31 July 2014

Interthinking, Interaction & the Internet



Possibly one of the most exciting applications of digital technology in education are the kinds of activities that encourage the unique ‘peer to peer’ interactions between students, and/or the teacher, provided by a shared online space, a forum, a ‘wiki’ to use the term in it’s most fundamental sense:

“wi·ki
noun
a website that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by its users.
(Google)

“[A wiki] differs from a blog or most other such systems in that the content is created without any defined owner or leader, and wikis have little implicit structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki 

There are many platforms you can use for this, for us as a GAPPS school, Google Sites provide a 'wiki' environment that works magnificently. It is one of those applications of tech that goes deep with educators—if you want to see a teacher embrace and RUN with a tech tool, this is the one, it takes (literally) a few minutes to post a provocation (maybe longer to actually think of a good provocation) then sit back and watch the students take it and transform it.

Now the teacher sits back and absorbs the feedback, watching the conversations unfolding, expanding and developing, but their role, is still critical. You see the kind of interactions afforded in a wiki space are very similar and yet very different to those in a typical face to face classroom discussion, and just like their face to face variety the have their potentials and pitfalls, which need to be monitored as feedback so they can us ethos evidence to feed forward, at class, group, or individual student level. I’ve just finished reading a little book by Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer that gives this kind of internet based interaction a great name —Interthinking.

“Mainly by using spoken language, people are able to think creatively and productively together. We call this process 'interthinking' to emphasise that people do not use talk only to interact, they interthink.” (my emphasis)

In Interthinking they describe three types of talk:

Disputational talk, cumulative talk, and exploratory talk. The first is one to avoid, the second is safe ... but ineffective, the last is what we want, that’s where the transformative activity, the interthinking, happens.

Here are some great examples of Interthinking I’ve grabbed from some of our class sites, trust me there is a lot more where these came from. Now they didn’t get this good on their own, skilled teachers guided and developed their conversations, they generally tend to start out as very pleasant but bland ‘cumulative’ talk (more on that in a minute), then, once they become more comfortable with the medium, it can unfortunately easily denigrate into ‘disputational’ argumentative talk, the role of the teacher is to ‘mentor’ these students to interact or ‘talk’ in ways that find a powerful balance between these extremes, talk that is ‘exploratory’.

Google Site Discussions



Now, looking at the conversations here, you could mistakenly assume that all of it happened in the sole confines of an individual screen, students hunting and pecking away in isolation, but that is only half the story—all of these conversations are grounded in good old fashioned classroom ‘face to face’ which iteratively shifts online, and then back to face to face over time. Now that timeframe could be as short as a back and forth in one lesson, to an ongoing back and forth, iterative feedback loop over an entire unit, whatever the teacher feels works.

I strongly recommend that you read the book yourself, but in the interest of action, I’ve summarised the points that relate to the context of internet interactivity below. The following is quoted directly from the book, anything inside [square brackets] is mine.

Interthinking

Interthinking has been necessary for the development and dissemination of all human knowledge and understanding. However, as we will all know from personal experience, collective thinking is not always productive or successful. Two heads are not always better than one, and we need to understand how and why that is the case. (p 2)

p15
Three kinds of talk in groups (as first reported in Dawes, Fisher and Mercer 1992). They can be summarised as follows.

Disputational talk in which
There is a lot of disagreement and everyone just makes their own decisions;
There are few attempts to pool resources or to offer constructive criticism;
They are often a lot of interactions of the open 'yes it is! – No it's not!' kind;
The atmosphere is competitive rather than cooperative.




Cumulative talk, in which
Everyone simply accepts and agrees with what other people say;
Children use talk to share knowledge, but they do so in an uncritical way;
Children repeat and elaborate each others ideas, but they don't evaluate them carefully.




