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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 teaching.

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 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 and ).

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. Two 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 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 ( 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 them.

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 ( 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 names!

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 perspective!


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,, Spring 2001.

Norman, D. 'Cognitive Prostheses,' Predictions: Thirty Great Minds on the Future. Sian Griffiths, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: 175-179.

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: 275-278.

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