Monday, April 15, 2013

DJs, Papert, Jet Engines & iPads

I had the fortunate experience of giving the afternoon keynote on day two of the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Atlanta.

The crux of the keynote was based on the disruptive nature of technology and how other industries are adopting this disruption. The analogy started with an examination of the impact of technology on DJs. Prior to starting my career as a teacher and working with EdTechTeacher, I spent countless hours with a set of Technics 1200s (turntables) and crates of records. There was a skills in digging through crates to find the perfect record, to know where to look to find the records and to then integrate that new record into your existing collection. Records are knowledge and currency for DJs. The artistic skill of DJ'ing can't be accomplished without this currency and the acquisition of this precious vinyl is a time consuming process. However, due to the disruptive nature of technology on DJs, things have changed.

The technologies outlined above allow the DJ to no longer carry heavy crates of records, or even potentially turntables (I admit that I slightly despise the idea that DJs don't need to use turntables...). The connection I was attempting to make between the disruptive impact of technologies on DJs is this. The image on the left requires a DJ to physically manipulate two records to beat match two songs that play at different BPMs (beats per minute). There is a physical, artistic skill required to manipulate, match and eventually get two records to play at the exact same speed without one running away and eventually getting out of sync.

At the fullest extent, technology eliminates the need for turntables, vinyl and a mixer. The question I posed to the audience during the keynote revolved around whether the DJ setup on the right requires any artistic talent. While a computer program may now beat match two songs and while the skill of finding, organizing and accessing vinyl records quickly and effectively is no longer necessary, the individual using the setup on the right is still a DJ. In many ways, the setup on the right lowers barriers for individuals to enter this world and be creative with music selection, mixing and transitions.

In many ways, iPads are quite similar to the DJ setup above. The simply lower the barriers to expression and demonstration of understanding in multiple creative capacities. The technical skills required in the past to create all sorts of creative content are simply no longer required. Does this mean he student is any less creative, I would argue no. Just as the skill of digging through dusty record crates, physically beat matching two songs and skillfully organizing a record collection were once necessary skills for a DJ, those skills in many ways no longer apply nor do they have any substantial value. Technology has lowered the barrier and more students than ever before now have the tool available to create extraordinary content.

While prepping for the iPad Summit and the keynote, I found myself reading the works of Seymour Papert. Luckily in my readings I came across the quote above from "Looking at Technology Through Shool-Colored Spectacles" and it instantly resonated with me and I felt that his message had to be shared with the group in Atlanta. The analogy above transcends any particular bit of technology and instead focuses on the more important concept of using any new innovation to its full capacity. Whether it be a jet engine rigged up to propel a stagecoach or an iPad in schools. Any disruptive and innovative technology will only be effective if it is applied to a scenario that allows it to be unbridled and reach its full potential.

After reading the article and quote by Papert, I kept thinking that the analogy applied to the way in which iPads are currently being used in schools across the country. Is the iPad the jet engine that Papert referred in his analogy? Are schools the stagecoach? I believe the analogy fits. It is not that the structure of schools are non-functioning institutions, but it may be that the structure of that institution is simply not ready to accommodate the potentially disruptive nature of this device (or any mobile device for that matter). Further, the full capacity of these devices simply can't be met because the structure of the existing institution isn't designed to allow students to create and flourish while using them. Spend any time in an iPad classroom and you will quickly realize that the iPad classroom becomes the iPad hallway and the iPad cafeteria. Meaning, when students are creating, taking diverse paths to demonstrate their understanding (podcasts, movies, screencasts, journals, writing) the existing space and structure isn't flexible enough.
Technology has the potential to be disruptive and that disruption can lead to change. However when these disruptive technologies (jet engines or iPads) are used in conjunction with existing structures that were not intended nor able to handle their capabilities, all potential for lasting change and substantial impact is lost.

I wanted to leave the audience in Atlanta with a critical question to consider, is the iPad a solution or a problem. Those who argue that it is a solution, point to either the problems it is solving or the ways in which it is effectively being used in the existing structure of traditional schools. If we consider the iPad to be a solution in schools, we are only using it to address the low hanging fruit. We define the problems by the solutions available and if the iPad is a solution, the problems are easy to solve. My perspective is that the device is a problem, a problem in a very specific sense. If the iPad is a solution, then the problems that it can solve in the existing structure, time and space provided by schools are easily solved and will not lead to any substantial change that allows students to demonstrate their understanding through the process of creating content. If we view the iPad as a problem, it will force us to consider the changes that may need to be made in order to unleash the full potential of this device when placed in the hands of students. This is a good problem, one that will have us rethink learning spaces and the environments in which our students grow and learn. As Justin Reich, my colleague at EdTechTeacher put it so clearly in his recent EdTechResearcher EdWeek blog post:

I have to give special thanks to Shawn McCusker (@shawnmccusker) for providing me with a sounding board and thoughtful insight into many of the ideas outlined above. I am greatful for your help and wisdom.

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