Exploratory talk, in which
Everyone engages critically but constructively with each other's ideas;
Everyone offers the relevant information they have;
Everyone's ideas are treated as worthy of consideration;
Partners ask each other questions and answer them, ask for reasons and give them;
Members of the group try to reach agreement at each stage before progressing;
To an observer of the group, reasoning is 'visible' in the talk.




p 63

Digital technology and interthinking

Much as been written about the ways that electronic, digital technology can 'transform' or 'revolutionise' interpersonal communications. This is not mere hyperbole. People can now communicate quite easily with other individuals far away, send each other various kinds of multimodal information and organise group events and collective creations without being ever in the same room as other participants.
...
However, there is a danger that the wealth of communicative facilities offered by digital technology distracts us from concerns about the quality of communication. A clear line on the telephone has never ensured that two speakers would have a conversation in which they understood each other well, and the added visual dimension offered by Skype will not do so either. Computers in their various forms, and their software, are cultural tools that we employ well or badly. They can certainly make interthinking possible between people who would otherwise have been separated, and they can provide practical and very useful support for groups of people who are working and learning together.
...
[For some reason these researchers seem to focus exclusively on the IWB as if it is the most ubiquitous form of technology, and the most relevant? I would argue that the context that is considered here would be far more effective if each student had their own screen [situated]and were still able to talk together in the same physical space [located] while interacting in the same virtual space in real time (ie, synchronous not asynchronous). Such as perhaps annotating a shared image within Google Drive?]
...

P77

Improvable objects and interthinking [Mutability]

As we saw earlier, the IWB [and surely any situated shared screen environment] is very useful for generating and recording synoptic, written conclusions; it is easy for the whole group to see and comment on what each member writes, and for the final text to be very quickly modified in light of feedback and evaluation of the emerging ideas (see Littleton, Twiner and Gillen 2010). One of our former doctoral students, Alison Twiner, has called the kind of text the children are creating on the IWB a 'digital improvable object' (Twiner 2011; Twiner, Littleton, Coffin and Whitelock in press). Teachers often encourage children to record what has been said in their group discussions. It was the classroom researcher Gordon Wells (1999) who first suggested that if they are treated as 'improvable objects' rather than finished pieces of work, such records can, if used appropriately, provide a cumulative basis of common knowledge upon which future discussions and other activities can draw and progressively build. Of course, such records do not have to be digital—they can also be created on paper—but computer–based technology offers a way of doing so easily, so that modifications can be made, several versions kept and copies distributed. Such digital records can also include other things such as diagrams and drawings that capture ideas created in discussions. They can offer a kind of half-way stage between the ephemerality [temporality] of talk and the permanence of written texts, and represents one way that technology can help people think collectively.

P78 [paraphrased]
Once saved, these collective creations are then available as a tangible results for discussion by groups of students. For example, a teacher easily project it onto a whiteboard screen for students to refer to, both as a powerful 'aide memoir' for initial reactions and ideas, and as a subsequent focus for collective thinking.

P79
Other kinds of electronic text can also support the collective revision, development and evaluation of ideas. [...]  ...comment boxes enable groups of students to capture, during the data collection phase of their enquiries, important contextual information that would assist them in the interpretation of the data during analysis. Observations of the software in use revealed that as the students moved toward the reporting of the investigation, they also reworked, refined and continually edited and saved the text within the boxes [A process which would have become increasingly and inevitably extremely messy and convoluted if it had been carried out on paper]. In doing so the text became an ongoing work in progress, capturing emerging ideas and (inter)thinking, over time, in respect of the interpretation of data and the key findings. Their initial comments recorded in the boxes provided a base from which to develop and build shared knowledge and understanding. This process of reworking the comments in the boxes also helped students make connections across different phases of the enquiry and so help them maintain the 'thread' of their joint activity (see Littleton and Kerawaller 2010 for more information).

[Interesting to note that the researchers themselves could not consider how this activity could be practised in any other any other software environment, and seem to be fixated on only extremely sophisticated futuristic models], "as a tool for enabling into thinking by a group of, 'tabletop' interactive computers that are sensitive to touch may prove to be more useful.… Another researcher, Stahl (2011), has suggested that tabletops could serve as a 'multimedia tribal fire for the classroom, workplace, or social gathering', though they are currently so costly that it is unlikely that they will soon become as common in classrooms as the IWB]

P82

Collaborative learning at a distance 

[Interesting to note here again that the researchers have a very narrow/fixed view of how the technologies can be used, for example the situated nature of these technologies means that they don't have to be used at a distance the same tool could be used very effectively within the same physical location, just because you can use them to span thousands of miles, doesn't mean that you have to]

There have been many studies of the use of electronic communications in distance education, but few have been studies of how spoken or written communication between students in distant locations might enable their learning or problem-solving.
...

