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January 2011 Archives

Last summer, I was assigned an iPad for a week to use during the course of my "normal" work life to evaluate its potential for workplace implementation and to gauge some possible uses for the device in research on teaching practices and learning outcomes. As a Research Fellow, I spend a considerable amount of my time writing reports, analyzing data, and authoring manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals. My basic purpose in checking out the iPad was to explore its functionality with respect to writing. With respect to this functionality, I would give the iPad a C-/D+ for the following reasons:

  • The only freely available application with which to write on the iPad is the stock Notes application that is pre-loaded on the device. While the Notes application is designed to allow users to take notes (as belied by its legal pad interface) rather than write and edit large amounts of text, I found it to be a bit awkward, if not cumbersome, to work on manuscripts. The touch computing aspect of moving the cursor to a desired field is a nice feature, but does not compensate for the ability to easily edit, move, or delete text without undesired consequences. I took the iPad to several meetings, however, where I used it as a paperless note-taking device and it worked rather splendidly.
  • The touch sensitive keyboard was a bit awkward and unforgiving of typographical errors at first. However, as I got used to it (or it got used to me), typing became considerably easier, but still allowed for errors to be made that would not otherwise be made using an actual keyboard.
  • Transferring notes to a computer proved not difficult, but annoying, as I had to email it to myself, then transfer and format the text into a Word document. This, of course, meant that I had to set up the iPad to recognize my email address - a one-time task, but a time consuming one, nonetheless. To be fair, the (relatively) new app - Dropbox - makes this process considerably easier.
  • As I tend to be productive writing in places other than a cubicle, I used the iPad outdoors several times. In doing so, I found out that an iPad can actually overheat and automatically shut itself down to cool. It gives you a VERY brief warning that it is doing so before it shuts down. And when it did shut down, I lost about 30 minutes worth of work.

In July 2010, Alex Golub published a very frank assessment of potential for iPads in higher education on Inside Higher Ed entitled "The iPad for Academics" ( It is a very good article that will be of use to those tasked with evaluating the potential for iPads at the University of Minnesota (and elsewhere). While I agree with most of what is written in the piece, one quote encapsulates my general assessment of the device:

When it comes to weaning professors off of traditional computers, the iPad fails. It is simply not a good device for people who do serious productive work, whether that be reading, writing, or working with multimedia.

A more recent post over at Hack Education ( suggests similarly that as a tool for consumption, the iPad is excellent (a position with which I completely agree). However, "when it comes to writing essays and creating multimedia and other technical projects, the iPad is cumbersome, if not useless."

The Year of the Tablet

It sort of boggles my mind that one year ago today, basically nobody outside of Apple had seen an iPad. That wasn't revealed until January 27, 2010. I remember when it was touted as Apple's answer to e-readers, but the e-reader aspect of it seems to have been lost due to, well, to Angry Birds and Facebook and all the other things you do on an iPad besides read books. I also remember that people were underwhelmed, and the main feedback was: what a stupid name.

Jobs knew what he was doing. iPads, like iPods and iTunes before them, reinvigorated Apple and captured a whole new market. It is now the principle product to beat. 2011 will be the year of the tablet, says practically everybody. This will particularly be pursued in education, but I agree with this HuffPo columnist who thinks either the things have to get powerful enough to replace laptops, or they have to get a lot cheaper.

In the meantime, I'll have to stick it out with my iPod Touch for a while. Baby clothes and mortgage payments, etc., come first. At least I can play Angry Birds.

Spinning Our Wheels

Two scholars ask the pertinent question, "is our..." er, "Are our undergraduates learning?" Citing their own research, they find that nearly half of undergraduates have no improvement in critical thinking and other high-end measures after two years of college, and over a third have no improvement after four years. Well, that's all based on some test, and they concede there is gain in content knowledge, but there's better headlines in saying they haven't learned anything at all. Read an excerpt and link to some critical feedback here.

Here's the money quote, echoing a note that has been played in stories about K-12 education for years: this failure is not a failure, it was the plan all along.

No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduates' academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis, because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.

In a recent meeting of the faculty development team we discussed the article "Mind the Gap: The Digital Dimension of College Access," and considered how we might take into account the digital divide in our work. The digital divide is commonly understood mainly in terms of access to technology. Joanna Goode, Department of Education, University of Oregon, argues that while access is a concern, "the digital divide cannot be measured by tallying hardware, but rather, must be measured by determining access to rich learning experiences in which technology is embedded" (586). A digital divide exists in too many schools that serve low income students or students of color, where the most advantageous conditions for educational technology are absent: qualified teachers and student-centered pedgagogy.

Goode found that opportunities to use of technology in K-12 education differ along lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. In California, advanced computer classes are "overwhelmingly concentrated in schools serving middle class Whites and Asians, while vocationally oriented technology courses are more likely to be offered in schools serving large numbers of students of color" (Goode 587). Computing courses attract more young men than young women. Students in wealthier schools use computers for learning less frequently, but are more likely to use them for learning activities with intellectually rigorous objectives. In contrast, students in low-income schools are more likely to use computers for remedial learning activities.

How does the digital divide affect students once they enroll in college? Goode argues that for students who lack fluency with technology, it's not simply a question of catching up. By the time students reach college, they have developed a "technology identity," or beliefs about one's own technology abilities, about the importance of technology, about opportunities to participate, and motivation to learn about technology. Goode investigates what is involved in becoming a "computer person" by drawing on Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, or the knowledge, education, experiences and material advantages required to maintain or achieve higher social status. Her research indicates that technology identities are shaped by and reflect social structures. In other words, a student who identifies as a "computer person" is more likely to come from a more privileged background.

Within the faculty development team we have begun a conversation about addressing the digital divide, and we would like others to join us in that conversation. How does the digital divide manifest itself at the University of Minnesota? How might we address it?

Goode, Joanna. "Mind the Gap: The Digital Dimension of College Access." The Journal of Higher Education. 81, no. 5 (September/October 2010) 583-618.

One quick trip to the recent past of the internet via the wonderfully time-wasting WayBackMachine is enough to remind us of all of the "creative" uses of font manipulation in what passed for information design. Who knew that these skills would one day come in handy?

According to a recent study, non-standard and varied type fonts can create "desirable difficulties" and create additional cognitive loads that tend to improve learning. The results seem counter intuitive. Most instructors strive to create easy-to-receive lessons, and students perceive that a lesson is successful if they feel they have had a relatively easy time learning the material. However, disfluency--"the subjective, metacognitive experience of difficulty associated with cognitive tasks"--has, in some cases, been shown to direct students to "process information more deeply, more abstractly, more carefully, and yield better comprehension." One key mechanism in these results seems to be the idea that disfluency (say, difficult to read type faces) cues a learner to be less confident that they have actually learned what they just read. As a result, there is a greater chance that they might engage the material with greater effort and in a more complex fashion. In their study, "Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes," Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan conclude that "Student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly hard to read."

See: Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (Forthcoming). Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition.

Apps for Macs

The Mac App store has gone live, with a thousand apps available. In comparison, the App store for iPhone and iPod launched in June 2008 with 500 apps, and as of October 2010 there were around 300,000 apps available. (It's hard to tell how many apps are iPad specific. According to the Apple website, there are "thousands," and the iPad can run most of the apps available for iPhone and iPod. Tech Crunch estimates over 5,000 as of May 2010.)

Numbers aside, what will you find in the Mac App store? You can purchase the previously bundled Garage Band, IPhoto and iMovie separately for the price of $14.99 each. You'll find the usual productivity tools (Evernotes, to do lists). Yelling Robot is designed to keep you on task, though the robot doesn't so much yell as glare at you and speak somewhat sternly. A quick look at the Education apps suggests they are more for the younger set, and some of them seem expensive. For example, LogicWorks, which teaches about digital electronic circuits, is $69.99, and EarMaster Pro, a music theory app, is $59.99.

Will desktop apps have the same appeal as mobile apps? What do you think? Oh, and in case you're wondering, you can also buy Angry Birds.

Here's at least one look back at the biggest ed tech stories of 2010. I figured the iPad would top any such list. The focus is on K-12 and much of the rest of the list is about national assessment standards, school reform, etc. What would a top ten list for higher ed look like? For us the challenges of lagging effects of the recession is certainly a top story, a focus on science and math curricula, continued concerns about privacy in an era of social networking, and renewed interest in how technology can transform face-to-face classes after several years of online and hybrid learning. We continue to look at how cloud tools can enhance and even replace course management systems, a theme that was strong last year and the subject of a CIC virtual conference at the tail end of 2009. A couple of smaller stories are the sunsetting of delicious, which I will miss a great deal, and the fizzling denouement of Google Wave, which not so long ago seemed like a big deal. Will Facebook's "fmail" be a big story of 2011, or a big letdown?

What else would you consider a top story in higher ed computing for 2010? And what do you anticipate for 2011?