Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Are We There Yet?

Contemplating Two Generations of Technology Vision

Everything comes full circle. That was the thought on the minds of some when Apple recently released its newest product. As its creator famously remarked, using the iPad seems very much “like holding the Internet in your hands.” But as futuristic as it feels, the iPad owes a great deal to ideas of the past. It provides a number of useful lessons about the gradual progress of educational technology. It can also teach us about the conditions that support technology adoption.

As many people noted when the iPad was introduced, its time had first come over 40 years ago. In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay at Xerox’s revolutionary PARC think tank began to outline his vision of a portable computer. He called it the Dynabook, and the vision he described is still fresh today. Kay wrote that the size should be no larger than a notebook and weigh less than four pounds. He includes a picture that could have been a sketch of the iPad. He even nails the merits and use of touch-sensitive screens, 40 years before their time: “Suppose the display covers the full extent of the notebook surface. Any keyboard arrangement one might wish can then be displayed anywhere on the surface.” The iPad provides a number of useful lessons about the gradual progress of educational technology. It can also teach us about the conditions that support technology adoption.

But more impressive, and still inspiring today, is the educational vision Kay held up for this technology. He describes students using powerful simulations to discover principles of physics through inquiry. He depicts them collaborating via the same technology. He also forecasts the existence, use, and distribution of digital textbooks. Kay notes in his seminal paper that enacting his vision was within reach in 1972. It took a bit longer than expected.

With the recent unveiling of the iPad—and with many similar devices coming hot on its heels—one might argue that the technology platforms to deliver the Dynabook vision have finally arrived. But the widespread use of quality educational technology is still disappointingly far off.

What does the iPad have to teach educational technology about how a phenomenon becomes popular and adopted? Quite a bit. First, acceptance is high, with a half-million units sold in the first week of release. Six weeks later, Apple was selling twice as many iPads per week as Mac computers. Given some recent history, this should be surprising—the idea of a tablet device has been around for at least a decade or two, but most such devices have not experienced anything close to wide adoption. However, some specific factors have paved the way for the iPad’s adoption. And these factors harbor advice that educational technology would do well to heed.

Prime the technology pump. The iPhone, direct predecessor to the iPad, came onto the market amid a wave of technology that permitted small packages to deliver powerful computing. This hardware, including GPS location sensors, fast and efficient microprocessors, and the evolution of touch screen technology was a necessary condition for the emergence and success of both the iPhone and the iPad generation of devices.

Define (and answer) the problem. The hugely popular mobile smartphones had an equally huge problem. People hated their interfaces. A decade of frustration with labyrinthian voicemail menus and inscrutable settings had created an army of frustrated mobile phone users with enough pent-up rage to fuel a revolution. By providing a device that was easy to use, the iPhone had identified a core problem and set a new bar for its solution, one that was quickly taken up by many others.

Whet undiscovered appetites. The explosion of mobile devices also created for millions the idea of constant, away-from-home connectivity. The iPhone upped the ante significantly by providing a full browsing and even computing experience, giving consumers the expectation that they should be only inches away from powerful, networked computing at all times.

Provide the practice. The iPhone defined a new set of touch-based interactions. While using the iPhone was intuitive and easy for almost everyone, it also demanded some important practice. The public had to adapt to a new way of using a computer, and software developers had to think in a very new way about designing applications. Establishing both of these takes time, and the three releases of the iPhone provided just this back-and- forth. In a realm as dynamic as the mobile phone market, both users and developers are accustomed to learning and accounting for new and shifting interfaces. This patience and flexibility allowed ideas about interaction to flourish that would have failed if they had been shoehorned into people’s concepts of a desktop or laptop computer.

It took all of these factors, combined with a generation of new applications, to pave the way for the iPad. Educational technology should be well past all four of these factors and thriving in the hands of students worldwide. Sadly, that is not the case. Computer access has improved, but is hardly universal even in many places in this country. Educational software has increased in complexity, but it is often barely more sophisticated than the drill-and-kill options that masqueraded as educational 30 years ago. Digital textbooks now loom on the horizon, but they could easily squander their computing platforms’ educational possibilities if not designed thoughtfully.

Can we learn from these four conditions and bring education forward in a similar manner? A couple of factors are in place already. Plunging technology costs have primed the pump. Lower costs could enable increasing numbers of schools to begin widespread hardware adoption. And the problem seems increasingly obvious, as people acknowledge that existing educational resources frequently fail to convey important concepts in a compelling fashion.

However, the last two factors have certainly not yet been addressed. First, people’s appetite must be whetted for the right revolutionary idea. To create an atmosphere that encourages substantial change, we must introduce concepts for the classroom that are as compelling as the iPhone’s “everywhere browser” was for consumers. Teachers must experience how real-time feedback about student performance can revolutionize their instructional possibilities. They must see how powerful and customizable simulations can aid understanding of abstract concepts. They must gain a taste for rich, instantaneous performance assessments for complex tasks. Most importantly, the contexts for these must be more than simply superficial. Technology-based texts, courses, and experiences must be deeply digital to help teachers understand what technology can truly offer. Such examples properly raise students’ and teachers’ expectations for what educational technology should do.

As we saw with the iPhone experience, we must also provide sufficient practice. As with the touch interface example, this practice must occur on the part of both the users—in our case, teachers and students—and those who develop the technology. Teachers must learn the difficult and new art of teaching with technology. Good educational technology is neither a substitute teacher nor a crutch for sub-par pedagogy. Using technology well demands a teaching style that rests technical fluency upon pedagogical agility. Facilitating students in digital inquiry is a learned skill. Developers of educational technology must also demonstrate excellent pedagogical facility and understand how to apply technology in powerful but appropriate ways. They must provide engaging, flexible curricula that anticipate classroom demands and provide useful data for teachers. Technology-based texts, courses, and experiences must be deeply digital to help teachers understand what technology can truly offer

To enable the revolution we desire, a great deal of work still lies ahead. Even as we are heartened by recent signs—mounting discussion about digital texts, increasing enrollment in virtual schools, recent federal interest in finding and applying the best ideas available—we must be ready to seize the moment as these elements converge. Efforts to push educational technology forward must not shy away from launching bold initiatives for creating whole courses and curricula on a national scale or creating digital texts that take full advantage of the interactive capabilities of models and simulations and the power of real-time data collection.

At the Concord Consortium, we continue to try and hold out the finest of these examples to the world. The articles in this issue showcase some of our current efforts to get educational technology into the hands of teachers and students in a deeply digital fashion. Forty years after Alan Kay’s vision, we are committed to bringing forth the best of educational technology in new and exciting ways.