P83
One of the ways that communicating through text [why just text? What about image? Video] online is rather different from talking face-to-face is that it can either take place in real time, so that speakers respond immediately to each other, or people may take some time to respond. An online 'conversation' can be spread out over a period of days, weeks or even months. Ingram and Hathorn, two researchers into the uses of online communication in education, describe the differences between these two modes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as follows:

"CMC can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous modes. In synchronous communications all disciplines are online at the same time, while asynchronous communications occurs without time constraints. Synchronous discussion involves the use of programs, such as chat rooms, instant messengers or audio and video programs, in which all participants exchange messages in real-time. Messages appear on the screen almost immediately after they are typed, and many threads can occur simultaneously. Those who have experienced these rapid exchanges of information, ideas, and opinions know that even extraordinary typing skill and quick response times do not guarantee that one can keep up with the constantly changing discussion. Hence, synchronous discussion may be best suited for brainstorming and quickly sharing ideas. In asynchronous discussions students can participate at any time and from any location, without regard to what other discussants are doing. Asynchronous CMC allows participants to contribute to the discussion more equally because none of the customary limitations imposed by an instructor or class schedule apply. Full and free expression of ideas is possible. Although these communications are text-based, they have little in common with traditional printed information. Experienced users use a style that is characterised by a abbreviated writing and emoticons (eg smileys). asynchronous discussions, which can occur over email or threaded web discussion, allow more time for considered opinions… And are more effective for deeper discussion of ideas." (Ingram and Hathorn 2004: 220)

P85
[limitations, or why it is good to combine on-screen interactions with face-to-face interactions in real time in the same space, face-to-face]

Distance educators need to make the best use of the affordances of Digital technology to compensate for the loss of some of the most attractive and useful features of more traditional ways of teaching and learning [face-to-face].
And the open University, Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson 2009; Ferguson, Whitelock and Littleton 2010). She was interested in how students working online managed the task of building knowledge and understanding together, as they pursued assignment in groups. [...] Ferguson also usefully identified some important ways that asynchronous online interactions among a group are different from those among people working face-to-face, in terms of the resources group members have to support their interthinking. For example, they often have digital improvable objects of the kind that we mentioned earlier. As she comments:

They do not need to employ devices that will help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in a transcript automatically generated by the software. What they need to replace is the range of tones, expressions and gestures are available to support sense making in a face-to-face setting. They must find a synchronous methods of agreeing on what they have achieved together, and on how they can shape past dialogue to build shared knowledge. At the same time, they need to avoid disagreements and find a way of moving dialogue forward safely when only a subset of the group is online and able to participate. (Ferguson up. cit.: 168)

The temporally extended, and even disjointed nature of online talk creates different kinds of obstacles to interthinking from face-to-face settings. Requests for explanations and checks of understanding are more labourious to make, as are the responses they require; and so any disagreements that arise are harder, to resolve.

P90
Various kinds of digital tools [...] can provide some valuable support for productive discussion. They can resource what Wegerif (2007, 2010) has called a 'dialogic space' in which different ideas, perspectives and understanding can be collectively explored, and material can be modified to record the development of a discussion and capture emerging ideas. Digital communication offers opportunities for students to interthink online, and to do so without the constraints of time and location that arise in more conventional educational settings.
...
more than one way of talking can be productive but discussion is likely to be most productive for learning if participants agree to follow the kinds of ground rules for discussion that will generate an online version of exploratory talk. Therefore, they should be expected to encourage universal participation among group members, seek ideas and clarification of them, challenge ideas and proposals in respectful ways if they have good reason to do so and support their own ideas and proposals with reasons and explanations.

p89

Cooperation versus collaboration

[I believe that for formative assessment to be effective, when students are asked to work in groups, it is better to pursue a cooperative approach rather than a collaborative approach. This way students are accountable for their individual contributions as opposed to all of the contributions being mixed into a melange where it becomes difficult if not impossible to ascertain the accountability or input of specific individuals]

"Cooperation is defined as the style of working, sometimes called "divide-and-conquer," in which students split an assignment into roughly equal pieces to be completed by the individuals, and then stitched together to finish the assignment.
In contrast, we define collaboration as a more complex working together. Students discuss all parts of the assignment, adding and changing things in conjunction with one another as they come to understand more about the topic.
At the end, the final product is truly a group product in which it is difficult or impossible to identify individual contributions. There appears to be differences between corporation and collaboration in both the complexity of the interactions and the effectiveness for instruction and education."

