Technology is all over the news this week with both Apple's announcement yesterday and the official publication of the 2010 Horizon Report; so I thought it might be a good time to talk a bit about some of the high-tech new and its potential impact on teaching and some of my own efforts to use technology in the classroom. This will also set up today's contribution to the Teaching Thursday blog. It might be a bit later than usual, but it will certainly be worth it!
1. Apple iPad. Every other blogger is talking about so, I would feel left out. As much as I love my MacBook Pro, I am deeply skeptical about claims that the iPad will have a significant impact in the classroom. Having said this, at least one school, Abiliene Christian, is already talking about the possibility of requiring the iPad for all of its students and Steve Jobs' consistently linked the iPad with Apple's goal to position itself at the "intersection of technology and the liberal arts". So, it seems clear that Apple conceives of the iPad as being at home in a university environment and at places like Abiliene Christian, where a significant relationship with Apple already exists -- they require their students to have either iPhones or the iPod Touch -- the iPad will certainly provide an appealing upgrade to the hardware that they are already using. Moreover, the prospect of students being able to bring their digital textbooks (or most online content) to class with them will be hugely appealing.
From the perspective of someone who teaches at a school that occupies the trailing edge of tech trends in higher education, I think that the iPad will struggle at places without a consistent equipment to Apple products. First, there will be interoperability issues with the existing technology infrastructure. Basically, the iPad which is built around Apples iPhone OS, will require students and tech folks to accommodate a new operating system. At a place like UND, there is only minimal support for OS X and very little support for Linux, so I can't imagine their being sufficient technical support for integrating the iPad into the day-to-day classroom environment. This isn't to suggest that the iPad would not function splendidly in those environments or that I can't imagine it's potential, but like a slow moving ship, large, underfunded, university's change courses slowly and if the iPad can not function within the existing technological infrastructure which, for better or for worse, is focused around Microsoft and Windows (XP!), there will be real barriers to its systematic adoption.
Next, I suspect that it's inability to handle Adobe Flash applications and its inability to run multiple programs simultaneously will be series drawbacks. On a phone or smaller and more simple mobile device, the lack of Flash is an acceptable annoyance -- after all you're surfing the web on a tiny screen that fits in your pocket; it's not whether the horse can ride the motorcycle well, it's that it can ride it at all. But on a full screen table, the inability to run flash will be a significant draw back. As an example, the iPad will not be able to run the BBC's spectacular History of the World website or the proper web version of the UND homepage. Since Flash remains an economical way for universities, museums, and the media to produce content rich web experiences, the incompatibility with Flash on the iPad will limit some of its popularity among a group who relies heavily on Flash to make their web go. The inability to run multiple applications simultaneously will make it hard to ask the students to jump back and forth from a digital textbook, to an online interface, to a Twitter application and these are the kinds of expectations that we already have with analog media in the classroom. We expect students to be able to "run multiple applications simultaneously" (take notes, annotate a text, and participate in a classroom discussion) and we need to expect our teaching technology to follow suite.
Finally, I have to agree with Jim Groom -- the noted and notorious semi-underground higher ed tech guru -- who told the Chronicle's Wired Blog that Apple control over the application approval process may be jarring to those in higher education who want to develop specific applications for the iPad. On the one hand, there are universities like Stanford, who have embraced the iPhone apps as a development challenge and teach courses in app development; many more schools, I suspect, will be wary of having to partner with Apple to navigate what most developers claim to be an mysterious and opaque process.
The reason for this wariness, of course, is that the iPad will not be the only player in the high-end tablet market for vary long. Google's Android operating system should soon be powering alternatives to the iPad which will likely suffer many of the same problems with interoperability, but at least represent a more open source alternative to the iPad restricted development model. At the same time, Windows has long powered tablets and these tablet have not caught on the classroom. This probably reflects hardware issues as much as anything, but its hard to imagine that Windows based developers will not soon offer similar products to the iPad with the advantage of being more clearly interoperable with the existing technological infrastructure on a university campus.
2. Twitter and the Wave in the Classroom. Over the last four weeks, I've be experimenting with both Twitter and Google Wave in a classroom setting. Here are some quick updates:
Twitter. I use Twitter in a large, lower division, night class that meets once a week. So far, it has not produced much in the way of immediate results. Students are still unsure how to use Twitter in the classroom. Most of the in-class Tweets are silly comments about the Viking's loss this past weekend (the football Vikings, not the Scandinavian kind) or remarks about how cool they think Sparta is or was. They seem to have forgotten that I know who they are on Twitter because they have provided me with a concordance that connects their Twitter alias with their real names. Outside the classroom, that is during the week between classes, Twitter seems to have at least made the students somewhat more engaged in the material. I ask questions related to the course material in the form of trivia (everything seems more fun if it's called trivia) and get regular responses. I've also had some nice responses to reflection questions: e.g. Would you rather live the Athens of Perikles or Sparta of the Classical Age? (More preferred Sparta, um, largely because the movie made it seem real cool.) At present probably 15%-20% of those in class who have signed up for Twitter have used it in some way. For more on my Twitter experiment see here.
Google Wave. I've been using Google's latest and greatest web-based collaborative platform in a small graduate class this semester. So far, it works brilliantly. Even my most technologically challenged graduate student has embraced (reluctantly at first) the wave and has contributed to a wide range of spontaneous, threaded discussions. We have not been as successful using Google Wave to actually collaborate on a specific document, but this aspect of its operability is less refined. More on this as the semester progresses, but I already feel confident in saying that Google Wave has real potential in a graduate level class.