Why Technology

May 8, 2009

Something has been happening lately in education, and the implications are a bit unsettling.  People are beginning to ask a cogent question, but I fear it’s being framed for the wrong reason.  I’m hearing more and more important decision makers asking, “Why are we using technology?”

-Ben Grey

Instructional Technology Coordinator and Technology & Learning Contributor Ben Grey shared a thought provoking column today anchored on the question, Why Technology?”.  The entirety of his post can be found HERE.

This is a great question, and my extended respnse in the comments section prompted me to duplicate my reply below.  How would YOU answer the question?

Schools ARE asking this question, and many times for a good reason. In a well-functioning learning environment, every support resource, including technology, should justify its status on a regular basis. Every resource should help advance the mission and goals of the district, and many school districts need to confess a disconnect in the past 10-20 years between the objectives in the classroom and the objectives in the server room. A self-serving technology program is destructive to learning, and should be held accountable.

A generally good indicator of such dysfunction is when principals, teachers, and students (as a majority interest) don’t view technology as indispensable to learning. As learning technology practitioners and leaders the 80/20 rule should apply, with the lion share of our efforts directed toward helping teachers and students effectively use technology to enhance learning. In every school I’ve visited or worked with, that degree of focus and priority bears the fruit of a pedagogical transformation in which teachers become guides, students become learners, and technology becomes essential (and almost invisible).

Unfortunately this is far too rare, and most districts’ time, energy, and money spent on technology initiatives yield fragmented implementations due to mis-aligned interests pulling in separate directions: Administrators and board members want measurable results on standardized tests, technology staffers want security and ease of management, and teachers want technology to get the hell out of the way so they can do something meaningful. Often, there is no apparent curricular driver for the technology to be found. We get caught up in debate over content filtering, 1:1 programs, SMART Boards versus Promethean, Mac versus PC, and management of student data, but forget to ask what we need to facilitate learning. When decision-makers see millions of dollars spent on the purchase and support of rooms full of equipment that do nothing to catalyze progress, the question, “Why technology?” is quite fair game.

My response to this question would consist of a few reciprocating questions of my own: Is it a core value of our school district to prepare students for the world the are about to enter? What does that world look like? Is it practical to expect students to acquire the skills and competencies they’ll need to succeed (either in college or in the workforce) without also providing them access to the very interface of this flattened world we live in?

The (hopefully) obvious answers should lead us to apologetically borrowed terminology from the current White House Administration. Education technology is “too important to fail” because technology itself has become too integral to the way the rest of the world functions. We just have to make sure the resource needs of learning direct technology, and prioritize effort that leads to meaningful change.


to-scale-nell-sm_v244132763_jpgAmazon announced this morning a new model of their eBook reader, the Kindle DX.  It’s main differentiating features from the currently shipping model include a larger size screen (9.7 in) and resolution (1200 x 824), as well as a built-in PDF reader, more memory, and an auto-rotating screen.  Amazon also announced agreements with several textbook companies to port books to the device–a clear aim at an education market hungry for innovative ways to deliver learning.  But while this is an intriguing device as an (expensive) eBook, newspaper, and magazine reader, it’s still off-the-mark as a solution for students.

First, let me extol its virtues.  The  interface, large screen, and awesome battery life (4 days) make it a very “user-friendly” device.  Amazon has also done a nice job developing WhisperSync, the service that conveniently and reliably delivers content wirelessly to the Kindle, as long as you have Sprint data coverage. It’s thin profile and slight weight let it slide easily into a purse or backpack.

Okay, I was nice for four sentences.  Let the carnage ensue:

The Kindle is designed to read books, newspapers, and magazines, and do that well at a per unit cost of nearly $500. That’s all fine by me until Amazon and textbook publishers begin to position it as a tool for education. Then, my gloves come off.  It is a closed, proprietary device.  This means you better look at the list of technical specifications and features and be satisfied, because that’s all it will do.  Software developers won’t be allowed to come up with so much as a rudimentary word processor or messaging application.  It has a basic web browser that is less functional than Opera on my Nintendo Wii, so forget any meaningful use of the Internet.  A PDF reader will let you look at your own documents, but getting them on the device is so much more difficult than it needs to be, and predictably, there is no way to edit them.  A gray-scale screen is optimized for reading text, but poorly-suited for any level of graphics or animation.

The education market desperately needs a usable, affordable solution in this vein, but such a device needs to be so much more.  The fundamental problem with the Kindle is that it’s a 2009 model tool designed for an 18th century model of education.  It delivers content  one-way, with almost no ability to create, collaborate, or access information and media beyond what is specifically adapted for the device. For $500, a nice  netbook delivers the capability to do EVERYTHING the Kindle DX does, as well as:

  • Create, edit, and share all manner of content including text, audio, video and graphic art
  • Collaborate and communicate via messaging applications, voice and video chat, e-mail, and shared online workspaces
  • Use modern Internet browsers and tools to effectively research, annotate, and validate information
  • Print
  • Present something in color

We need digital tools that allow for a constructivist approach to learning, not another format for delivery of static information.  So, Amazon, I lend best wishes for the Kindle DX as an eBook reader for affluent consumers of books and news.  Just don’t go touting it as a solution for the classroom.

