Several weeks ago, Apple announced its long-awaited and much-anticipated tablet computer, the iPad. Since the announcement, every aspect of the new device—from the felicity or infelicity of its name to the specifics of how it uses GPS technology—has been discussed in obsessive detail in every corner of the internet. Responses have ranged from bitter disappointment (“No camera?!…No multitasking?!…No transporter?!…Epic Fail!”) to irrational exuberance (surely somebody is already lined up outside of an Apple Store somewhere in order to be among the first to buy an iPad when it is released at the end of March).
We’ll have to wait until its arrival in April before we can begin to assess whether the iPad turns out to be the “magical and revolutionary device” that Apple insists it is. Surely the last thing the internet needs is one more person opining on a device that he has not yet used. But I can’t help it: There were two remarkable moments during the product announcement—one made by Steve Jobs at the end of his presentation and another in the coverage following the presentation—that I have been thinking of for two weeks now, and which I think have great implications for the use of technology in education.
The Intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts
I always enjoy watching Steve Jobs’ presentations. Entire books have been written that attempt to understand how he manages—equipped with only a pair of blue jeans, a black turtleneck, and some awesome Keynote transitions—to weave a magic spell over his audience. I don’t claim to know what his secret sauce is, but what has always stuck me most about his presentations is the way in which he engages himself so personally with the products he demonstrates—he appears to be thinking through what they mean and what their impact will be even while he is on the stage. This has never been more evident to me than during the iPad introduction. This may well be the last major new product announcement that Jobs makes during his tenure at Apple, and at times this event had the tone of a grand finale to a long and distinguished career.
At the beginning of the presentation, Jobs took us back to the beginnings of Apple by showing a picture of himself seated alongside Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at the time of Apple’s founding in 1976. At the very end of the presentation, Jobs returned to the stage for his closing comments and gave us what will likely be the clearest statement of what he has been trying to do with Apple over the course of his career. “Now, the reason that Apple’s able to create products like the iPad,” he asserts, “is because we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and Liberal Arts.” What might it mean to be at the intersection of technology and the Liberal Arts? Jobs—who famously dropped out of a great Liberal Arts college (Reed) before the end of his freshman year—did not elaborate, but I think we can tease out the answer…and, as a bonus, finally determine what the clearly overdetermined “i” in all of the iProducts ultimately stands for. And no, it’s not internet. At least not anymore.
The Liberal Arts have always been about interactivity. Interactions across time and space, between scholars, teachers, and students are the foundation of a Liberal Arts education. When Socrates stood on that street corner in ancient Athens and asked his ceaseless questions, he began a centuries-long tradition of education as interaction. In recent years, technology has finally caught up. If you look at the sites that define what is often called Web 2.0 (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs), you find that their very existence depends on interactivity. The iPad hopes to be the device that brings this interactivity to hardware. That’s what the “i” in iMac, iPod, iLife, and iPad has come to mean. Interactive.
The Problem with PowerPoint
The irony is that the use of instructional technologies inside and outside of the classroom has tended to get in the way of the natural interactivity of Liberal Arts education. Take the ubiquitous PowerPoint as an example. The lights go down. The slides go up. The students go into receiving mode, copying down what is written on the slides. The instructor no longer responds to students’ comments by writing on the board, since the lists have already been printed on the slides. Nobody needs to look at each other, since there is a slide to focus on.
If we could travel back in time to ancient Athens (surely there will be a time-travel app for the iPad) and provide Socrates with an electronic street corner equipped with a projector, a computer, and a copy of Microsoft Office, then the Socratic Method would develop into a series of PowerPoint slides, each with three bullet points and an image. The walled garden of Blackboard is similarly hostile to true interaction, and every demonstration that I’ve seen of that ultimate, interactive-classroom technology, the Student Response System, begins by touting its interactivity and then demonstrating it by asking a multiple-choice question (on PowerPoint, of course) and having us push a button based on our guess or opinion. That is actually less interactive than asking us to raise our hands.
