Steve Wozniak, a Silicon Valley icon and philanthropist for the past three decades, helped shape the computing industry with his design of Apple Computer’s first line of products and influenced the popular Macintosh. For his achievements with Apple, Wozniak was awarded the National Medal of Technology by the President of the United States in 1985, the highest honor bestowed on leading innovators in the United States.
In 2000, Wozniak was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame and received the prestigious Heinz Award for "single-handedly designing the first personal computer and for then redirecting his lifelong passion for mathematics and electronics toward lighting the fires of excitement for education in grade school students and their teachers."
Making significant investments of both his time and resources into education, Wozniak “adopted" the Los Gatos School District in California, providing students and teachers with hands-on teaching and donations of state-of-the-art technology equipment. He also founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and was the founding sponsor of the Tech Museum, Silicon Valley Ballet and Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. Wozniak’s autobiography, iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon, was published in 2006.
Blackboard interviewed Wozniak before his keynote address at BbWorld ’08.
1. What interests you most about attending BbWorld ’08, where 2,000 members of the e-Learning community are gathering this week?
One of my personal goals in personal computers was to influence education, both via content and management. Early on, this became a recognized value of Apple, too. The Blackboard systems, frankly, are something that I admire. Teachers at all levels are my favorite people in the world. Anyone close to me would tell you that. Being among this combination of technologists and educators will be an important time for me.
When I was 10 years old, I told my father that I would be an engineer, like him, and secondly I would be a teacher. I did achieve both of these goals.
2. During DevCon 2008 and BbWorld ’08, many Blackboard users will be presenting to their peers during break-out sessions. You present to many groups. Is presenting difficult for you, ever a bit scary?
Sometimes presentations are very hard. Those are times when a topic is not one that just rolls off my lips and brain. Such topics may be outside of my primary field. One time the topic was so difficult for me to contribute well on that I took a friend along to share the podium with me.
Every single presentation is scary to me. I am worried that I won’t be appreciated, that my speech won’t be entertaining or informative or stimulating enough. It’s part of putting yourself on the line. When you present before a group, you are accountable and being judged. When friends or family or associates are with me, they can have an enjoyable time, however.
I don’t get butterfly feelings in my stomach, but I’m very much a nervous wreck the night before any speech, and I have to be alone to finalize my ideas on paper. I try to gain a sense of the event and people, to know better what items I say, and in what way, will go over well. I often awaken a few times during the night to jot notes down. I often have a wakeup call as early as 4 AM to look over my notes and re-write them one last time, getting the flow in my head, like rehearsing.
Then, I forget any possibility of failure because it’s like jumping into cold water. You have already leapt and can’t stop from landing in the water, so you have succeeded, at least in jumping!
3. You invented the personal computer, which along with the Internet is revolutionizing industries. How do you see computers and the Internet revolutionizing education, specifically?
It’s a real treat now to see such incredible things, like what Blackboard is doing, that we could not have imagined in the early days. We spoke of some benefits of education with computers even before starting this industry. We spoke of the ability of computers to help organize groups and to let us share by chatting. But we never imagined back then such complete worlds of the entry process of education being done in a single program, like a single home.
We didn’t see the breadth or quality that is common today. It’s hard to imagine such things when you start with cassette tapes for storage, not hard disks, not even floppy disks, and it’s inconceivable that a computer could ever hold as much as a song.
When we took computers directly into education, it was mainly for content and secondarily for grading systems. It was hard to see our small computers running entire classes or school divisions, the way large mainframes ran companies by keeping all the salary and purchase and sales data. But it was always a primary hope of many of us who were principals in this revolution that it would aid the education process and more fully engage and use and train the brains of students.
4. You are personally involved in helping to improve education in Los Gatos, California. What are your overarching goals for this work?
I actually participated and taught (computers) in my district for eight years, but I don’t do that currently. When I started, the Internet had not arrived, a computer couldn’t hold a song, and few students had their own computers at home. I did not want to teach kids to be math and computer experts the way I was. I didn’t want to teach something like engineering. I wanted to reach every child in the local fifth grade class (which was my main class each school year) in all the normal school subjects.
My number one goal was to make homework look good. Before the computer we had typewriters for company memos (that weren’t hand-written). With the advent of the personal computer, and the first letter-quality printers, we could begin to use word processing to create inter-company documents that looked high quality, as in those jobs in which a lot of money was spent to send documents out to a professional printer. The words in the office communications were the same but the appearance was better. This improved communication when used well.
I remember a short passage in a psychology text in college discussing that when students do a good job and are praised the right way, they feel good about their abilities and work harder to continue doing good work in that subject. It’s like positive feedback, something engineers understand well.
I figured that if my students did high-quality presentations of most of their school work, the approval and admiration of their teachers would inspire them to continue to strive for high-quality work throughout their lives.
My favorite approach, one I learned from a multiple-time Apple award-winning teacher in Pittsburgh, was to take normal school assignments and find a way to apply the computer abilities to those assignments, using graphics in documents, creatively laying out text areas, learning proper design and font rules, using charts and timelines and even spreadsheets when they applied.
The second leg of my program was to maintain a computer, to understand a bit about what it was doing inside and how to interpret error messages. They had to be able to own their own computer and use it full time, and that meant a lot of failures in those days. The students had to learn how to fix hardware and software problems. A bit of screwdriver work was mandatory, too.
Another leg of my program was the online world. At first there was no Internet, so this meant AOL. I felt it was important to get a feel for the power of distance when it was electrons through a modem. You could chat with about anyone in the world. When I first did this, it was before elementary schools had keyboarding classes. But my students had a reason to learn to use the keyboard more effectively.
I also included some creative work, such as digital cameras and video editing every year. It was unbelievably expensive then, but kids understand such things — like digital photography — when they can learn to do them. When I started teaching, there were no digital cameras for computers, only for TVs. A card that could bring TV signals into the computers cost more than the computers themselves. I don’t even want to discuss what it took to edit things like music videos back then.
5. If someone sees you at the conference in Las Vegas this week, say in the hallway or on Exhibit Hall floor, should they come up and say hello?
Of course. I love meeting anyone, up until I have something else I have to do, and when that’s the case, it’s usually apparent. I don’t mind autographing things or taking pictures with others. I would feel so lucky to do so with my own heroes, whether they are well known ones or not. It doesn’t bother me most times. If I’m trying to stay up with a friend walking through an airport or whatever, and someone tries to grab me for a short comment, I get peeved. I don’t like to get separated from whom I’m with. But at events like this one, there is always lots of ample time.
6. Five years from now, when faculty members, trainers, designers and administrators who attended BbWorld ’08 are talking about your presentation, what do you hope they remember most?
My passion for creating new things and not being afraid to go in different ways. Also, I hope they remember me for being an excellent and not just normal engineer. I tried to be the best there was in certain things, and at a point in time, the things I worked on came to have great value. Hopefully, conference attendees will remember me as a normal, genuine person who hangs out with and likes teachers more than any other category of person, instead of keeping CEOs in my group of personal friends.
The short answer? That I am genuine and honest and care about kids of all ages.