January 27th, 2010
Well, Apple’s much anticipated tablet is here: the iPad. Without the benefit of testing it yet, I did a quick tour of the features demonstrated on the Apple website. It looks like a grown-up iPod or iPhone…larger screen and more functions. In fact, maybe it’s the future of laptops — touch screen keyboard, slim design, everything in one place.
I’m most interested in iBooks. I was wondering if vendors would sell a chapter at a time, or the entire book. As Brad Stone pointed out in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, there is concern that Apple will deteriorate profits and presentation of books the way they have music by allowing users to purchase single songs, rather than entire albums. Already, Google and Acrobat make it possible to keyword search books and articles, so in theory, someone can read a section completely de-contextualized from the larger document. However, a spectre of the larger document is still present, whereas with iTunes, users can download a single song without any experience of the larger context. From the brief description on their website, Apple seems to be selling the book as a single unit, but we’ll see.
Of course, to access these fun features, iPad users must have an account with AT&T. So, our reading will be mediated by both Apple and AT&T. If we don’t wish to have an account with AT&T, we won’t get an iPad. More discomfiting, is if a book isn’t in Apple’s catalog, it won’t be available for reading on their tablet. True, this problem exists with Kindle, but Amazon has such a large catalog, it hasn’t seemed problematic.
Before these technologies, our reading was mediated by what was on our shelves, our libraries’ shelves, and the shelves of our local bookstores. Now, in theory, the world is at our fingertips. I have to wonder what we’re losing, though. I remember as a kid finding old books like Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators series serendipitously at my local library.
No one would have recommended it to me and I don’t think it will be a candidate for iPad, but Hitchcock told good stories and I much preferred his series to the more popular Nancy Drew because they were less predictable. What serendipity are we losing by relying on e-catalogs instead of local bookshelves? Definitely, a counter-argument can and is being made for increased accessibility, but I wonder if, the goal is ease of access rather than breadth and relevance of material. Taken a step further, are these new devices selecting popularity over quality, and if so what will we miss?
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January 16th, 2010
I just read William Zinsser’s beautiful address to incoming international students at Columbia’s school of journalism. Toward the end, he says:
“The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t the swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone.”
In an article in the New York Times this morning, Anand Giridharadas claims that we are becoming linguistic utilitarians, treating language “as computers do, as a protocol: a code that machines use to communicate with other machines, a code that is not savored or loved, a code that exists to get the job done and works precisely because it is boring, standardized and pragmatic.” What an unfortunate description of current language use! This claim is pretty bleak and omits the most interesting part of the story.
As many scholars point out, the advent of computers, Internet, text messages, etc., have increased literate practice. Up until the early 80s, most executives dictated messages/letters for others to type. Phone conversations were the norm of business communication, rather than the exception. Innovations such as e-mail and texting, however, require us to think and communicate textually.
Recent additions such as texting and Twitter seem to move us toward less words, rather than providing a space to expound upon our thoughts. Often, these shorter phrases lead to impoverished communication, but they don’t need to. Zinsser’s address emphasizes a point that Nancy Duarte consistently makes in her book slide:ology (2008): the importance of message. A benefit of abbreviated communication is the pressure to condense our message into a sentence. We now need to identify the most salient part of what we’re trying to say and communicate it clearly and concisely.
Clarity and conciseness are a benchmark of good writing regardless of medium. Before Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses, however, we had the luxury of space that a page provides to develop our thoughts. Many abused this privilege. To be an effective communicator in this new space requires skill in condensing a message into a single, compelling sentence. Likewise, in longer pieces, each sentence must have a message.
Now, as Duarte and Zinsser point out, is where story is important. We no longer have the luxury of space for a data dump. Readers expect a lot from our single phrases or sentences and if there isn’t a story or some coherent theme tying our ideas together, we may be read, but we won’t be understood.
True, students are now expected to compose in new media. We assign them to create video, images, presentations, or blogs of their ideas. Rather than seeing these new media as a threat to literacy, especially to good writing, we should engage the possibilities these modes afford.
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January 12th, 2010
Responses to my earlier post about Google-proofing essays made me think about the purpose of “research” assignments in the primary grades. James Ford mentioned that when he was 8 years old, he would copy text out of an encyclopedia. I did, too. Of course, we were handwriting, so we engaged in a low-tech copy/paste.
