April 20, 2010


I hate to start out blogs with this .... but this blog is about a concept that is NOT ready for education ..... yet. Before I could require students to use a social networking application for class, I would HAVE to ensure their privacy and allow students to control who sees different types of information. And, I'd also have to include some sort of statement on my syllabus about the fact that harassing another student using the tool would be grounds for disciplinary action. *Sigh* You can teach students content, but you'd think their parents or kindergarten teacher would have taught them to be human beings ... but onto the tool ....

The tool, as it says in the title is Foursquare. This social networking app for the iPhone, Droid, and the Blackberry makes use of the ability of smart phones to know where they (and presumably you, the owner) are located (called "location awareness"). By combining your location with information (created by others) about where other things (businesses and other people) are located, you can record where you are over time and broadcast that information to others nearby. In the social world, that lets you find your friends on a night out. It also lets you see where your friends have been, giving you some indication of places that you might find fun and interesting too. That's assuming that you enjoy the same things that your friends do ... or are extremely open to new experiences.

As an educator, I get excited by this because of the "tip" and "to do" feature built into some apps, like Foursquare. This could allow me to map out an experiential tour of a city or a building or ecosystem for my students, using the "to do" feature. For each location, I could have them look for something specific or do something ... like take a water sample or a picture of a building. And they could also make notes of their own at each location, uploading the results of a water sample, for instance.

Once done with the tour, I and the class could access the notes each student put up. By combining observations over time, we could show how research teams actually DO analyze samples, show the variations in data and how we use statistics to assess them, map results, etc. This is not a new idea - researchers such as John Martin and Kurt Squire have been working on augmented reality games for science inquiry for several years. The stunningly wonderful thing is that these simple apps made for social networking could be re-purposed for education. And given the number of students who already have these "phones", we rapidly loose the need for specialized, expensive single-purpose devices ... needing only to address how to provide access for students without the means to own a smart phone.

And while I cannot argue that smart phones are inexpensive, they are still often much cheaper than the laptops we have been requiring them to purchase through various laptop initiatives. Plus, the phones are significantly more resilient as well as able to access data much more effectively in the field.

Something to think about ... and for some bright developer to create for Foursquare. If you want to see an educational use of this program, check out and follow the History Channel's excellent list of tips in Foursquare. They even have a tip to see the Minnehaha Falls!

Posted by bjohnson at 9:05 AM

March 18, 2010

Addiction or shift?

This morning, I'm sipping my coffee and reading the news, switching between print (the New York Times) and my trusty electronic feeds (via Google reader). Since I'm focused on the educational potential of online tools, I stopped to track down and read this article from Ars Technica on addiction to social media.

As is usual, I find myself mulling a difficult question or two. And I haven't even had my second cup of coffee (don't get me started on addictions ....)!

First off, as the article points out, defining behavioral addictions is problematic and open to debate. Many addiction specialists question the label "addiction" applied to compulsive behavior. And many Madison Avenue behavioral shapers simply enjoy the income. But that's not the question I am focused on today.

My question is: is this really new behavior? Or is it just shifted to a new medium? And how would we study this question?? I only ask because, as I reflect on my own use of social media and slick devices, I do not see substantial changes in behavior other than the fact that I can now do things once instead of twice.

Let me explain. Back in the old days, when I carried around a DayTimer instead of an iPhone, I'd spend a substantial amount of time --- at odd moments of the day --- making notes about what I needed to do when business hours started: who needed to be contacted, what memos needed to be written, what newspaper article I needed to clip and file, etc. And I do mean at all hours of the day. Being a multi-tasker and insomniac from my teens, it was not unusual for me to be up at 4 am writing out reports long-hand on a legal pad so that a secretary could type them up when normal people started working.

