The Spirit of Invention: Edging Our Way to 21st Century Teaching
<>J'el Barker popularized the concept of paradigm shifts to
explain profound change. Here, Judith B'ettcher takes a look at the dynamics of
technological change in education and its meaning for the future of 21st century
One insight from the paradigm literature—particularly
from futurist J'el Barker—is that the most 'far out' trends can be identified
early by asking, 'What is happening at the edge?' For it is at the edge that the
weird, the surprising, the 'you've got to be kidding' kind of applications occur
first, often with ripple effects for teaching and learning.
The principle of watching 'edge happenings' maps well to
the diffusion of innovation theories of Everett Rogers and the five phases of
technology adoption: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority,
and the laggards. The edge happenings map to the early innovators, those who
envision and create new applications. As the applications become refined
and a growing percentage of people embrace an innovation, a force is
set in motion—the force of infrastructure development—that carries an application to the mainstream.
For a glimpse of what the spirit of invention is conjuring up for 2001 and
beyond, let's look at four major edge happenings for clues to the future in
higher education. Two trends focus on teaching and learning tools and environment:
laptops and ubiquitous computing and its close cousin wireless and mobile computing
and networking. E-books and digital textbooks focus on accessibility of digital
textbooks, and a look at a higher level trend, the move to human-centric computing,
will show us how this is all going to become simpler...trust me.
Edge Happening #1: Laptops and Ubiquitous Computing
Ubiquitous computing with laptop computers took hold about six years ago with
the launch of laptop university projects such as those at the University of
Minnesota-Crookston and Wake Forest University. Laptop and universal computer
programs are rapidly becoming accepted into mainstream institutions; those with
laptop programs and universal computer requirements now number between 60 and
120, or from 2 to 4 percent of U.S. colleges and universities (see www.ces.clemson.edu/laptop/LaptopPrograms
The challenges for the laptop innovators were great. Never before had the infrastructure
looked so frail and unassuming. There were the obvious challenges of hardware
and software costs plus the related costs of support, upgrades, and training
for students and faculty. And as the innovators were addressing these problems,
the less obvious challenges surfaced—increases in campus networking needs, ISP
services, support desk services, AC power outlets, Web servers, and Web support
as well as the need for toting the 5- to 6-pound computer everywhere. (Oh, for
more rapid advancements in the materials sector!)
Despite these demands on people and the infrastructure,
the underlying belief that computers are essential tools for communication and
mind work is so compelling that these projects have spread rapidly in the past
two to three years.
related beliefs and visions continue to propel this spread of laptop computing:
that 24-hour access to information tools is essential to the information age,
and that students and faculty —all with personal and mobile computers—will create
enhanced teaching and learning environments with these tools. Will this movement
spread to more colleges and universities? Probably yes, as the forces for infrastructure
development in the larger society are in motion. Even without formalized laptop
initiatives, the percentage of students with their own '24-hour access' is growing
rapidly, approaching more than 90 percent at some institutions.
A clear sign of laptop programs moving into the mainstream from the edge is
the appearance of laptops and ubiquitous computing at high schools and even
grade schools, where the expectations of potential college students are being
set. Some of these projects are exploring the ubiquitous use of PDAs or compact
computing appliances. We may see similar trends in higher education as PDAs
evolve into electronic books and Web access appliances. Palm's acquisition of
peanutpress.com means thousands of titles are now available in lightweight PDA
format. We may soon see laptop universities become PDA universities.
Edge Happening #2: Wireless and Mobile Computing and Networking
First the network linked computers, then people connected somewhat vicariously
through their computers—now home appliances such as telephones, PDAs, and TVs
are being connected to the Web. Professors can respond to students' e-mail by
voice and give feedback about their papers, often much more efficiently than
they can provide written feedback. The standards for mobile and wireless networking
and voice recognition that support these applications have been set or almost
set, a clear sign of infrastructure stage development.
What's next? People using the networks today most often make a conscious decision
to do so. The next step in mobile computing could be unconscious networking.
People who have medical devices implanted may be networked, being monitored
as appropriate. They will not make a conscious decision to be on the network.
They will just be networked.
What d'es all this mean for teaching and learning? Recently I experienced the
delight of wireless computing while at a Syllabus conference. Using a wireless
network provided for the participants, I downloaded my e-mail and checked out
the Web—just to see if I could. There was a tremendous feeling of untethered
freedom. But I could also imagine the potential distraction and challenge of
listening to presentations and discussions and doing e-mail at the same time.
Just as we have had 'surround sound' we now have 'surround Webbing.'
At the same time, we are still dealing with the limitations of time, and of
our own 'attentional' power. How many things can we attend to at the same time
safely and effectively? We are learning that cell phones and cars are not necessarily
compatible. This physical juggling will improve once the hands-free capabilities
are more widely deployed. But what about the mental juggling? How do we get
better at that? Will embedded brain chips—possibly decades away—help?
We have an ongoing challenge to be wise about when, how, and for what we deploy
mobile technologies; how they can support teaching and learning; and how they
can address our need to learn continuously and efficiently. We will need to
discover what types of learning activities are mutually supportive, and how
the interaction and dialogue between one or more faculty and many students can
be carried out, while still providing personalized tutoring and customized learning.
What kinds of student-to-student interactions promote the most learning? What
types of concepts and skills are learned with interactive communications as
opposed to more personalized thinking and meditation?