Click Here

This will be dependent on bandwidth availability.  If the CoverItLive/Qik broadcast fails, I’ll be Twittering updates @jsw_edtech

iPhone App Wish List

July 15, 2008

As of today over 800 apps are available at Apple iTunes App Store.  It’s been fun browsing them, but I’ve only installed the following:

Box Office
eBay Mobile
Pandora Radio
Super Monkey Ball
Maybe I’m too picky, or maybe I’m just to paranoid junking up my beautiful iPhone.  Interestingly, I have also pared down my collection of “Web Apps” since the release of the 2.0 firmware, so my total collection of home screen icons is down to less than two screens.
At any rate, I have started to compile a wish list of apps I’d love to see–the sooner the better.
This app already exists for “jailbroken” iPhones, so it’s just a matter of time.  In fact, I heard the developer of this app interviewed in an Internet webcast last Thursday night and he indicated he’s already submitted it to Apple for review.  The ability to update my Netflix queue on the go will be nice.  Very nice.
MMS Client
Yes, I know I can just e-mail photos to any phone recipient. And, yes, I’m aware that this will likely require some cooperation with AT&T to implement.  As far as I’m concerned AT&T can just write it themselves, as long as I don’t have to deal with the horrendous kludge of a process we have today for handling an inbound MMS message.  For the love of Han Solo, why do we have to invoke Safari and enter a message ID and password?  How hard can it be to fix this?
I’ll admit this is the neanderthal sports (college football) nut in me revealing itself.  There it is.  But I really want this.  ESPN Mobile works fine for WindowsMobile devices, but they could do SO MUCH MORE on the iPhone.  I envision something like a marriage of SportsTap and MLB at Bat.  I’d pay for this one.
My family orders pizza at least once a week.  It’s a staple.  I’d love to see an iPhone app that lets me order pizza from my choice of Pizza Hut, Dominos, Papa Johns, Mazzios (a local fave), etc.  It should be able to store my customer information, remember my last and favorite orders, and check the status of my order/delivery.  In reality, an incarnation of this will likely be distributed on a per company basis.  I can live with that.
MYOB or QuickBooks
I don’t want the whole accounting suite, just a secure, wireless dashboard view of my business essentials.  I’d like to see my current accounts receivables, payables, account balances, and some cashflow and expense charts.
Depth of Field
This is for my photography needs.  I want a quick calculator for photographic depth of field/focal plane given my aperture and distance from subject.  Similar calculators have existed for Palm and WindowsMobile for several years.  This one should be easy.
Arvest/Home National Bank Online Banking
Simply, I want MY banks to have the exact same functionality as the Bank of America app.  I’m baffled that Arvest recently released and seems to be quite proud of a secure, mobile banking app that works with AT&T Wireless and Verizon and several phones, but not the iPhone.  Hey, Arvest, ever heard of the iPhone?  They’ve sold 7 million of them in the last year.  One million in the last three days.  
This would be an iPhone port of the existing app for Mac and Windows desktops.  It’s a really sweet program that lets you graphically overlay map, radar, and statistical weather data in any custom form you want.  In Oklahoma, it’s especially cool as it allows you to access MesoNet data for really granular analysis.
Are there any apps you’d like to see?  

I’m into my third day using the newly released and much-anticipated 2.0 firmware revision to the iPhone software. (I updated my existing iPhone early using an unsupported download from Apple.com that circulated the Internet on Thursday.  More that and its significance later.)  I started with a blog post to cover new features and hits across the whole spectrum, but quickly realized I was getting long-winded so I decided to divide this into several posts.  I’ll share my quick first impressions and some feature hints, many of which you WON’T find on other blogs and tech review sites:

The App Store works beautifully and efficiently, and is a model application for other iPhone developers.  You can install applications ranging in price from FREE to over $60 using the icon on your iPhone or the iTunes Music Store on you computer.  Discovering and installing apps right from your iPhone is so easy and quick that there’s really almost no reason to use iTunes.  

