Thursday, March 15, 2012

Maybe a Toolbox

Last week I suggested it might be more useful to think of an iPad as a backpack rather than a computer. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as a toolbox. After all what is a backpack other than a student's toolbox; it is where students carry the tools of their trade. In the picture to the left, on the floor somewhere outside the frame of the image is the box the workman used to bring their tools into the room so that they could complete their repairs and renovations. The toolbox is associated wih work, hopefully meaningful work. We can often tell a person's profession from the "toolbox" that person carries. It may be a briefcase, a paintbox, a carpenter's belt. But whatever it is it provides an efficient means for workmen to carry the tools of their trade to that space where they perform the work of their trade. Students are in a sense "apprentice" scholars, they are learning to think, to research, to develop the skills of the academic trade. The iPad is in many ways an academic toolbox. It enables young scholars to carry everywhere not just pencils, pens, and paper, along with a few books, perhaps all the books they may need, a small library of books, but also tools for making notes, writing papers, researching papers, organizing their materials and arranging and keeping their schedules. It is also a very professional device, both in its appearance and in what it does and it may help students (but honestly, it may not) see themselves as the professionals they are becoming.

Most of us want to shoot for the moon when it comes to those things we care about and aspire towards. When we care about something we want to do our best. Shooting for the moon requires us to see ourselves in a certain light (hopefully not just in moonlight) and to develop the confidence necessary to see ourselves succeeding at what we attempt. The more difficult the task the harder it is to develop the necessary confidence. I remember when I started graduate school and began working towards my Masters Degree in English Literature, I did not believe I could complete the program and ended up leaving the program after a year. But a few years later I got the desire to try again and finish it. This time I had the confidence and could see myself completing the work and I did complete the work and got my degree. I always had he ability, I did not always have the confidence and without the confidence it is difficult to push ourselves when things become truly difficult, the temptation then becomes very great to give up. Giving students an iPad is not going to generate confidence necessarily but it does tell them that there are adults in their lives that see them as successful and hopefully it will give students a set of tools that will help them achieve some of that success we all need to build confidence. Of course a tool is just a tool and is only as effective as the person wielding it and the people teaching that person how to wield it. That means the students need teachers that can teach them to use the tool effectively, which also means the teachers must be taught to use the tool effectively.

The video is of an unfortunate gentleman trying to cope with things going wrong. I suspect the presentation was designed to go wrong in the way it does, but it plays with an experience everyone who has worked with technology has had, the computer freezes, goes of on a frolic of its own leaving us to figure out what we can do next to redeem the time. When Bill Gates was introducing one of the early incarnations of Windows he was demonstrating how it works and he got what most people who have ever worked with computers have gotten at one time or another, the frozen screen. He got himself out of the situation, but this is the lot of all pioneers, innovators, and discoverers. When we chart new territory we are making up the maps as we go along. And part of map making is trial and error.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Does It Look Like

The man is carrying his worldly goods on his back, he has an early version of the backpack. Though our students are not walking the train tracks they do walk between classes with their educational goods on their backs. I bring this up because I am wondering what we are trying to accomplish by using iPads in the classroom. It seems that many are looking to use the iPad as a way to put a computer in the hands of every student. At present I wonder if this is really the proper use of the iPad. Instead of using the iPad to replace the computer and the computer lab I think we should think about using the iPad to replace the backpack. This may at first glance seem silly, a good backpack can be gotten for under a hundred dollars, while an iPad cost four hundred dollars for the baseline model. But of course it is not the backpack alone that is being replaced, it is the back pack and all it contains. The books, the notebooks and pads of paper, the pens and pencils (I think if one considers all the books a student will be issued in the course of high school along with other supplies the iPad does not seem so costly). When we think of the iPad as a computer the next question becomes how do we exchange stuff, print it up, "hand in" class and home work from an iPad, which does not really do these things well (though it is probably only a matter of time until they do). But with a Dropbox account students can move documents easily from their iPads and their computers at home or computers at school and turn what they need to turn in when the need arises. But they can also read their texts books on a Kindle or iBooks app, they can take notes on a notepad app, record class discussions if they need to, they can go the whole day without returning to their lockers, they can use calendar apps and organizers of one kind or another to keep track of and schedule assignments so that everything gets turned in on time. Of course students will also be able to do many of the things they do on a computer, online research, word processing, portfolio development to name a few. When we think of the iPad as a computer we are almost immediately confronted with its limitations. But if we think of it as a backpack with some attractive extras many of the limitations disappear. As things are going it may be only a matter of time before it becomes a computer as well as a backpack, but that is kind of like gravy or icing on the cake.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, it is more than a backpack, it has to be to justify the cost, but it is primarily a tool to organize students and help them keep up with and complete their work. I am not sure if this is how people want to think about the iPad but I think this can make the iPad a much more effective tool. Many of the reasons that iPads disappoints as a computer are reasons that computers disappoint in the classroom. We want them to do more than word processing, but that is what most students use computers for most of the time when they are using them for school. There will come a day when books can be looked up on computers as they can in a conventional library, but that day is not today. And much of the research material students cull from the Internet is superficial and woefully inadequate. Don't misunderstand, the Internet is great for fact checking, I would be lost without it, but not for real research where a topic needs to be studied in greater depth. There are times we need to know who discovered penicillin. But there are other times we need to know more about this discovery, it's background, it's ramifications, about the research that was done that made the discovery possible. This is much more difficult to find online and when it is found it is difficult to know if what we are looking at is written objectively or if it was written by someone with a particular ax to grind or point of view to promote. I think the iPad can help the student soar above the clouds, work in ways they could not before. The iPad also enables students to approach their work more creatively while they are mastering the traditional skills and concepts that have been the backbone of education since Socrates. There are things that need to be rethought, assessments, what constitutes submitting an assignment and the form those submissions take, but a few centuries past it was necessary to rethink the book and how it could be most effectively employed with Gutenberg's new technology. But it has great possiblities. It is not a panacea, it is a tool. It is not the backpack but what you carry around in it and how you use what you carry around that is important.

