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The Ideal Technology Device for Students and Teachers

In 2001, Mark Prensky coined the terms "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants" to describe the differences between adults and students in using technology.

Educators are "Digital Immigrants" who have to adapt and learn how to integrate technology into their lives. Students are "Digital Natives" born into a culture and lifestyle where technology immersion is the norm.

Although I know a lot of educators who argue that immigrants can use technology in the same ways as the natives and that being a native does not necessary guarantee proficiency, I have found the Digital Native and Immigrant comparison to be helpful in understanding the essential differences in childhood experiences that separate educators from the students. From my perspective, growing up with my Commodore 64 and learning in a school during the pre-Internet Age is a very different experience from today's students who have a variety of technology tools that connect them to the world through Twitter and Facebook.

To explore these differences in perspectives, this monthly series will feature a discussion between me, a tech savvy old immigrant, and a high school aged tech savvy native.

The high school blogger's name is gsd, who states,

"The world of technology is rapidly changing the way that we live our lives. Yet I see a distinct divide between the technology we use at school and the technology we use everywhere else, and I can only imagine how much more students like myself could learn at school if we were able to utilize the technology that's available to us outside of school. How can we bridge the divide between technology used in schools and out of schools? This is the question I'll aim to answer within this series."

In this first post, we talk about the ideal technology device and how it could be used in schools.

gsd Says:

My ideal device would be fast, always-on, Internet-connected, and easy to use. It would replace pen and paper, my heavy textbooks, and the endless stream of worksheets I get from my teachers. While right now I can only dream of this ideal device, my iPad's and smartphone's features give a glimpse of what my ideal student device could look and work like. My old desktop and laptop don't cut it.

The iPad

Why am I more likely to pick up my iPad than reach for my laptop when I need to check Blackboard for school assignments? First of all, when I reach for my laptop, time is lost having to wait for it to start up, wait for the browser to load, and then head to Blackboard. I may just sound impatient, but take a look at my other option: I tap the power button on my iPad and it's on. I unlock the screen with a quick swipe, tap the Internet icon, and I'm done. It's instantly on and super fast.

Even when my laptop has already been on, I still find myself reaching for the iPad. Why? It's fun to use. There's something about using a touchscreen that makes using computers fun. They're intuitive, and just feel natural.

Reading as homework induces boredom. Maybe I'm just a teenager with short attention span, but it can be difficult to stay focused reading 40 pages in a textbook or reading a book that's difficult to get through. Reading on my iPad improves the experience. First of all, it's fun to scroll through the text with eye-pleasing transitions between the "pages". But more importantly, there are many useful features: I can annotate text, highlight it, change font type and size, look up words, and share passages I like online. The iPad fuses the capability of a computer and the usability of a book into a refined, effective package. It may not make Crime and Punishment any shorter, but it sure does make it easier to handle, and more enticing to discuss with friends.

The Smartphone

Here's another important thing I want out of my ideal student device: portability. That's not something you get with a bag full of textbooks or a desktop computer. The iPad can even be too much to carry - you wouldn't want to bring it to your homecoming football game, for example.

This is where my Android smartphone comes in. It's fast, and always-on, but it can also fit in my pocket, which makes it a very useful portable computer. The first thing I do when the bell rings to end the school day is pull out my phone and enter my homework into my to-do list. If I'm trying to look something up when I'm anywhere I pull out my smartphone. It's a powerful computer that goes with me wherever I go.

What Else Does My Ideal Device Need?

My iPad and smartphone may already be much of what I want, but there are a few things more that I would want in my ideal device.

Better File Management: It needs a way to create, edit, view, and share files. Other than reading documents, my iPad does not complete those tasks very well. This is where I want my tablet to take a page from my smartphone, as it does a much better job of handling files and even synchronizing them with the Web so I can share them with others.

Ubiquitous Internet Access: Another thing my device needs is constant, everywhere, wireless Internet access. This exists, but it can get pricey. Despite the price, being able to access the Internet everywhere is something I think everyone should be able to do. It makes the wealth of information the Internet offers available to everyone, everywhere. That would give students the resources to be only a few quick taps away to the answer to almost any question.

Intuitive Text Input: The biggest thing that my device needs is a better way of inputting text. While typing on the large keyboard on my iPad is much better than on my smartphone's screen, it is not ideal for writing anything that's longer than a paragraph. For a device as intuitive as an iPad, typing on the on-screen keyboard is awkward.

My ideal solution is a stylus with handwriting recognition software. With a stylus, I could write on my screen to take notes or write an essay, and the software would take what I write and put it into a document. There I can edit my work in all the wonderful ways you can with a computer. This solution would finally be an effective and useful upgrade on good ol' pen and paper.

Those are the features I want in my ideal student device, a tablet. I wouldn't be surprised if all the features I'm looking for show up this year in iPad 2 or on some Android tablets from Google. But here's the thing. We can wait for the perfect device for students, or we can start finding ways to use current technology now. Look at my iPad: it may not be perfect for taking notes. But when I'm reading with it, I can annotate, something that I can't do with textbooks I'm lent from school. On my smartphone, I can quickly look up a translation for a word in Spanish, which would be much faster and easier than searching through a dictionary that might not even have the word I'm looking for.

I could give example after example of ways I'd use my smartphone and iPad in every class. Current technology can be used to update our classrooms now, even while I type here on my iPad, awaiting my perfect device.


The Digital Immigrant Says:

Good information. Instant on, file management, and intuitive input are all very important features we need for the ideal technology device.

Beyond these technology features you mentioned, designing the ideal device will require that we focus on how the technology will be integrated into our school processes and routines.

Educators need to focus on the processes in which students will use technology in schools. For example, successfully implementing the digital textbooks you discuss will require that students be able to highlight, bookmark, and take notes in this new format. They will need a note taking application that also interfaces seamlessly with different textbooks and various media. You bring up the possibility of social networking and being able to share and collaborate using the textbook. Excellent! I never thought of that...

So having the traditional textbook in digital format is not enough. Only when we consider the larger picture of how students will use the digital textbook can we begin to change the landscape to offer a true alternative to students lugging around heavy textbooks and notebooks.

Educators need to focus on the processes in which teachers will use the technology with students. If we want to develop the idea of student personal devices in schools, we will need a communication application for teachers and students to collaborate. There will be a need for some kind of calendar or organization application to replace the traditional student assignment book. There needs to be a file sharing system for instructional resources. As a result, we will need to understand how these devices may interact with each other where teachers and students can share information seamlessly. Perhaps someone will say the device needs an assessment application. Or, teachers may want these devices to have multimedia authoring capabilities for more creative projects.

The "ideal device" designers should consider the technology administrators. How will these devices be synchronized, updated, and maintained at the district, school, or classroom level? I remember my iPod Touch Octopus two years ago during an iPod Touch pilot. Upkeep is an important consideration.

As we talk more about digital content, how will we deal with copyright and privacy issues? New policies will have to evolve to address the issues that these new technologies bring.

In reality, many of the features of our concept of an ideal device are already available, but in separate, often fragmented formats. Fortunately, as more educators begin to use devices such as the iPad, netbook, and other tablets in the classroom, developers will refine the applications that support a more coherent environment for teachers and students.

We want all these features in a convenient and efficient package so that educators and students can adopt them easily.

In the past, technology has been the innovator of change, and to the extent that technology did not fit the teaching practices in schools, the disconnect was also a barrier.

Perhaps, by promoting more discussion on how we see potential technologies being used in schools, educators and students can help our ideas of the ideal technology device become reality.

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