Searching for What’s Next in Learning and Digital Media

A young girl in rural South America uses a laptop from the One Laptop Per Child movement. 

The New Media Consortium (NMC) is publisher of the annual Horizon Report, which “seeks to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have considerable impact on teaching, learning, and creative expression within higher education.”  I recently had an opportunity to talk with Keene Haywood, Director of Research at NMC, and probe a bit further into the 2010 Horizon Report, which covered trends in mobile learning, open source content, the future of textbooks, among many other pressing topics at the intersection of technology and education. This is the first of two posts based on our conversation.

The newest Horizon report highlights a number of positive responses from students in pilot programs using mobile devices for learning.  Is it possible that this response comes from students’ being intrigued by the ‘wow’ factor of these devices?  How can we tell they are learning?  How can we design learning experiences in mobile environments to monitor their effectiveness?

This is a good question, and I think it’s a ripe area for research, because I don’t think people have fully gotten their heads around just what the impacts are of mobile devices in educational settings.

It’s still very new, having really only had a large impact in the past couple of years.  It’s clear that this is a broad technology area that will only be more pervasive, so it’s imperative we develop ways to assess what learning is being achieved with these tools.

I think part of the wow factor helps to bring students into the realm of inquiry.  If the tools you use are fun and intriguing, then they stand a better chance for students to adopt them and then run with these technologies to enable them to learn in new ways.  The ubiquity and nature of mobile technologies leave a lot of room for experimenting and developing new ways of collaboration, synthesizing information, and putting things into context that will yield to new ways of creating knowledge.  I think this particular area would be a good one for a thesis or dissertation!

Would you say a little about what you do: What the NMC is, what you do for them, and the background of the Horizon Report?

I am the Director of Research here at NMC.  My main job, broadly speaking, is to do what we call environmental scanning of the technological horizon to find trends and technologies that will likely have an impact on teaching, learning, and creative inquiry.  I then try to put these into perspective with respect to education and how they may or may not have an impact. 

The NMC has been around since 1993.  Today, its membership comprises about 300 universities and about twenty or so museums and several research centers.  We also have corporate members and partners from a number of leading technology and education based companies. 

New media is now part of our everyday lives, both in and out of the education environment.  Being able to understand, apply, and teach it are important to NMC and its members.  If it is out there on the horizon then we want to know about it, understand it, and bring together those like-minded individuals and institutions who share a common interest in “what’s next?” and how technology impacts the education landscape.

The first Horizon Report came out in 2004 but the Horizon Project that gave birth to these reports started in 2002.  Over the years it has grown in scope and dissemination.  In total, something like 200,000-plus digital downloads of the reports have occurred.  Now, we have a number of editions that include a K-12, Museum, Australia-New Zealand, and Ibero-America edition.  The current 2010 report will be translated into eight languages, so the reach is wide and getting wider.

Many of the examples of mobile computing for learning listed in the 2010 report make use of iPhones and iPod Touches.  What do you think of the debate about the essentially closed nature of these devices, and how do you think this debate will affect mobile learning, as well as other future trends affected by these devices—open content, gestural interfaces?  Do you feel there can be “open content” on a closed device?

This is a big area of debate right now, especially in light of how Apple has really impacted the mobile space over the past several years.  

I think the closed system that Apple is using has perhaps more of an impact for developers who need to play by their rules in order to get their apps on these devices.  For the general public, this is less of an issue.  They just want technology to work, to be easy to use, and to help make their media and information lives a bit easier without too much effort. 

In the end, learning should not be about what device you use.  You want the device that makes learning seamless and a device that works for you, not against you.  It needs to be affordable and easy to use.  When the technology gets in the way of someone’s trying to make sense of an idea or concept, then that’s a problem.  You get frustrated and start worrying about A, B and C on your device rather than focusing on content or ideas.  Or, you end up wasting a lot of time “dealing” with your computer. 

But again, I think it gets back to what is the easiest thing to use, deploy, and administer both as an end user and faculty or staff.  For a device that just works, it is worth some extra investment up front.  In this way, Apple has provided this.  You pay a little more, but you get a better experience (in my opinion).  When I am interacting with technology all day, I don’t want to worry about viruses, malware, all sorts of hardware/software incompatibilities.  I don’t want the technology to get in the way, and I want the technology to have a certain elegance to it.  Most modern software for Apple products, especially the touch screen apps, are quite elegant from a user interface standpoint.  This makes it a pleasure to use for hours a day.  But technology is complicated on even the best devices, so you will always run into some issues.  The more I can minimize problems, the better.  And I think students benefit from this too.  They want to learn and not spend their time dealing with hardware and software issues.

The current report notes that a distinguishing feature of open content as it exists today is that it is more focused on the role of open content in curriculum; for example, the use of open content materials to replace traditional textbooks.  How do you see open content affecting the way courses are currently designed around textbooks?

Yes, I think open content will have an effect on textbooks.  But I don’t think textbooks will be completely replaced by open content.  I think our notion of the textbook will change as new technologies become available. 

Textbook content will increasingly be complemented by open content.  I see the biggest area of impact in fields that are rapidly changing, which makes traditional textbooks obsolete pretty quickly.  Open content can help keep up with changes and can bring more contributors to the table.

In many ways, the textbook industry is going through what the traditional publishing industry is dealing with right now.  I think it’s probably unrealistic to think all content will be open and free, just like I think good journalists will get paid for they work they do.  Quality information does have a price, and those that can provide it deserve some compensation.  On the other hand, open content helps level the learning playing field, giving access to content that would otherwise be difficult to access. 

I think textbooks will be with us in some shape or form, perhaps becoming more like rich Web sites than a linear book.  While we see a proliferation of e-readers now, they still basically offer a linear reading experience in digital form.  

An educated society is the pillar of modern society.  So making information open is very important in this respect.  We need to find ways to offer good open content but also find ways to fairly reward experts who contribute to this.  

Increasingly, I see faculty using textbooks for some ideas and explanations, but I see them integrating more open content found on the Web.  Knowledge should not be proprietary, so pulling together as much information as possible to help students create knowledge about a subject is important. 

I think what we are discovering is that there are a lot of people out there with a lot of knowledge about the world.  We now have ways to connect the dots with these people that extend far beyond the walls of the so-called ivory tower to give us a broader, more nuanced look at things.  This ultimately results in a richer learning experience, because you have so many different sources that have a legitimate voice.

Image Credit: Pieter van der Hijden en Bidia Mahabir