What others haven’t yet told you:
  • If you have iTunes setup to sync your apps, you may have trouble making them go away if you want to uninstall.  This is because if you delete (uninstall) an app from the iPhone, iTunes will reinstall it next time you sync.  Fix this by going to the Applications icon in the left pane of iTunes, selecting the icon of the app, and deleting it from iTunes also.
  • You can share purchased apps between iPhones if they use the same iTunes account.  My wife and I have our laptop and iPhones setup to use the same iTunes account, which already allows us to share music while paying only once.  Apps work the same way.  Just purchase the app on one of the iPhones or computers and install it.  Because Apple allows you to re-download apps and their updates for free, you simply install the same app from the other iPhone (or its sync computer).  A polite message will tell you that you’ve already purchased the app, and that clicking okay will install it again.  This means Super Monkey Ball on two phones for the price of one.  WOOT!  You can’t go crazy, though.  Remember that you can only authorize an iTunes account on five computers at a time and your iPod or iPhone gets its download authority from the computer it syncs with.  So this is really only useful for a small family like mine.
  • Messaging-type apps are somewhat handicapped until September.  Apps such as Twitterriffic and AIM work really well, but they don’t run at all in the background.  This is by design, as Apple has insisted from the beginning that the iPhone remain a stable platform.  One of the most bulletproof ways of ensuring this is to disallow third party apps from running at the same time and allowing them to be “minimized” like on a desktop computer.  Apple engineers are not being mean, they just want to be sure that your iPhone doesn’t gag trying to field a phone call because Super Monkey Ball, Facebook, MySpace, Texas Hold ‘Em, and WeatherBug are all competing for attention in the background.  The impact on you today is that if you exit an app such as AIM to check your e-mail, AIM actually quits.  You won’t get “buzzed” if someone sends you another instant message whilst you’re reading that Viagra spam.  The GOOD NEWS is that Apple will release an update targeted for September that will resolve some of this.  According to Apple, one centralized background notification service will run on the iPhone at all times, and can be used by any program that needs it.  This will work much like the SMS and Mail apps today, in that you’ll be notified by badges (the little red dot in the corner of the Mail app that tells you how many unread messages you have waiting) and/or alert notifiers (the little messages that appear in a translucent box to tell you about new SMS messages and battery drain).  This feature will really complete several apps and make them several times more useful.  
I’ll have more goodies soon.  

Yesterday’s announcement by CEO Steve Jobs of the company’s iPhone somehow managed to live up the hype preceding its release. This is remarkable, considering the fever pitch of rumors and speculation about its features, pricing, and “Cool Factor” so rampant over the past several months. Apple needed to knock the world off its collective feet with the device to avoid a denouement of a product announcement, and they delivered. The announced feature set is already well-traveled on the Internet, so the focus of this column will turn to the exciting road ahead for Apple, the iPhone, and its soon to be users.

First, let’s address the foundation of the device, which provides some guidance in determining what can realistically be done. While Apple has not (to my knowledge) announced the processor architecture of the iPhone, we do know it runs on a modified version of Apple’s desktop and server platform, OS X. Kinda UNIX and BSD under the hood, and the heavyweight champion of the world in user interface, OS X is a mature platform that has proven scalability and reliability. Just how close the iPhone’s version is (at the core) to the desktop version remains to be seen, but it presents to awesomely intriguing possibilities for software development. Apple is set to release DashCode, its so-easy-to-use-even-your-mom-can-do-it custom widget builder with its next desktop release (code named Leopard) sometime this year. It’s no stretch at all to imagine DashCode bundled with the iPhone so users can customize their mobile experience like NEVER before. And as long as the core of OS X is there, how hard can it be for developers to give us other third party apps? How cool would a remote desktop client or a Keynote/PowerPoint player be? Google Earth iPhone Edition?

Another clue Apple gave us is the integration of Google Maps. Complete with directions and satellite imagery, it’ll make for a sweet addition to the iPhone as it is. But why stop there? My HP iPAQ 6515 has a built-in GPS receiver, and it’s over a year old. The iPhone begs for a Google Maps/GPS integration that not only shows you where your destination is, but tells you how to get there–even if you don’t know where you are.

Finally (for now), Jobs noted in his presentation that voice is the killer app. for this market. More than just stating the obvious, he was making the point that voice conversations are the market driver for this sector, and that devices should make the experience simple, even elegant. So what about a voice interface that senses the switch from GSM/EDGE to Wi-Fi, and routes the calls on the Internet using a SIP interface. This could be transparent to the user, with the exception of a possible visual indicator on the iPhone so the user knows not to walk out and hop on a bus in the middle of such a call. A big-league feature this would be for users, especially businesses and other organizations paying for multiple wireless voice plans.

At first glance such a feature would seem like a horrible deal for Cingular, the iPhone’s lone carrier. But let’s not forget Cingular’s place as an elder sibling in the larger AT&T family. Yeah, the same AT&T that offers CallVantage broadband voice service. All the components are out there, waiting for convergence, and the advantages aren’t just in cost savings. Wi-Fi in many homes and offices far exceeds the signal strength of Cingular wireless connections, so a carefully executed implementation on this front could result a more satisfied AT&T and Apple customer. No one has to lose.

