04 February 2010

Disappearing Technology in Praise of Closed Systems

Bottom line: When it comes to narrow purpose appliances, it sure seems that closed software and hardware is good while open is bad. If the iPhone is any indication, something like the iPad is the way of the future of narrow purpose appliances. [1]

Within Education research, there are educational technologists studying how computer technologies can be integrated to learning and teaching. Some of the things they study, for example, is how Second Life could be used in education.

What bothers me about this kind of research [2] is that it assumes the successful use of "technology" in the classroom is something extraordinary, and that it can be successful only with cutting edge research on their classroom applications.


And not just put it to use, but put it front, center, and elevated onto a podium. Technology as a selling point, something a few educators talk about to make their classroom sound futuristic and fantastic. A selling point to hang a speaking career onto.

It makes me wonder whether there were educational technologists around to study how cutting edge writing technologies like pens could be used and integrated into the learning process as older writing technologies like the quill became obsolete. Are there educational technologists researching into how plumbing technologies can be integrated into learning and teaching within the school too?

Of course, at some level specialized educational technologists are needed today because of the exponential growth of technology innovation. On the other hand, we should understand that the goal of technology integration is to make that technology practically disappear.

Most people don't think too much about pens and plumbing as "technologies" on a daily basis. They're just common tools. To some extent, software technologies like the word processor is getting to that point too.

In fact, we might say that a technology is successful only to the extent that it is commonly used but commonly forgotten; relied upon but invisible.

Speaking from my own personal experience: Pen and paper in the classroom is successful technology — one or two minutes is the amount of time wasted in "fixing" broken or missing pen and paper systems during a typical class period. Flash-based physics simulators running in Internet Explorer on two-years old computers is unsuccessful technology — typical wasted time fixing such systems is around 15 minutes.

Don't even get me started on SMART boards and projectors.

When we look at technologies that have been successfully employed and that added value to the learning and teaching process — books, paper, pen, simple calculators, etc — what we see is that they are naturally integrated into the students' learning and teachers' teaching toolbox. We don't need a special course on writing technologies teaching teachers how to make the best use of pen and paper for student learning in grade 10 Social Studies.

Somehow, the technology becomes so ubiquitous that it's just something everyone use.

Well, that's not true. Little children are explicitly taught, by adults, how to use technologies like pen, paper, and plumbing (ie, toilets).

So maybe that's how technology become finally ubiquitous. All adults already know how to use it, and the only people left to teach are the little kids. There's obviously a self-reinforcing evolutionary nature to this, as knowledge of how to use useful technologies spread more so than that of less useful technologies.

By that analysis, educational technologists would be more effective in helping integrate technology into the classroom if all they did was to train teachers in the proper and effective use of as many technologies as practical (effective use of the technology as it's commonly used by consumers, not as specially applied to teaching or learning).

Let the teachers figure out what to do with the technology themselves. Actually useful technology would naturally spread, while useless technologies would naturally stop spreading.

The difficult part is in training teachers in the proper and effective use of technologies, because in the case of a general purpose computer, this commonly means also teaching the teachers to also maintain the computer, fix or bypass weird bugs, end-run around poorly conceived user-interfaces, etc. Every time a teacher has to ask for help "fixing" a technology — in the broadest sense, meaning, eg, figuring out why the keyboard isn't working, or why the mouse is skipping, etc — is a point that counts against that technology.

In ubiquitous technologies like pen and plumbing, we don't normally teach kids to both use and fix it. Even in more complex technologies like photocopiers, we still don't normally teach the user how to fix it, except for maybe the five possible common "bugs" (versus the hundreds of possible things that could go wrong with a computer).

All this means that technology innovations like Apple's iPhone and iPad are actually moving in the "right" direction in terms of making technology ubiquitous. I could imagine a classroom of students using something like the hermetically sealed iPad with perfectly designed Apps (in accordance to Steve Jobs' sense of perfection) to do real learning.

When I imagine a classroom of students using something (even) like a MacBook with its open ecosystem of software, all I see are the minutes wasted fixing different problems that pop up for absolutely no rational reason. If I imagine it with Windows computers, the minutes double (and I speak with experience with both cases).

So closed software and hardware is good while open is bad?? Well, when it comes to narrow purpose appliances (with high reliability [3]), it sure seems that way, and if the iPhone is any indication, something like the iPad is the way of the future of narrow purpose appliances. The iPad is to the traditional personal computer, as a modern house's in-wall plumbing is to exposed pipes.

It would be a real shame though if through law, or otherwise, all computers turn into narrow purpose appliances though. Personally, I'd prefer general purpose computers for myself and for it to be available for some students to use (but not necessarily for all). Why would that be? (See General Purpose Computers and Tinkering to Learn.)

[1] This is the first part of my reaction to the Apple iPad and Mark Pilgrim's Tinkerer’s Sunset.

[2] Another question that bothers me about that kind of research is why public money in public universities is used to pay for studying and advocating how a commercial product could be used in public schools: there's a few soft drink makers who'd love to know.

[3] Another narrow purpose appliance, a car's gas pedal. Ideally, most people shouldn't, and shouldn't have to, be tinkering with it. When someone has to tinker with the car's system for managing acceleration, and tell us that there is a problem with it but that there's "a good work-around" (see Steve Wozniak Update on His Prius Problems), something major is definitely amiss!

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