Untethered from wires and cables, our learning environments are free to be
anywhere and everywhere. We will soon be able to return to the days of Plato
and engage in customized dialogue on logs under the trees using innovative products
to support customized learning: personalized computers, customizable software,
and software that adapts to your way of working.
Edge Happening #3: e-Books and Digital Textbooks
Before digital information, we had a different definition of the word book.
Now developments in the e-book arena are pushing the boundaries of what a book
is. We used to know that a book was a physical object of bound paper and was
generally portable, affordable, convenient, and able to be shared with friends
and colleagues. With the new e-books, the only constant is that they provide
content. A book and an e-book both contain and disseminate ideas and stories.
But even the experts disagree on terminology here. Are e-books the content,
the physical device—often called an e-book reader—or the format?
The current leading 'readers' (we used to know what a reader was as well) are
still somewhat costly, between $300 and $700. Karen Coyle, a specialist in digital
libraries at the California Digital Library, believes that even with their cost,
e-book devices have significant advantage over computers. They weigh under a
pound, and thus are much more portable. Also, they can generally hold between
40 and 50 books. Many of the vendors are using proprietary standards, such as
the Microsoft Reader, the Palm Reader, and the PDF format. An Open E-Book Forum
is working on an open standard based on XML, but this standard is still in progress.
So we are not yet in the infrastructure-building stage. But we are close.
In the meantime, an alternative is to download digital books to our laptops.
Textbook publishers are rapidly moving into this space. WizeUp Digital textbooks
(www.wizeup.com) has partnerships
with many of the major textbook publishers, such as MacMillan. Pearson Education
and netLibrary, a leading provider of e-books, recently began a partnership,
under which digital versions of hundreds of the world's most popular college-level
textbooks will become available in digital form in the next twelve months.
Why are e-books becoming available so quickly now?
Features include flexibility and ease of updating content; audio, video links,
search capabilities; and the ability to easily annotate.
With audio features, books can be read to us, unknown
words pronounced, and multi-language references easily provided. Also, some
of the digital textbooks are providing a price advantage for students, between
30 and 40 percent below new 'print' versions. Although experiments for pricing
and business models are still under way, as e-books move into the mainstream,
we will probably license only their content, making it more difficult to share
What about teaching and learning? Student backpacks will first become heavier,
then lighter as we reach the other side of the transition period. Publishers
will offer more choice of formats for textbooks as well as linked sites and
new arrangements with course management systems such as Blackboard. With searching
easier, integrating higher level functions of comparing and contrasting and
differentiating concepts will become more doable, increasing the effectiveness
of learning and promoting complex problem solving.
Edge Happening #4: Moving to Human-Centric Computing
Children's toys with artificial intelligence are indicators of a software revolution
that will push the trend in human-centric computing beyond the edge. Consider
the Furbie flurry of the 1999 holiday season. These little toys understood a
limited language set, and evolved in their use of language. Pet robot dogs with
embryonic artificial intelligence chips are now available in local drugstores
for only $40.
A new breed of personal productivity software, Scopeware 2.0 (www.scopeware.
com), has been designed from the concept of David Gelernter's 'lifestreams.'
It supports a chronologically structured archival approach to organizing one's
thoughts and work. Thus, if a user is searching for information, the feature
of time and context becomes prominent—similar to the concept of 'continuous
software' that follows you wherever you go. The personal calendar, for example,
will be able to 'follow' you from your laptop, to your PDA, to your cell phone,
your MP3 players, and so on.
This design approach is conceptually related to personal memory enhancer software
proposed by champion of human-centered design Don Norman in 1993, in which a
Digital Teddy Bear stays with a child throughout childhood recording a child's
thoughts and activities. As the child grows, the teddy is replaced with more
suitable devices (maybe a cell phone) but preserving all the information desired,
eventually being implanted in the brain. Another edge software application is
based on advanced pattern-matching technology. Autonomy (www.autonomy.com) promises
to manage all your digital information in one place with 'file streaming,' and
to turn 'static data into dynamic intelligence.' This sounds like a desired
teaching and learning goal! The software is also designed to sort, filter, and
search the Web to present to a user the top 8 to 10 Web sites for controlling
fire ants, rather than 1.2 million hits including discos and novels with such
More intelligent software and improved human-computer interfaces are long overdue.
Today's computers have in some ways enslaved us, rather than freed us. Computers
are now smarter than they were when I was running my dissertation data back
in 1979, when for lack of a comma, my request for computation was kicked out
with only an esoteric reference to an esoteric number. I would have preferred
a more human response of, 'Wrong, guess again!'
Thoughts from the Edge
Change is occurring in myriad fields that used to require the services of
humans. Time and efficiency are the driving forces. We are often encouraged
to 'think outside the box.' That is good advice, but often thinking outside
the box only leads us to another box. Thinking from the edges provides a new
Barker, J. A. Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. New
York: Harper-Collins, 1992.
Coyle, K., Lowe, C., and Strauss, H. Do E-Books Sit on E-Shelves on Your
Campus? Washington DC, CREN TechTalks, www.cren.net, Spring 2001.
Norman, D. 'Cognitive Prostheses,' Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on
the Future. Sian Griffiths, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999:
Rogers, E. M. Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press, Division
of Macmillan Publishing, 1995.
Turkle, S. 'Toys to Change Our Minds,' Predictions: Thirty Great Minds
on the Future. Sian Griffiths, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: