Probing What’s Next in Learning and Technology, Pt 2

Children in Nigeria use laptops from the One Laptop Per Child movement.

In the second part of my interview with Keene Haywood, Director of Research at the New Media Consortium, publisher of the annual Horizon Report on technology in education, we covered: the future of textbooks, visualization teaching methods, use of augmented reality and gesture-based computing, open content movement, new media literacies, and practical strategies for advancing the field of digital media and learning

In light of the rise of open content and other forms of electronic communication, how viable will the book be in 2-3 years? Is it possible that many instructors and even entire schools will have largely abandoned the book by this point?

In a perfect world, yes, one could conceive of a day when the book format as we know it may not be in the classroom, but it’s not a perfect world.  Books have a lot of good things about their form that computers can’t replicate.

Books don’t need batteries or power.  They are durable.  They can be easily loaned.  They are simple to use, easy to annotate, etc.  However, they are controlled by powerful publishing houses and school boards that decide what goes into these books and how these get distributed and ultimately, for the publishers, make a profit.  On the downside, they are nearly impossible to edit effectively once they are printed, which is probably their biggest drawback.  Printing new editions is not very efficient as content can already be out of date once the book ships.  For some disciplines, textbooks will have their place but they will be increasingly challenged by what is available online in open formats.

I find the actual term for these books interesting…”textbook.”  Well, yes, these books are mostly text, but increasingly we have to think outside the binding if you will, and how concepts and ideas can be explained with images, animations, visualizations, video, audio, etc.   We are still in the early days of thinking about this, but a lot was learned from the CD-ROM days in the early years of multimedia.

What we are able to do now and in the future with media technologies will enable the “textbook” to become a completely different animal in a few years.  I think once technology matures and trickles down  to everyone, then we can think about perhaps not using the traditional textbook in classrooms.  That day may not be too far off.  For a few hundred dollars, you can get a very powerful computer that would have cost thousands a few years ago.  So the technology is becoming more affordable but it still is not as simple as a textbook.

The report notes that one of the critical challenges to learning in the coming years is the changing role of universities. How do you think open content will affect how universities develop over the coming years?

Overall, I think faculty will have to become tech savvy and help point students to the right sources and getting them to critically think about what they find online and put it into context of the disciplines they are studying.  Whether diving into theoretical physics or political science, having a mentor with experience and knowledge can help make your learning experience more efficient and productive not to mention enjoyable.  With open content, the experts in the area can now pull more content into the picture.keenehaywood

How can augmented reality (AR) be implemented for creativity and learning? Many examples are of designed experiences—overlaying contextual information on the real world, for example. What types of applications do you see for students and instructors to create, not just art, but new ideas and new ways of thinking?

I think what AR does is put context to content.  In mobile situations, this becomes very important, especially in the field.  If you are in a location and can see the different types of information that are at play in this location, then AR can help connect the dots in a visceral way.  You can potentially see layers of history, science, politics, natural sciences that all impact a space with AR.  Hopefully, AR can help people gain more insight into understanding the connected nature of our world, besides just being a gee-whiz technology.  It’s a big area with a bright, interesting future that we are just getting a glimpse of now.

The category of gesture-based computing is currently in flux, as corporations are fighting over key patents in this area. How will this technology shake out if, for example, Apple wins it’s lawsuit against HTC, preventing the latter’s implementation of multi-touch computing? How will larger implementations of this tech (for example, Microsoft’s Surface) allow for collaboration and learning?

The mouse and keyboard way of computing has served us well, but like anything, things evolve and I think we are at a juncture where we will start to move away from the traditional ways of computing and make more use of gesture based interfaces.

Actually, for someone not used to computers, using a mouse and keyboard is very intimidating and also confusing.  By having touch or gesture based interfaces, the technology gets less in the way of what you want to do with the computer.  Just like Apple could not trademark the mouse and keyboard or even the graphical user interface of a computer operating system, they can’t completely own the touch interface.  So there will be touch devices everywhere.  The question becomes, how good are they?

I think technologies like this are an extension of us using our hands to communicate and share.  Getting rid of the mouse and minimizing the need for keyboards helps make computing a more natural experience. Again, it’s a good example of technology evolving where it gets less in the way of what we want do to with our information.

One challenge to learning over the coming years that the report notes is that digital media literacy skills aren’t being taught widely enough, particularly for educators. It seems to me that visualizations, while feeling natural on the level of interpretation, will involve a revolution in how educators conceptualize their work. How can we prepare educators to take advantage of this developing trend?

Well, it’s like anything media oriented, it’s much easier to consume than to create.  It’s getting easier, but it’s still time consuming and can be frustrating.  Visualizations are really another kind of media production.  Two things have happened that have made this more of a usable type of media.

One is that we now have lots of data about many, many things.  So there is plenty of content now.  And we also have formats and technologies that allow us to do more with this data.  Technologies like XML, open source databases, more open geo-data formats, etc., are also making it easier to visualize data.  While it’s still not a total snap to do this, it’s getting better.

For educators, I would stress having some grounding in the basics of information and its formats, if you have data that can be visualized.  If you have a good understanding of this, then you can more easily get your head around what needs to be done to visualize information, whether you do it yourself, feed it into a system or hire a developer.

Being fluent in the language of information will be important in many disciplines, so it’s worth at least knowing about this trend and what’s possible.  It may not be for everyone, but it’s another tool in the digital media toolbox that may make learning certain concepts or seeing certain trends more clear to students.

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More generally, how can educators be best prepared to make use of the technologies outlined in the report?

I think the Horizon Reports are general blueprints for the future.  They don’t pretend to be the end-all-be-all list of technologies, but merely a good educated guess about what we can expect.

A number of very experienced people weigh in on these technologies and help vet them.  Their insight really helps give the report a good road map.  The reports hopefully can point readers to new technologies, examples, and references that can get them thinking about what may be coming next.  For educators, I would specifically say:

1) Be prepared for the trends and technologies by being aware of them.  Be able to have a conversation around these things.  It’s impossible to know details about them all, but pick areas of interest and focus on those.

2) Make the effort to know how to use some of these technologies.  Pick a few that may be relevant to your work or teaching and go for it.  Don’t be afraid of new technologies.  We are all learning this stuff.  Dive in and swim with your students.  I think one misconception is the digital native idea.  Yes, students today have grown up in a digital society, but that does not mean they know technology all that well.  Some do, of course, but many don’t.  Remember, Facebook has only been around a short while.  We all have had to learn about it for the same amount of time.  New technologies on the scene sort of even the playing field as we all learn about them together.

3) Seek out sources of information about these topics. Places like the NMC can be a magnet for bringing together people and ideas in the technical spaces. The NMC is developing a new tool called the Horizon Navigator that will enable people to dive deeper into these technologies to get a broader understanding.  Technology, while getting more user friendly, is still complicated, and we all seem to have less time to get our heads around all of this.  What we try to do at NMC is help wrap everyone’s collective heads around new technologies and how these can be constructively used for teaching, learning and creative endeavors.  We can’t ignore technology, especially media technology today.  It permeates modern society.  Therefore, it behooves us as citizens and educators to be literate with these technologies.  Technology is also a great way to start a conversation with your students.  Teach me, and I’ll teach you sort of approach.

4) Try to bring the conversation about technology to your administrators and campus leaders.  It’s imperative that the institutions are on board or at least can foster an environment of innovation and forward thinking when it comes to technology.  When they get it, then it will help you with your job as educators.  So, be the one who brings these technologies to their attention.

Another helpful piece of information concerning the Horizon Reports is a blog post by our CEO Larry Johnson in January 2009 that summarizes the key points about the reports and how education technologists might think about them.  It’s worth reading for background. 

Image credits:

Banner: rearviewmirror75 http://www.flickr.com/photos/rearviewmirror75/

Second image (picture of Keene Haywood): treegrow http://www.flickr.com/photos/treegrow/

Third image (picture of Horizon team): diia.potd http://www.flickr.com/photos/33248384@N03/3809414702/