Understanding technological literacy, or the lack thereof, is a crucial issue not just for small scale instructional technology projects, but also for qualifying some of the social or environmental drivers that influence and shape our audience’s behavior and preferences. Serif or sans serif font? Sharing or bookmarking digital text and the conventions to support this activity? As we’re working on a statewide online course for the Master Naturalist program, we’ve been reminded of how important these issues are for our audience as we’ve collected data from a recent pilot class.

Below are a few recent articles on the topic of digital literacy. The first article suggests that e-learning technologies still have some ground to cover until they replace the bound book while the second article captures Sherry Turkle’s thoughts about how many technology consumers use technology with little awareness or concern for how technology functions below the interface (or application layer). Turkle believes this has adverse effects on both the individual and society.

E-Readers Fail At Education

“A recent University of Washington study interviewed 39 first-year graduate students in the university’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, which participated in a pilot study of Amazon’s Kindle DX (a large-screen e-reader). By seven months into the study, fewer than 40% of the students did their schoolwork on the Kindle. The problem: the Kindle has poor note-taking support, doesn’t allow for easy skimming, and makes it difficult for students to look up references (in comparison with computers and textbooks).”

“Perhaps the solution–for textbooks, at least–is to bolster conventional text and images with more interactive and multimedia content.”

Read the article….

Rethinking Technological Literacy

Sherry Turkle is a “professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, Turkle has invested years thinking about and publishing her work on these problems….She has also made extensive observations of the generation of students appearing on college and university campuses now. Broadly, she concludes that these students really do not possess the technological literacy they need to understand the technology environments they are engaging with–and she is concerned.”

Read the article….

We released Oregon State University’s first official iPhone application recently. Three of us worked on the application for many months and also helped define the licensing requirements that would allow us to release this application via the Apple Standard licensing type. This basically allows anyone to download the application using iTunes. It was a wild (and mostly enjoyable) ride with several twists and turns. First, a little about the application:

The OSU Campus Tree Tour iPhone/iPad application is the first official iPhone application released by Oregon State University. The application uses photos, GPS, maps, and research-based tree information to learn about the different trees on and around campus while “on the go.” The iPhone application provides information about tree leaf type, tree bloom, whether a tree is native to Oregon, and a page number reference to the OSU Extension Trees to Know handbook.

The application uses a place-based approach to learning and is extensible. This is important as we plan on adding more themed tree tours as the weather improves here on campus. Here’s a link to the iTunes description and download. We look forward to your input.

I would be remiss in not mentioning some of the key players in the app development. Nick Piatt did a wonderful job as our lead programmer, Aaron Senecal provided graphical support and Dave King, our Associate Provost really provided the initial vision for an iPhone application and provided us with the resources and backing we needed to see the project through. Jos Accapadi from Central Web Services partnered with us to define licensing and a path to sustain the application. David Baker from University Advancement also partnered with licensing efforts and marketing. Shayne Huddleston from CWS also deserves mention for his assistance with Red Mine and software archival process. Lastly, Pat Breen, Professor Emeritus in Horticulture was our subject matter expert and kept the project enjoyable.

Hope you’ll download the app!

The Pew Research Center just released some statistics around mobile device location service usage. If you’re unfamiliar with “location service,” the basic idea is “I’m at this specific location, so show me information or allow me to do something on my smart phone relevant to this place.” According to the study, the percentage of online adults (18-29 years old) using “geosocial” or location-based services is still relatively low. About 7% of this group use location service sporadically, with about 4% using apps like Foursquare or Gowalla. The study seems to suggest daily usage of location service apps at about 1%. Interestingly, location service usage among Hispanics (10%) is higher than online whites (3%). 6% of online men use location-based services compared to 3% of online women.

The upshot of the study? These findings suggest place-based apps or services are still very much in their infancy. Case in point, look more closely at Tim Kring’s (creator of the Heroes TV show) recent Conspiracy for Good Project. It’s essentially a large place-based multimedia experience that leverages mobile phones location service and builds an emerging, interactive narrative around physical locations in London. Say again? In his own words,

We told a lot of story online and through mobile, publishing, and merchandising. Everywhere you could connect to an audience with the narrative, we were telling stories. This is taking that same idea and rolling it out, literally, into the streets. The exciting part is that the narrative lives all around you — on your mobile phone, on the internet, and starting on July 17, literally on the streets of London for three weeks.

In a slightly less ambitious nod to place-based service apps, many universities are exploiting students’ penchant for this type of “geosocial” activity (young, social, mobile). A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article shares a compelling example from Boston University.

Boston University’s Dean of Students Office designed a trek around a freshman-orientation fair in August that sent students to campus hangouts, libraries, and various academic-department booths. Students earned points by sending along pictures of themselves taking a dip in a college fountain, talking with counselors at the Career Development Office booth, and making tie-dyed T-shirts out on BU Beach, among other things. All pictures and completed tasks were posted on the event Web site, and the student with the highest number of points took home an iPad.

Foursquare and Gowalla have already won some followers and other “geosocial” or place-based apps are popping up. SCVNGR is notable in their attempt to blend place-based “check in” with challenges, user contribution and marketing (how about Oregami in a burrito shop with a virtual coupon tied to challenges?). The NY Times summarizes the approach as follows, “…location-based gaming platforms that allow visitors to explore the institutions in a gamelike fashion. The company was founded with the idea that mobile games could blur a line between digital interactivity and real-world interaction.”