It’s important to note that the demonstrations we’ve seen of the iPhone show a curiously odd “empty space” available for more applications on the Home screen, so its rather riskless to anticipate even more features announced by the secretive Apple empire before the iPhone’s availability in June. I can’t wait to get my hands on one, and will be watching for any further feature announcements like a hawk in the meantime.

Delicious Library

April 1, 2006

I work with computers and software every day. It’s in fact how I pay the bills. So as much as I’ve seen over the years, it’s not easy for me to be blown away by code, no matter how Cocoa-licious. Thus, it is with great fanfare that I annouce that an impressive gust from a company called The Omni Group has officially knocked me on my butt with a little $40 program for Mac OS called Delicious Library.

I stumbled across a demo download link on apple.com, and something just sort of drew me in. The program is designed to be a personal media cataloging and management database, which probably explains my initial interest (I tried to create something MUCH less sophisiticated yet similar in intent a few years ago to catalog my wife’s extensive collection of books). What KEPT my attention was the interface and design. This little 11 MB download installs in something like a nanosecond, and it was ready for work three nanoseconds later. Open the software, and you see a nice, little wood bookshelf on your screen waiting patiently for your media. Here’s how easy this software is to use:

1. Turn on your iSight camera.

2. Hold a book, dvd, vhs tape, cd, computer game, etc. up to the camera to show it the ISBN barcode, and wait for the program to give you a soft beep telling you it read the code.

3. Wait a couple of seconds while the software cross-references the ISBN number across several free Internet databases for a match, and then reads you the title of the item through your speakers and places a photographic image of the item on your little bookshelf.

Yeah… it’s really that simple. I didn’t leave anything out.

Not only does it reference the title for you and retrieve an image of the item, but it also retrieves a brief abstract, publication data, reviews and ratings from Amazon.com, and even original pricing and current values. Searching for items is almost fun, as the bookshlf magically updates right before your eyes as you type into the search bar. The software if also full integrated with Spotlight, allowing you to query the Library from the desktop. A Dashboard widget makes quick work of finding titles as well.

Want even more power? A bluetooth barcode scanner ($175) is available from the software’s web site (http://www.delicious-monster.com) for wireless scanning faster than the employee of the month at Wal-Mart. I’m curious to see if I can get the software to share its database across a network, and whether the performace drags after a few hundred titles. I’ll post an update later with my findings.

I’m buying a license as soon as I post this blog, and those of you local to the Bartlesville area feel free to come check it out for yourself on my computer. For those of you Windows users, Delicious Library requires Mac OSX, version 10.3 or greater. Despite this, it’s big-time software, kids.

Honestly, I have no idea where this is going. I do, however, strongly believe that I have a professional obligation as a technology coordinator for an Oklahoma educational cooperative to familiarize myself with–and stay abreast of–emerging technologies. This especially applies to technologies that stand to potentially impact learning.

Hence, I’ve decided to “operate on myself” a bit and experiment with blogging. Now, make no mistake: It’s not like this is a new phenomenon to me. I’ve carefully watched blogging evolve over the past few years into the almost mainstream medium that it is today. That said, here are some expectations for the poor saps who find themselves perusing my dribble:

What you will NOT find here:

Hyper-philosphical ramblings on such topics as existentialism and the meaning of life. First, there seems to be plenty enough of that going around already. Second, I don’t even begin to presume to offer any unique insight on such matters that have already been horse-whipped by many of the greatest minds throughout history. Finally, you don’t care. You really don’t. Be honest now. I’m a thirty-something, middle class, boring geek from Oklahoma. I’m passionate about learning, the future generations of our world, photography, and most importantly my family. I figure to have enough of a challenge keeping you interested as it is.

Political stump-speaking of any kind. I’m not real keen on politics, politicians, political promises, etc. Let’s just say I’m fairly convinced that both major political parties in the United States are corrupt, and nearly every elected official, no matter how idealistic in the beginning, manages to fall victim to the “monster” that is our nations’s political machine. Plenty of other left and right wing blog-spaces exist for those of who need that sort of fix. Bear in mind that I might address a politically-charged topic on occasion, but my motivation in such cases will surely have nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans.

A manifesto of any kind. I don’t think this requires any explanation.

What you WILL find here:

An attempt at humor. My experience is that people laugh at me on occasion, so despite my dear wife’s insistance to the contrary, I think I have a decent sense of humor. Don’t worry, she loves me anyway.

Honesty. I don’t see the point in wasting my time or yours on the converse.

Better content than what you’ve just read, I promise. I can’t believe you’re still with me. Good God! You must be incredibly bored.

Please let me know what you think, and send me links to the blogspheres of your own. I’m sure I’ve much to learn from you.