I recently attended the Webvisions conference in Portland, Oregon. Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Douglas Rushkoff were a few of the well-known speakers. Many of the sessions were led by developers who were working with cutting-edge web technologies. Some of the main themes I heard at the conference were as follows:
HTML5, CS3, and JQuery
Digital ethnography, especially as it relates to user interface (UX) and mobility
Many of the sessions, including Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ talk focused on user interface and understanding user preference and technology usage on a contextualized level. Kelly Goto and Rachel Hinman were all-star UX proponents and offered numerous ideas for moving beyond analytics and demographics to how individuals use technology at various times of the day. It appears many companies have moved beyond seeking a “sticky” site to one that is addictive. And so, branding and product design were related to sensory activity (especially tacticle) and emotional connection. Hinman’s discussion about the new ecology of untethered mobile devices and how mobile devices can “unlock” place was inspiring.
Vision for future (the ecology of new devices)
Rachel Hinman and Douglas Rushkoff covered a large swathe of ideas related to future technology trends. Much of Rushkoff’s talk focused on corporate interests versus individual interests and how technology is being used to subvert individuality and free thinking by corporate interests. One of his more memorable claims was that Facebook’s product was not the software, but the child—more specifically, the child’s social graph that can be monetized. He suggested Portland was “our last hope”–whatever that meant…and, he believed technology is most effective in the hands of the youth and “stoners”–not sure he was trying to directly correlate a location with this claim…but, the two were said at various points of his talk. While some of this was tongue in cheek banter, his main goal was to encourage the individual user of technology to be more efficacious and aware of the underlying technologies enabling our daily usage of software and devices. Without such awareness and discretion, he believed that we would be beholden to corporate interests and those who would use technology to slowly devalue individual rights. He said so much more, but the core of his talk reminded me of some of Sherry Turkle’s writings.
When Rushkoff heard one of my colleagues worked with Blackboard, he seemed a bit disappointed, but then signed his book with the following, “Blackboard is intentional”—great sense of humor.
Hinman recommended several articles. I found the following very enlightening (The Coming Zombie Apocalypse).
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!
Do you have the impulse to check your email or social network updates when you get up, throughout the day, between tasks, as an interruption in the middle of a task, in the evening, in the middle of the night, anytime? There might be a message you are interested in or something you “need” to respond to …
Not everyone suffers from the same intensity of message-checking addiction, but it is not hard to see it in our culture—look at the people staring and poking at their devices as they walk down the sidewalk or sit in a meeting.
As I left work for this holiday break, I thought to myself, I should turn off the automatic email notifications on my smart phone. This is a time when I don’t need to know there is a new message. I need a break. So as I walked down the sidewalk away from the office, I pulled out my phone and began to change the settings. This will help me be in the present, be aware of my surroundings, I thought. Then all of a sudden I experienced a crack to my head and I fell to the ground. I looked up and saw that I had walked straight into a piece of construction machinery.
This experience followed a number of conversations I had over the past few weeks that seemed to indicate a growing awareness among my colleagues that one can be “too connected,” that it is worthwhile to try to figure out the appropriate balance between being connected and being disconnected, that there is power and integrity in being able to personally manage the fine line between too much online life and too little.
By serendipity, on my holiday travels I read a book I’d been meaning to read, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers, a former Washington Post reporter. Powers is not a luddite or reactionary to technology. Instead, he offers a rich, long-term perspective on how humans have benefited both by connecting using technology and by disconnecting in a variety of ways throughout history.
The book is a helpful guide in the search for a deep, meaningful life. Powers intelligently questions the current zeitgeist of “the more you connect, the better.”
He asks, why are we all so busy and yet spend so much time responding to electronic messages and tasks that don’t enrich our lives or add up to anything very important. He explores the seductive nature of “the screen” and offers ways to balance connected time with screen-free time. He provides examples from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan in a context that is very relevant and helpful to our contemporary situation.
And with that I’ll get back to disconnecting so I can immerse in my own experience of the here and now. Or at least not walk into a piece of construction machinery. Happy holidays.
Today’s announcement of Google’s ebookstore of over 3 million titles that can be accessed on a wide range of platforms and devices appears to counter recent trends of device-specific content delivery systems.
Will this, in turn, lead to greater openness, accessibility, and compatibility? Or just more traffic in Google streams that can be captured for advertising dollars?
Whatever the case, hooray for the continuing interest in reading.
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.
When do mobile devices serve as temporary replacements for tethered devices, and when do mobile devices become primary devices? What is lost and what is gained in the migration to mobile devices? When do mobile devices help us do the things we did before in a new way, and when do they help us do new things? How do you rate the status of mobile technology?
As I was thinking about these questions, two aspects of mobility kept coming to mind: convenience and quality. By convenience, I mean portability, compactness, wirelessness, all-in-one-ness. By quality, I mean functionality, richness, usefulness, outstandingness, comparative completeness. Mobile devices clearly have the edge in convenience, but where have they succeeded in quality and where do they still have little or lots of room for improvement?
In many ways, mobile devices demonstrate the areas where convenience trumps quality. That is, mobile devices proliferate where convenience is king—despite imperfections.
For example, mobile devices have succeeded as devices for storing and playing music, despite some loss of quality and the positive aspects of having physical artifacts. Mp3 files do not hold the richest sound recordings, but they can be easily downloaded and are “good enough” for most ears on the go. The convenience of bringing an entire music collection with you appears to outweigh the value of tangible album artwork and packaging.
Likewise, mobile phones are generally not as “comfortable” to talk on as full-sized phones and can have issues with audibility and reception, but most people would probably agree that the convenience of mobility has won out in the phone wars. Just a few years ago, the expectation in American society was for people to have an “official” landline number in addition to a cell phone number. The numbers of people living without landlines seems to be rising fairly rapidly.
