs, as an iconic leader, represents more to shareholders than to end users at this moment," said Jim Hirsch, associated superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. "Products that we in education are most interested in have been in the pipeline for some time already, so the medical leave of absence will have little impact on our purchases over the next 12 months."
However, if Jobs does not return to an active role at Apple in the time frame he has indicated, Hirsch said he might be "concerned about [Apple’s] future product direction."
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Apple’s shares have surged and receded over the past year in step with rumors or news about Jobs’ health and gaunt appearance. The concern was high because Jobs has a hand in everything from ideas for new products to the way they’re marketed, and much of the credit for Apple’s success, rightly or wrongly, is attributed to him.
"Everyone is in a panic that the world will end if Jobs leaves Apple," said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., which he referred to as "Apple Central."
As for what the news might mean for schools, "I don’t think that it will affect educators one way or the other," Liebman said. "Those that are Apple fans will still want to buy Macs, as I believe they are dedicated to what the Mac can do in the classroom. … So, while the story is big, it won’t change what we do–and I don’t think it will affect Apple’s sales to schools."
Bill Rankin, director of educational innovation at Abilene Christian University in Texas, agreed.
In February, Abilene announced plans to give free iPhones or iPod touches to more than 900 incoming freshman this past fall. Students had a choice between the two Apple products, and two-thirds of freshmen picked the iPhone, said Rankin, who is also an associate professor of English. The university also gave iPods or iPhones to half its faculty, and it will dole out Apple devices to the freshman class next fall.
Rankin said the iPods and iPhones have bolstered professor-student communication and are regularly used to supplement classroom lessons. The news about Jobs’ health, Rankin said, won’t shake the campus’s confidence in Apple.
"I think Apple has so solidified its culture of innovation over the last decade or so … that I think we’re completely confident that Apple will continue to lead in educational innovation," Rankin said. "We’re committed to [the company]."
Although campus officials were concerned for Jobs personally, Rankin said schools that have worked closely with Apple this decade likely are confident that the company’s business model and infrastructure will remain intact.
"I don’t think anyone was particularly worried about the company’s health," he said. "I think [Apple] is in a really good place … and we’re going full steam ahead."
In 2006, Georgia College & State University (GCSU) emerged as a higher-education leader in using Apple products–including the iPod–in the classroom. GCSU officials said student and faculty reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the incorporation of Apple technology helped stabilize enrollment.
Jim Wolfgang, director of GCSU’s Digital Innovation Group, said the news of Jobs’ hiatus was "somewhat worrisome," but meetings with other Apple officials over the years have instilled confidence among GCSU decision makers.
"Even though the visions tend to come out of Jobs’ presentations, if you see the internal workings [at Apple], you see the dedicated ownership by the staff and you see those visions are carried out in a very conscientious way," he said.
Wolfgang said he has worked closely with Apple in recent months to deploy iTunes U–which allows students to download lectures and other classroom material onto their iPods–at 35 public colleges and universities across Georgia. After tracking Apple’s involvement with higher education, Wolfgang said Jobs’ announcement shook some educators.
"It was really a feeling of disappointment," Wolfgang said. "But I think innovative things will continue to come down the line. We’re still optimistic about the future of working with Apple."
Christopher Dawson, technology director for the Athol-Royalston School District in northern Massachusetts and a blogger for ZDNet, took a different tack in a recent blog post provocatively titled "Could Jobs’ departure [be] good news for education?"
"Apple largely seems to have forgotten about the market that [it] built in the 80s and that helped sustain [the company] through leaner times," Dawson wrote, referring to education.
"Apple is [largely] a consumer products company now, but [it has] a lot to offer the educational market. [Apple’s products] handle multimedia and the web very well … and make content creation a snap for students and teachers. … The problem is that they’re just so bloody expensive."
Perhaps with new leadership at the helm, Dawson suggested, Apple will renew its focus on developing cost-effective products for schools.
Apple’s chief operating officer, Tim Cook, will take over Jobs’ responsibilities while he is on leave, though Jobs said he plans to remain involved in major strategic decisions.
Jobs proved his technological genius long ago, analysts say. Now, Cook will provide some insight into whether Jobs was smart enough to groom an executive who can keep the shine on Apple even when Jobs isn’t around.
Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan., concluded: "If Apple’s success is as dependent on Steve Jobs as many in the media would have us believe, then Jobs has failed miserably as a leader in building a sustainable vision for Apple."
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