Many scholars of teaching and learning have recognized this problem and a growing anti-classroom-technology movement has sprouted. Advocates of what is sometimes referred to as “teaching naked” suggest removing technology from the classroom entirely and replacing it with good old-fashioned discussion. There is much to be said for this move—and some of the best class sessions I have participated in (as a teacher and as a student) have involved nothing more than a group of engaged people seated around a table with a printed text to think about and some thoughtful ideas to express. But this is not always the best way to go. Technology still has a place within and outside of the classroom, and if used creatively, it can enhance interactivity rather than stifle it.
Which brings me to the second moment of the iPad introduction that struck me as fascinating and significant.
Blurring the Boundaries between Production and Reception of Content
Following the presentation, reporters and attendees congregated outside of the Yerba Buena Center and continued to report on the iPad event. If you were watching the live coverage on the TWIT network (www.twit.tv) then you witnessed a remarkably odd (but upon second thought, increasingly common) scene when Leo Laporte—a well-known technology reporter and founder of the TWIT network—was approached for an interview by Gigi Graciette, a reporter for Fox 11 News in Los Angeles. What proceeded was a simultaneous dual-interview in which both reporters—microphones aimed at each other—quizzed each other about their initial impressions of the iPad. Who was interviewing whom? It was impossible to say.
Further complicating matters was the team of commentators back at the TWIT studio also interacting with Laporte and, at this moment, Graciette. And, most importantly, there were tens of thousands of viewers in multiple TWIT chatrooms who could publish their comments for one another and the team of broadcasters to read while watching the coverage unfold. What occurred here was the blurring of boundaries between the producers and the receivers of content. Now, it didn’t take 21st-century technology to make this happen; there was no technical reason why Edward R. Murrow and William Shirer couldn’t have tilted their microphones at each other during World War II and done this same thing. The difference is that today this erasure of the boundaries between producing and consuming content is rapidly becoming the norm.
Our students—until further notice let’s just call them Generation i—have been writing on each others’ Facebook walls, filming video responses to YouTube videos, and assembling their avatars with friends and strangers for raids in World of Warcraft for years now. That student sitting in the back row with his smart phone in front of his face isn’t texting his friends during your lecture; he’s blurring the boundaries between the production and reception of content.
What the Liberal Arts Can Learn from the iPad
Okay, I know that next year, when the student sitting in the back row replaces his iPhone with an iPad, he’ll simply have more screen real estate for his Twitter client and still won’t be listening to a word I say. But if we do things right, and if he’s willing to participate, he can also have a truly interactive education that incorporates technology better than we have managed until now.
So let’s go back to the iPad for just a moment. Clearly education is a primary market for this device. Textbook publishers are already working on iBooks. None have been demonstrated yet, but I can guess what they will look like. More time will be spent on protecting the files from piracy than on developing new content. There will be some awesome DRM (which our smart students will crack before the first reading assignment is due) and some hyperlinks within the texts that will take the students to websites affiliated with the publisher and the textbook. But the ePub format that iBooks will support allows for us to do much more than that. We can incorporate rich media (such as audio and video) directly into the texts. We can allow students to find their own ways through the texts, just as they have been finding their own ways through their video games.
Imagine a day when two students are reading the same assignment for a class. One gets the concept when she reads it and can move on. The other is a visual learner who doesn’t get it right away. So the text leads him to a video that explains it from a different perspective. That’s easy enough. Now imagine that these two students come upon a question in the text that prompts them to offer their responses. They can read and continue to discuss one another’s responses and those of the other students in the class. Without ever leaving the “textbook.”
I can’t wait until a future version of iWork or iLife makes it as easy to produce an iBook as Garage Band makes it to work with audio and iMovie makes it to work with video. But this post isn’t about specific ways to use technology in education. There is plenty of excellent information on that elsewhere (including workshops such as those offered by CET&L and the UC Libraries—I’ve taken several and always come out greatly enriched). Nor is this post really about the iPad, as you have undoubtedly noticed. It is more of a plea to return to the traditional interactive nature of Liberal Arts education, while at the same time forging ahead with new technologies.
Steve Jobs claims that Apple learned to make its technology, as they say, “just work” by turning to the Liberal Arts. It is time for the Liberal Arts to turn to technology and learn the same lessons. And those lessons are fairly simple: (1) Don’t let technology get in the way of what you want to communicate, and (2) Do let technology enhance the inherently interactive nature of education. That’s what it means to live at the intersection of technology and the Liberal Arts.