14 June 2010

Imagining new interfaces: the value of necessity

In a conversation with the brilliant Graham Brown-Martin of Handheld Learning on Twitter we found ourselves debating the iPad. Graham loves it, sees it as a tech "game changer," envisions this concept replacing most computing platforms. I, as you may already know, have my doubts.

I said that I imagined a near future dominated by two kind of computing form factors, the phone form - the handheld - for most individual use and all "out-of-the-house" use, and some variation of the desktop, for power and collaboration. The "interface" for that "desktop system" - the interactive display - might look like your living room television, or it might look like Microsoft's Surface (or some variation). But, I suggested, if we're moving about why would we want something as big as the iPad? And if we're at home or work or in the classroom, why would we want something as small as the iPad?

The year 2052 as imagined  on Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1952 ABC) - via Hulu

What both of us were struggling with was the extraordinarily difficult idea of predicting how humans will interact with information in the future. I was up late last night watching weird old stuff on Hulu. A favourite for "about to fall asleep" is Tales of Tomorrow, perhaps American television's first real attempt at a Sci-Fi series. And like most Sci-Fi attempts, the predictions of technology interface look almost exactly like the technology of whatever that moment was. So, in the episode above, an oscilloscope defines mid-21st century scientific readout. In Twilight Zone episodes placed 500 years ahead of 1960, analog gauges and mechanical dials rule. Robby the Robot and his imitators are devices built of the components of their writer's time.

There are exceptions. Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick imagined computer interfaces inconceivable with 1967 technology for 2001. Computers presented graphics. Information flowed to NewsPads (the first iPad). There were no printouts, just on-screen data and synthesized speech and speech recognition. Douglas Adams envisioned the handheld universally-linked computer in A Hitchhiker's Guide, and even Star Trek eschewed any interface but speech and sight. But these are rare.

They are rare because this is difficult. We can imagine improvements, but it is tough to envision true shifts. Yesterday I worked for hours on my BlackBerry, using it to research, to write, to watch the World Cup, to check the progress of baseball games. I dictated to it, listened to it, emailed, twittered, pulled up maps and directions. In other words I used this palm-sized device in ways most could not have imagined using their computers ten years ago.

Let me put it this way: If you had only seen water crossed in a boat, could you imagine a bridge?  Might you have imagined radio before the telephone was invented? Could Steve Wozniak have envisioned the "mouse" before his trip to Xerox PARC in 1979?

"There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee" - Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1887) trying to imagine radio.

The value of necessity

For many, perhaps "most," the world "works" as it is. And if the world works as it is, there is little need to imagine or invent. If you have no real trouble moving about your world in 1880 you are unlikely to build an automobile, but if you were Karl Benz struggling to bicycle about Karlsruhe or Henry Ford struggling with getting off his Michigan farm, altering human transport might have a motivation. And if you struggled with reading, or writing, or just carrying your textbooks in the late 20th Century then you might have spent a great deal of time trying to imagine an alternative.

So, yes, the iPad and the Kindle seem a "paradigm shift" to those who've never thought about it before. 'Imagine,' a whole bunch of educators are saying these days, 'replacing your book bag with a single electronic device!' But many of us in the field of special education/special needs technology have been doing that for more than a decade. We long ago took clunky early laptop computers and turned them into book readers, dictation machines, magnifiers, internet devices. In 1998 my Dell was loaded with WYNN, ViaVoice, Zoom-Text, Netscape Navigator, IBM's first accessible web browser, and all of my textbooks. It was heavy by iPad standards but weighed about what any one large undergrad textbook weighed, and it did "everything" I could then imagine.

And we've been improving, and lowering the costs, ever since, because we need to. So today my BlackBerry has book reader software on it, I can dictate into mobile Word using VLingo, I can search the web with a choice of two browsers, I can listen to my email and text messages, I can hear music, watch television, listen to audiobooks. My laptop, netbook, and tabletPC, of course, do much, much more, and none weigh five pounds. With those I video call, can input data by voice, keyboard, and even touch, I can video and record, publish and broadcast, and I can do it all, on any of these devices, in almost any way I want.

This isn't to claim superiority. It isn't even to suggest whether the iPad is good or bad. But it is to suggest who the tech leaders should be in your school.

From tech deprived to tech empowered

Last autumn (or last spring, depending on...) I Skyped into Tomaz Lasic's classroom in Perth, Western Australia as his "special needs" students were conducting "catch a teacher day."
"It was pretty simple really. Student-helpers were encouraged to approach a teacher, invite them to the expo, try to work out and ask what the teacher might be interested in to learn…then demonstrate, teach and help them learn (about) a particular Web 2.0 tool and how it could be useful to them (the teacher). We also asked our student-helpers to note down on the central ‘tally’ board what teachers they taught what.

"Students took up the challenge very seriously and we had them literally chasing teachers down the halls to invite, talk to, teach the teachers. With most teachers agreeing to come (even if out of courtesy if not curiosity) it was an incredible sight."
His students were leading their school into the new technology future because they had, through the necessities of difference, become the experts.

 Catch-a-teacher tally board

How different this was from most "special" classrooms I visit - often equipped with only the hand-me-down computers from "regular ed" (I've seen a great many Windows95 and original iMac computers, half of which are not connected to the internet, if they work at all). So in these schools the "good" tech is placed in the hands of those who see no reason for change (and the power in placed in the hands of those most comfortable, administrators and tech staff), and the opportunity for hands-on rethink is denied those with the motivations for change.

So, my goal here is to convince your school to reverse your tech paradigm. The place for the newest toys, the place for the fewest restrictions, is in the hands of the students for whom school is NOT working. They are the ones who will invent your future. And it will be a future that few of us can possibly imagine.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Chris said...

Hey Ira,just wanted to let you know that I try to get as much tech into the SpEd rooms as they can hold. We don't have very many new "toys" but the SpEd breakout room is the only one where the laptop to student ratio is 1:1. It's great to see kids happily engaged and being successful learning with tech.