Reflecting on this practice got me thinking about the purpose of the assignments: report on the state of Kansas, for example. I remember I needed to find out what the capital of Kansas was, the state bird, state flower, and a map. Report is important here. There’s no room for synthesis in this type of assignment. In fact, though the final product was a couple pages about Kansas, the assignment really could have been a fill-in the blank sheet.
[Paste map here]
Instead, this assignment took the guise of a research report. I remember spending a couple hours on Saturdays at the library, dutifully copying directly out of an encyclopedia, not thinking I was plagiarizing, but instead believing I was doing good work. Given the limited variety of encyclopedias, I have to imagine my teachers were familiar with the texts, especially because 25 students each year would likely turn in the same reports.
So, what is the purpose of research reports in the primary grades? Are students demonstrating their ability to find information? When asked to report on something, they’re basically asked to repeat what they find. There’s really no room for much else.
Copy/paste is not a new phenomenon brought to us by the computer. Blair (2003) describes similar, low-tech practices in the 16th-18th centuries, though it’s likely existed since there were printed materials and means to copy them.
What do we learn from copy/paste? I think we learn more from copy/paste practices than the popular press would have us believe. Taking the example from James’ and my third grade copying efforts, we learned how to find relevant information in a reference text and we read the academic language and selected appropriate passages to use in our report. By reading the encyclopedia entries, we started to familiarize ourselves with a form of academic language. Including the texts in our report helped us practice the language. Imitation is a form of learning, no matter how elementary.
In his book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future, Bauerlein (2008) describes the copy/paste practices of fifth graders as an example of the erosion of learning and deep thinking: “go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in.” This description, however, does not consider the full story. Perhaps the fifth-graders do engage in the superficial stages described by Bauerlain, but how do they select the relevant sites? Which passages do they cut and paste into their document? How do they transition from one idea to the next?
In my dissertation research, I noticed that, even at the university level, students frequently copy and paste. I don’t believe that the thinking stops when they hit control+v, though. Savvy students use the pasted information as a starting point or mid-point, not as an end. While locating the information is made easy by the technological affordances of Google and other search engines, the task of sifting through this information, finding relevant bits, and making meaningful connections remains a challenge.
Perhaps copy/paste is the beginning of the process. As students gain sophistication and their assignments ask them to synthesize, rather than report, these practices complement or supplement the more challenging sense-making processes in which they engage.
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January 7th, 2010
Most of the fun tech tools I use were shown to me by designer friends and colleagues. I find this realization interesting, because I’ve spent the past six years working closely with Computer Science students and can only think of one app a fellow student showed me the entire time we worked together. My art friends, on the other hand, always seem to be asking “have you seen this?” or telling me to “try this,” or, as was the case yesterday, installing a collaborative app, dropbox, on my laptop while I was watching a Youtube video on a different computer.
It makes sense, though. Artists use technology as a tool. Well, we hear a lot about using technology as a tool, but artists are seasoned tool users — they’re used to experimenting with variations of the same tool (different paintbrush sizes) or trying different tools to achieve a certain effect. They’re purpose-driven users who, in their tech use, generally start with a vision and then find a tool to fit, rather than the other way around. Or, they think of ways to use the tool differently, perhaps against its intended purpose.
Speaking of vision, artists are also comfortable with seeing something no one else sees and spending time pushing that kernel into reality. Often, this push involves time to learn how to present the vision with a new medium, mix colors, textures, text & images…in essence, try new approaches until it all comes together exactly right.
AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Greg Bryan
Thus, artists are undoubtedly hands-on technology users. They’re not afraid of breaking anything, making mistakes, or getting their hands dirty, because technology is a tool that like any other tool must be experimented with to understand its possibilities. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find Photoshop daunting. InDesign is similarly intimidating. Undoubtedly, these programs have a steep learning curve, requiring hours and patience for proficiency. Yet, I’m always amazed with how fluidly my artist friends use them. Come to think of it, many of my artists friends probably logged as much time in front of video games as my programming friends when we were kids.
For education, I’d like us to take an artist’s approach to teaching with and about technology. Let’s get our hands dirty, experiment without fear of breaking anything. Let’s have a vision first and find the tool to fit. Think of the beautiful result!
[Special thanks to the designers in my life who inspired this post: Tosh, Colleen, Russ, Safa, Nancy, Aaron, Rama, Loretta, Miljena, and Michael]
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