'What if' Pervasive Computing?

In April of 2005, I attended the Apple Digital Leadership Institute hosted by the University of Missouri (http://edmarketing.apple.com/adcinstitute/).

Each of the 140 attendees who entered the large ballroom on the Columbia campus owned, or was given, a laptop that connected seamlessly to the wireless network that bathed the facility. Two very large monitors flanked the presenters’ dais at the front of the ballroom and the audience was organized in round tables of eight. A group blog, a radical departure from the typical individual blog, gathered the impressions and streams-of-consciousness of those in attendance, and University of Missouri journalism students roved throughout the assembly gathering interviews for podcasting and vodcasting (video podcasting). We had come together to explore pervasive computing, and for at least two days we were living in that future--a universally trained learning community with universal access to the information milieu--an amalgam of live utterance, typed commentary, Google searches, and sharable digital libraries. It was fabulous--we were all always there, always on, and always connected. Yet our individual takeaways were gapped by our individual distribution of attention, for among the constantly clicking keystrokes, many an e-mail was answered and many an IM session was conducted.

Pervasive computing is a seductive idea and I am among its advocates. However, I believe the impacts of pervasive computing will be both positive and negative, and that we should research learning outcomes as pervasive computing grows. On the positive side, engaged audience members can take individual forays into the infosphere and bring back insights to extend a presenter’s talk. Further, the presenter might be more attentive to style and substance if the audience can flee to competitive venues on the Internet.

To test this second hypothesis, at my next public presentation in a pervasive computing environment, I will record my voice and use an ambient microphone to pickup a synchronized audio track from the audience. During playback, I will mute my voice and listen to the audience activity. When the waterfall of audience keystrokes reaches crescendo, I assume my presentation is plodding, pedantic, or uninspired. When the audience is soundless, these will be the points during which the presentation might be worthy of attention. In some sense, this experiment is the creation of a “wiki on the fly,” in which the presenter’s points move forward uncontested by audience “noise” or are drowned out by the collective clacking of indifference.

Pervasive computing offers additional, unchallenged benefits in the asynchronous environment. The literature on adult learning suggests that most adults learn much more in informal settings than in formal, classroom environments. A comprehensive wireless environment offers access to information and needed others between classes. Pervasive computing leverages the teachable moment in ways unavailable when access to resources is placed-based rather than time-based.

On the negative side, pervasive access to both presenting and accessing information results in ideas that may be released prematurely. For example, “airports to airplanes” (presented below as “Blog 1”) was my on-the-fly contributions to the ADLI blog. My entry provoked one reply, but the exchange deserves to be ephemeral rather than available for reading. In Carl Berger’s words (personal communication) “blog responses can take on an almost random pattern of appendages, truncated stubs and straggly branches. The reader and blogther (author) are often left trying to piece it all together.” Although still immature, draft two of my entry (also below) is improved through reflection and editing compared to the version generated in the pervasive computing environment. It might offer more context and coherence and thereby draw an exchange that escapes Berger’s “random walk” hypothesis.

We also will need to be much better at attribution of sources when we have constant access to a virtual world. How do I reference an IM without a timestamp? What d'es versioning mean when words are rolling on top of each other while co-constructing ideas? Can learners truly multi-task, or d'es attention shifting leave learners deficient and require them to fill in gaps with potentially erroneous guess, inference, and assumption? This last point in particular requires research conducted by the pervasive computing community.

In summary, I believe that the preponderance of current evidence argues for accelerated deployment of pervasive computing to capture the productivity of time between tasks, the creative contribution of assembled community to idea creation, and for timely access to information to satisfy the itch of curiosity. I hope we all balance this enthusiasm with an appreciation and acceptance of the unanswered questions about learning--how can vetted information sources retain the credibility deserved by their multistage creation? What is the relationship of attention to retention, focus to further formulation, and information access to knowledge building?

Blog 1 stream of consciousness on the topic of ePortfolios. Typographic and grammatical errors preserved from the original.

Of airplanes and airports

I attended a conference on on-line schools and all bemoaned the slow rate of acceptance of this novel form of delivering education. We blamed the “short-sighted” legislature, the parochial parents, the teachers who wouldn’t change. And all of us were happy in our self-referential world.

And then I thought about the Airport they wanted to put in my community, and my knee-jerk opposition to the noise, traffic congestion, safety and property values that would befall me and my neighbors--and of all of the meetings where the experts told me the changes were needed and the consequences were few.

And it became clear we needed a new visualization tool to help us imagine the future and placate our concerns. It only became evident to me when I moved away from my expertise (education) and into my naivette (aviation).

This tool would literally visualize the outcomes of the proposed change. For traffic noise, there would be a map showing a descending plane, and the “DB noise envelope” that accompanied the landing– I would be able to hear the consequence, not listen to informed experts. We need the same thing for educational change– real representations of what students are able to do, how they are able to learn, authentic examples and artifacts showing their accomplishments–

Welcome to ePortfolio-- may we use the voice of our students and their work to begin invoking educational change through concrete representations of the possible.

Second draft of blog entry. The grammar, logic, and word choice are better but the ideas still can't stand on their own except to illustrate how editing and reflection improve original blog entries.

I attended a conference on on-line schools and we all bemoaned the slow rate of acceptance of this educational innovation. We blamed the "short-sighted legislature,” the “parochial parents,” and the teachers who wouldn't change. All of us in our self-referential world of learning experts were properly appalled by the intransigence of those outside of our circle of wisdom.

Then I began thinking about the airport “they” wanted to put in my community, and my knee-jerk opposition to the noise, traffic congestion, safety concerns and plummeting property values that I presumed would affect my neighbors and me. I remembered the expert testimony at the zoning meetings arguing that airport relocations were needed and the consequences of change were manageable. In this world, I was the intransigent informed by emotion, anecdotal experience, and fear of change rather than the promise of regional airports replacing our current “spoke and hub” airports (e.g., reduced fuel consumption and lowered greenhouse gas formation).

Exchanging expert and lay opinion requires new visualization tools to help us imagine the future, placate or validate our concerns, and drive discussion and argument about change. Only when I looked at myself simultaneously acting in my world of expertise (education) and my world of naiveté (aviation) did this become evident. The passions that clung to my position were equally strong in both arenas, but my evidentiary bases for argument were radically different.

To accelerate innovation, all participants in the decision-making should be able to understand the likely outcomes of change. A 3-dimensional computer simulation showing a descending plane with a corresponding "dB sound propagation envelope" is one such useful tool. By changing my point of reference (home location) or flight path (angle of declination and direction), I will hear and thereby validate what will happen to my midnight slumbers, more convinced than by the informed but abstract judgment of experts. Where to locate the airport remains a values-based judgment of competing social values, but representing expert testimony in tangible vocabulary helps the community decide.

We need the same visualization engine to promote educational change-- real representations of what students are able to do, how they are able to learn, authentic examples and artifacts that show students perform differently in ways that legislators, parents, and teachers can understand. Presenting outcomes in the universal language of achievement allows each to ask “what if” their state, child, or classroom had access to the innovation the learning theorists promote.

Welcome to ePortfolio-- may we use concrete examples of our students’ work to invoke educational change through shared representations of the possible.

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