One thing the iPad can help students to do is find their place in a more global classroom. As the video suggests we have much to learn from other cultures and other cultures have much to learn from us. It is increasingly more difficult for nations and communities to live in isolation from one another. It is important to understand those we do not agree with and find ways to resolve our difference. As has been said many times before, peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the strategies and institutions in place that will enables us to confront and peacefully resolve conflicts when they arise.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

The painting is by Monet and it is of a train station. It captures what many think of when they think of technology and change, smoke and confusion. It is difficult to see what is going on around you, there is a lot of noise and movement but it is difficult to tell what, if anything, is going on. My students are struggling a bit getting their Posterous blogs working on Blogsy and effectively using its features and linking to their YouTube and Flikr accounts. But they are making progress. They are trying to get their synthesis questions with their six sources loaded into the blog. This exercise is not really the kind of thing that works well on a blog, in fact in many ways it runs counter to what is the real purpose of a blog. I asked them to do this because it requires them to add at least one image, at least one video clip, and at least four links to online articles to their post. So what the assignment does is teach them how to make use of many of Blogsy's features. And for those that have completed the assignment they have linked the Blogsy app to their Flikr and YouTube accounts and have uploaded images and video clips, and created links to their online articles. In other words, they have learned how to use Blogsy so that when they start doing "real" blogs they will be able to make good use its features. I have asked them to do essentially what I did on my first Posterous blog, post something whose main purpose was to use it to figure out how things work.

This picture captures what many of us think is the purpose of technology, to give us peace and quiet and the time we need to relax and enjoy a cup of tea. It is supposed to make things easier and more efficient while, it is hoped, Improving the quality of what we do. Often we get the noise and confusion because we create expectations for what the technology will do and how it will help us that are not consistent with the strengths and purposes of the technology. My students, for example, can only use the technology in the classroom, they cannot take it home. There was an article on the edtechteacher blog on using iPads in the classroom. The article makes suggestions and recommends apps to enable teachers and students to make the most effective use of this tool in the classroom. Most of these uses require the user of the device (the student) to have round the clock access to the device. It excels as a tool for organizing, for studying, for creating stuff and moving that stuff between platforms, and sharing with others what she or he has accomplished. To read and annotate reading assignments, for example, students need the iPad with them when they are reading and studying. The problem often is that work cannot be submitted in the manner in which we are accustomed to recieve work, but there are ways to submit work and their are accommodations that can be made that will make submitting and assessing work a more expeditious process.

When students went home for the February break they might have used some of that time to set up their Blogsy apps and play with making it work when they had some leisure time to do that. We set up the accounts in class, but class time is limited and as a result time was lost that might have been used in more productive ways, ways that are more focused on the goals of the class. I personally think we all learn best by doing. Of course, we all need to be given some instruction on how to do what needs to be done but the goal is always to keep that to a minimum. The thing that the iPad can enable students to do very well is to learn by doing, by creating and interacting with the kinds of things they are learning about. The iPad rewards curiosity and the first goal of most teachers is to create curiosity about the materials they teach. But to only use the iPads for forty-five minutes to an hour two to three times a week does not seem to take full advantage of this potential.

The video clip is about mystery and the importance of mystery in our lives. Mystery and intrigue are not just features of successful films, but of most aspects of life that stay with us and tantalize us; that inspire us to explore the unknown and discover new things about us and our world. Part of the intrigue about the iPad revolves around our uncertainty as to how to best employ it, we can see great potential and possibilities but sometimes feel frustrated as how to realize this potential and tap these possibilities. This is not about haphazardly throwing something into the educational arena and waiting to see what happens (though there may be a small bit of this), it requires that time be set aside to speculate and plan and discover those things that can be done and how they might done most expeditiously. It requires time for training and preparation. There is much about the iPad and other new technologies that is very intuitive and these tools can sometimes be put to good use just by setting people free to explore. But it is also important to help people to discover how to explore effectively. It is important to familiarize people with the strengths and limitations of the tool (though at times we discover ways to do the impossible because we were never told that it was impossible) so the time can be put to its best use. Sometimes the smoke and mirrors blind us as to true potential of the tools we have. There needs to be time for tea and reflection.