Mobile phone cameras might also be considered in this category. They are widely used because of their convenience, even though the quality and features are usually pale in comparison to a dedicated, full-feature camera.
But there is another category—those mobile device functions that exceed in both quality and convenience. In the category, I include such functions as GPS/mapping, checking weather reports, sending and receiving text messages, clocks/ calendars, calculators, and a wide range of gaming and social network applications. In these cases, mobile devices often perform the functions at equal quality as the alternatives with the added benefit of mobility.
On your list, where have mobile devices already achieved perfection, where do they still have some improvements to make, where is a compromise simply necessary, and where have they not even begun to make progress?
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.
What could be a more perfect recipe for learning opportunities than the introduction of each new increasingly sophisticated mobile device and the growing numbers of smart phone users worldwide? E-learning developers are clearly eager to apply their ideas and skills in the mobile kitchen and cook up some new mobile innovations.
Mobile learning will be increasingly rich, pervasive, and personal, finding its way into nearly every facet of life—any time, any place, anybody, loaded with place-based GPS data and user tags, a new facet of reality augmenting our understanding of our lives and our world.
But will mobile learning be fundamentally truly participatory or actually proprietary? Will it be extensible and interoperable, where third-party development extends participation, innovation, and openness; or will it be device dependent, closed systems controlled by proprietary gatekeepers, where “participation” occurs only by the terms set by the device vendors?
This essential question, raised by Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in The Future of the Internet, can and should be asked regarding the future of mobile devices.
Zittrain describes the historical progression of computing and network systems—an arc from a proprietary model to a generative or participatory model and back toward a proprietary model.
Zittrain starts his story in 1890, when the U.S. government commissioned Herman Hollerith to tally the U.S. Census using a punch card system he had devised. Hollerith’s machine business was a precursor to IBM and a proprietary or vendor-centric generation of computing machines.
The key features of a vendor or proprietary system is that the manufacturer determines the specific purpose for its use and designs it so that the user can accomplish that specific use relatively easily and not much more. If the user needs additional functions, they must rely on the vendor to provide upgrades or new equipment, in addition to maintenance. The vendor essentially locks in future business for itself.
In many cases, the vendor system works well—a coffee maker does its job, and a typewriter does its. If such a machine breaks, consumers accept that they may need to replace a part from the manufacturer or purchase a new one. The use is discrete enough that being beholden to a vendor does not impact the rest of one’s life (personal) or operations (business).
Zittrain then describes a new generative or participatory movement with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s and culminating with the height of the Internet and World Wide Web. The key feature of participatory systems is that the manufacturer doesn’t determine what you will use it for—they leave it up to the user to either develop their own applications or install a variety of applications developed by a spectrum of third-party vendors. The code is open to being altered; anyone can join and use the networks; people can communicate between different types of machines and service providers.
The benefits of participatory systems are clear—they encourage innovation and entrepreneurship while supporting the broadest number of users.
Open, participatory systems, however, are not always ideal and sometimes not feasible, as Zittrain admits. These systems are vulnerable to security issues, and because people are allowed to tinker, they cannot be relied upon to operate 100% as expected all of the time.
In other words, generative, participatory systems allow the world of users to create marvelous, unexpected new applications, but if what you really want is to be assured that your coffee will brew as desired every day, you may be better off with a proprietary machine from a specific vendor.
So, what do we want from our mobile devices? What is more important—that they operate consistently for specific purposes, or that we are allowed opportunities for participation and unexpected innovation?
If the decision is left to the mobile device manufacturers and service providers, they will choose the proprietary path to the future as that is likely in their best interest. But that may leave mobile learning in the less-than-ideal position of being tethered to the constraints, formats, and fates of the vendors.
To consider the impact—imagine if Amazon or Apple or any other company had the power to set requirements for and approve or remove all your current e-learning materials on the Internet, and to take a percentage of the profit for the pieces of your business they did approve?
Who’s going to call the shots and make the demands in mobile learning’s future? Are you concerned or complacent? Too excited by all the great potential of these devices to see where the road could lead? What other options do we have?
A few weeks ago I boarded a flight to St. Louis for a conference and met a young man who made me realize how connected we’ve become with mobile technology, across not only distance, but across cultural and social divides.
On a typical connecting flight, the person in the seat next to me will be from thousands of miles away from my home , and sometimes light years away in their social, cultural and world view. Not surprisingly, this disparity can lead to just the briefest of conversations followed by hours of reading, listening to MP3 players, or watching in-flight movies.
But within moments of putting on our seat belts, we both had our mobile devices out, making our last-minute online connections before the plane’s door was closed. I had my new iPhone and Marc had his iPod Touch. There was an immediate connection as we nodded at each others technology, and the conversation began that would last for the entire three-hour flight.
Marc offered me half of his sandwich (I had foolishly neglected to get something before the flight) and we began comparing notes on our favorite apps. I described my latest hobby using Geocaching, with the iPhone’s built in GPS capabilities. Marc countered with Trapster, an app to alert you to the location of speed traps.
I shared a picture of my ride—a two-seater—with photo altered with ColorSplash. Marc countered with a photo of his motorcycle. I tapped up Cartoon-Wars, and Marc pulled up Wooden Labyrinth.
Eventually our conversation began to enter more serious territory–learning from mobile technology. I showed him how I could view science lectures on my iPhone from MIT for free on YouTube. We ruminated how open education is truly arriving, and learning about any topic (including the Theory of Relativity—another common interest) can be fully realized for free, on-line and while in motion.
We parted ways, with me promising to listen to his favorite music, rapper Juelz Santana, and Marc promising to look into the TED talks online. It was a wake-up call for me about how mobile technology can help break down so many walls, whether economic, cultural, or just the barriers set up by seat dividers.