Education: A new dawn (of the iPad)

Martin Levins
12 September, 2010
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I  first saw Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey in 1968 and remember Dave watching a movie on his pad – his mum and dad wishing him happy birthday.

It looked like an ordinary pad, except there were moving images on it, complete with sound. There were few controls, and no ‘drop down’ menus.

I believe we’re at the same sort of crossroads now as Dave was – we’re not too sure where we are, or where we’re going in terms of how we interact with technologies. Sometimes it’s frightening, sometimes exciting, sometimes both. Things are changing for the first time since Doug Engelbart showed his goofy ‘mouse’ at Stanford Research Institute, around the same time as Kubrick’s movie was in preproduction.

The crossroads involve the iPad, or more accurately, the touch interface that it and the iPhone use.

Have a look at how most people use the iPad for the first time. They pat it, touch it, and then hand it back for you to demonstrate (or they retreat into the safe harbour of known games). But a newbie takes to the machine (particularly with photos) with comparative ease.

When I first saw the Mac in 1984 I literally didn’t know what to do with it. I was looking at a program (we called them programs then) called Jazz, and had to ask the salesperson to demo it – it was alien to me.

Once a user, I thought I was continually learning more about the interface, but in reality I was unlearning an earlier view of what computers were and how you interacted with them. My earlier experience was an impediment.

Now with the iPad, and even though I’ve been an iPhone user since its inception, I still feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I’m not alone here either.

I’ve been using a bunch of apps for a while now, and it seems the ‘old’ publishers don’t really know what to do.

The New York Times app is a newspaper put onto a screen (like a lot of digital textbooks). Wired magazine goes a bit further, albeit with an Adobe-customised production that is bloated beyond belief, but it confuses gestures so that swiping across a page sometimes moves to the next page, and sometimes makes something happen on the same page.

Small icons exist to tell you what gestures you should use, but these are as tautological as tooltips on conventional icons: they’re there because the designer couldn’t come up with a decent icon.

Even Apple has left us with a clunky storage of documents – using iTunes to port documents back and forth doesn’t scale.

Here is one sign at the crossroads. Consider two things: Apple’s recent decision to invest US$1 billion in a new data centre in North Carolina, and Jobs’ goal of an uncapped 3G data plan worldwide.

I think we’ll have to watch this space to see if, say, an extension of MobileMe becomes the filing system of the future.

However, facing us at the crossroads isn’t just the interface issues: there’s the whole issue in education of control.

Traditionally, schools provide the machine and, through various mechanisms, control what runs on their machinery, when it runs and what is allowed to be accessed.

If Steve Job’s goals are realised, then the school may well have no control at all.

So, when this happens, will your school be ready? Or, will it try to ban the devices, re-enacting the behaviour of the Church as it opposed the Gutenberg printing presses?

Just like Kubrick’s masterpiece, the planets are in syzygy and the iPad is increasingly looking like the monolith-gateway.

Sent from my iPad

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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