Although in its infancy, the potential for educational and marketing organizations is promising. Pedagogically speaking, educational approaches like place-based learning provide helpful framework for imagining how this technology can support key objectives like promoting civic responsibility, awareness of environment, and maximally contextualized asynchronous learning. As the technology improves, I can imagine dollars being shuffled rapidly into this domain as more providers determine how to integrate place-based features into their marketing, app, game, or in some cases, large-scale interactive multimedia narrative. For those of us in the educational market, the opportunities are limitless.

Treasure maps, letterboxing, scavenger hunts and geocaching all leverage environmental markers to guide a participant from one location to another. Just as geocaching enhanced earlier forms of interpretive tours or location-based hunts to a wider audience, smart phones are pushing the potential of place-based learning into uncharted territory.


Some of the recent examples of this are most apparent with augmented reality. Utilizing the smart phone’s camera, GPS and real-time connection to a database allow any number of possibilities for a user to walk, point, and interpret. Much of the initial apps in this space have been tied to marketing, but educational examples are emerging.


Here are a few examples that highlight location-specific interpretation of pests, soil, and grass.

Cooperative Extension has a unique foothold in this domain as its organizational typology (county-based offices) and locale-specific topics lend themselves to this combination of technology and instructional approach. Learning is simply too broad (and too important) and technology has become too powerful for education to be constrained within traditional containers. Sugata Matra’s recent TED talk about building Internet-ready PCs into the walls of poor neighborhoods in India might be the extreme version of “kids grow knowledge” while in their neighborhood, but other organizations in New York that are looking more closely at place-based learning echo this need for in situ learning. Katie Salem at Quest to Learn drives this notion home, “We have to move beyond this notion of school as a container for learning,” adding that kids pass through many different learning contexts every day.

Here at Oregon State University, we recently finished a place-based tree tour iPhone application and many of these instructional issues helped us define our design and development process. I’ll share more about this in the next post. In the meantime, do you have some other examples of place-based learning?

Several months back, I posted a comparison of the iPad, iPod and Kindle from the perspective of e-reader functionality. Now, I’d like to provide some input about the iPad relative to what I  see as its true product category: the family room web device. Alas, I’ve already revealed the true nature of my feelings for this iconic tool now that I’ve assigned it to a floor plan and more specifically to a room where one generally relaxes and interacts with content in a more passive manner. Associating the iPad with content consumption as opposed to production is probably not a stretch as I’m guessing that even the most enthusiastic iPad user would concede the device falls short in terms of input. So, I’m hard pressed to imagine the iPad finding its way into the home office when it is obviously so comfortable in the family room.

If nothing else, the iPad has generated some interesting discussions around the state of mobile computing. Case in point: I’ve had discussions about the iPad with my barber, my children, colleagues, Luddites and complete strangers. My barber and several strangers have sworn to me in hushed tone that the iPad has ushered in a new wave of accessibility for elderly readers who use the pincher functionality to increase font size on the fly and relieve strained eyes that have suffered under “pinch-less” monitors for years. Forget increasing font size or display size, from their standpoint, “pinch-to-expand” is the new killer feature that will revolutionize modern mobile computing.

All of the OSU college students I’ve spoken to about the iPad believe the device is “OK,” but not worthy of the cost since most of them already have a mobile phone with Internet access. Hence, the reoccurring statement from many of the student types, “It’s basically a large iPhone.” Steve Job’s recent comment that the iPhone came out of development efforts on the iPad reinforces the connection between the two and form factor similarity.  While the lineage of the iPad is established, its utility to the average user is still less clear in my mind.

My own view after seeing it for the first time in March was that it was the ultimate family room device—a tablet device that was more robust than a mobile phone and less obtrusive than a laptop, which could fulfill the typical family room computing tasks: web surfing, email, very light word processing and gaming. To test my hypothesis and provide more substance to my barber banter, I brought an iPad home last week and let my wife and two boys (10 and 5) try it out. The iPad was placed into “circulation” alongside of our laptop and my iPhone—the results?

My wife found the iPad virtual keyboard a challenge. Many of the educational games my boys play are Flash powered. With no Flash support on the iPad, their interest in the device dropped significantly. The virtual keyboard was also not extremely intuitive for them. These two constraints pushed them back to the laptop until we were able to load some iPad apps. Cogs HD, ACrawler, TM Zero were well designed, but the selection for iPad-formatted content is still somewhat limited and one would be hard pressed to describe the iPad as a true gaming device, especially for a younger audience.

Overall, my impression of the iPad changed after this testing period. It was obvious to me that my wife and children prefer using a laptop when at home or tethered to a wireless network. I also found the virtual keyboard a bit tedious and for some reason (even with two right thumbs), felt the iPhone keypad was more intuitive. On the positive side, I found the iPad’s speed impressive. Like the iPhone, the ergonomics in general are sublime and set the bar for other mobile devices. Magazines like Wired are seeing their iPad subscription base close in on their print-based numbers and this might be an indicator of a new growing demographic of well-heeled magazine mavens who will provide needed consumer viability around attempts to coalesce marketing, content and high-end digital manipulatives around a magazine’s brand and readership interests. In short, the iPad may become one of the crucial pieces needed to change one segment of the online reading experience. However, it’s premature to assume examples like Wired suggest a more broad scale adoption of more augmented reality or digitally enhanced subscription-based magazines is feasible or achievable in the near future. A recent post by Advertising Age unpacks some of the magazine specific enhancements found in these examples and the Atlantic also published a telling article entitled “Is the iPad Saving Magazines Yet?

I’m certain that these examples showcase the potential of online magazines and demonstrate some of the pieces we’ll see in the years to come: more integrated video, 3-D models, the inclusion of social media, content formatted more specifically for mobile or tablet devices. In the meantime, our family is perfectly content passing the laptop around the family room and pulling the iPhone out of dad’s pocket when needed.