Now, I drink my coffee and read the paper as always, but I can file clips (in the form of URLs) immediately (in Endnote or star them in Google Reader). Instead of making myself a note to remind my students of a paper due next week, I can send it out now via Twitter or the Moodle news feed. I type up my own memos (more likely emails) and can send them out at 4 am, if that is when I'm thinking of it ... instead of making notes and hoping I'll remember what I was thinking about. Does this mean that I'm addicted to social media? Or was I addicted to (something .... work perhaps) before social media came along?

People frequently make a big deal about how we text or read electronic media in bed ... but how is that different from the prior sins of reading fiction or watching TV before falling asleep? I'd argue that a quiet game of Bejeweled is more relaxing than watching the nightly news, but I think I'll leave that question to those who feel like researching it (anyone want to get wired up in the sleep lab?).

Instead, I'll continue to wonder if we are all Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up and forgetting the progression of the past 50 years. We did not suddenly become a sedentary, media focused society with the invention of the smart phone. We've been sitting and amusing ourselves with cheap paperbacks, readily available newspapers, crossword puzzles and TV for decades. Is the shift to electronic media really increasing our consumption of media? Or do we just notice it now that we're not consuming the privileged print as much as we are the disruptive electronic forms?

Posted by bjohnson at 8:11 AM

July 31, 2009

Dr. BlackBerry: Eight Apps Making Medicine More Mobile - CIO.com - Business Technology Leadership


As a group, physicians almost define the need for accurate, up-to-date information at your fingertips combined with an understanding of multiple, complex systems.

But if they are moving away from the old school model of "memorize everything you'll need for the future while in school", what does that tell us about our current, banking model of school?

Posted by bjohnson at 9:06 AM

September 17, 2008

iTouch Education

I may have found a way to wear my computer on my sleeve - almost.

I picked up the new iPod Touch on Sunday and am exploring it's potential as personal assistant, education tool, and portable entertainment. That's quite a lot to ask from a device that is smaller than a deck of cards, but I think Apple's latest product in the incredible shrinking computer contest is up to the challenge.

For my initial results, read on ....

First, the known tradeoffs

I did not get an iPhone because I decided to split the functionality of a telephone from the rest of the tricks this little baby can perform. I intend to run and play with this device - and I don't want to take phone calls while doing so. 1) That means that I do carry two devices when I am reachable by cell phone and 2) I have to be in Wi-Fi range to connect to the computing cloud and get updates. Those are two things I can live with, but be aware that you may want to think about the new iPhone if the trade offs don't work for you.

Second, the good points

And most of my initial response to this device is good.

1) Good screen resolution - even with aging eyes, I can read web pages (in landscape mode). The video quality when watching movies is excellent, and most of the apps I have downloaded so far are very readable in a variety of locations - even outdoors.

2) Easy to use - if you are familiar with a Mac and iTunes, getting this set up and running is a breeze. Even installing new applications is easy. Got to love Apple's iTunes store.

3) Wide range of applications - between iTunes and apple.com, I see too, too many temptations, including educational ones, that will keep me blogging for months on this topic alone. So far, I've succumbed to yet another way to organize my time (OmniFocus trial), Nike + running application, and a meditation timer.

4) Content - between iTunes, YouTube, and the web itself, I have more information at my fingertips (provided I'm on a network, of course) than I could possibly search in a lifetime. Check out iTunes U - which is downloadable and portable for hours spent studying on a plane or a bus. This means I can spare my aching back (and the weight limits of airlines), ditch the textbooks (in some cases), and learn nearly anywhere in multiple modalities. I hope distance educators are paying attention - the content pipeline is widening rapidly!

5) Beautiful - sleek and small. It fits nicely in the hand with rounded, solid comfort. Who says technology can't be pleasing?

Third, the not so good points

Or rather --- point --- singular.

I am having a bit of trouble figuring out how to sync the PowerBook, Mobile Me, and the iTouch. Any time you have three pieces that need to communicate with one another, you have the potential for challenges. This one should work out - after all, they are designed to work together. It just is not intuitive (there is that magic word!) to me. So be forewarned if you decide to go this route as well.

Posted by bjohnson at 8:04 AM