(Ingram and Hathorn 2004:216)


SAMMS

When people asking what learning ‘transformed’ by technology looks like, this is the kind of thing I think of, and the SAMMS framework hops here—this kind of activity its:

Situation - these kids can continue the conversation anywhere, any place (even international), face to face or any space, or time that works for them. I would argue the context of a wiki (as opposed to a shared IWB in the book) has the advantage of adding the situated affordance of technology, making interthinking much more effective, by augmenting it with a greater focus on the kinds of intrathinking and reflection that can be afforded by reworking or contributing to a group discussion in asynchronous isolation subsequent to a synchronous face to face session.

Accessibility: No need to debate minutiae and semantics when clarifying points of fact or fiction are only a click away, got a reference to back that up? Great, link to it. The wealth of online resources offers great potential for learners; but the context of interthinking places greater demands on all parties to evaluate and filter the information they offer.

Multimodality: Now for the most part, Interthinking assumes a text only mode, but adding the contact of face to face automatically makes it multimodal, but it actually it isn’t difficult to multiply the modes in a screen context, the examples above  include a video, or image prompt used by the teacher as a provocation, as well as students relating their ‘interthinking’ to multimodal content they have posted, from image to video, to mind maps and presentations.

Mutability: The ease with which students can modify their content facilitates learning, but needs to be managed carefully to avoid ‘revisionism’ this is the teachers call, some like to encourage kids to go back and revise their posts in light of their changing position, others see this as potentially dishonest—Did I say that? No I didn’t [quick edit] .. see?

Social Network: This activity literally creates a ‘micro social network’ like a Facebook the size of your class, with all of it’s phenomenal benefits, minus the suspicious disingenuous marketing.



References 

Ferguson R, Whitelock D, and Littleton K (2010). Improvable objects and attached dialogue: new literacy practices employed by learners to build knowledge together in asynchronous settings. Digital Culture and Education, 2 (1): 103-123

Ferguson R (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue, Unpublished PhD Thesis, The Open University. [Downloadable from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/id/eprint/19908]. Accessed January 22 2013.

Ingram A and Hathorn L (2004) 'Methods for Analysing Collaboration and Online Communications', in T Roberts (ed), Online Collaborative Learning: theory and practice, London: Information Science Publishing.

Littleton K, & Mercer N (2013). Interthinking: putting talk to work. Routledge.

Littleton K, and Kerawalla L (2012). Trajectories of inquiry learning, in K Littleton, E Scanlon and M Sharples (eds), Orchestrating Inquiry Learning, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wegerif R (2007). 'Dialogic, Education and Technology: expanding the space of learning, London: Springer Verlag.

Wegerif R (2010). 'Dialogic and teaching thinking with technology: opening, deepening and expanding the interface', in C Howe and K Littleton (eds), Educational Dialogues: understanding and promoting productive interaction, London: Routledge.

02 July 2014

Technology, IT & ICT vs Digital Literacy

It's a constant frustration for me, the way the terms 'technology' 'IT' and "ICT' are all used interchangeably as if they all mean they same thing—they don't.

Why does it matter? That's what this post is all about.

This is IT - A focus on the machine

This is ICT - A focus on using the machine

I'm a DLC, a 'Digital Literacy Coach, I'm not an IT (Information Technology) Teacher, I'm not even an ICT  (Information Communication Technology) teacher, but this post is not about what I do, I've written about that here. No, this post is about why distinguishing between these is essential if we are serious about integrating digital technologies effectively and meaningfully into educational contexts.

Let's just clear this up at the outset, here's the difference:

Information Technology (IT) is a focus on the machines, the hardware, and the code that enables these machines to be controlled effectively, this the computing, the Computer Science, the electronic engineering, the coding, without which nothing that we call ICT or Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) would be possible.* 

Information Communication Technology (ICT) is a focus on the use of these machines to communicate with each other, communicating with ordinary people who are not skilled in IT, people like you and me. ICT refers to technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications. It is similar to Information Technology (IT), but focuses primarily on the kinds of communication technologies powerfully exemplified by the SAMMS framework. Communications mediums that provide situated, unprecedented access to tools that are multimodal, mutable and socially networked.

Digital literacy—Where do you want to go today?
I find a car analogy helpful in explaining this:

IT is a focus on the machine, the automobile— designing them, making them, fixing them, maintaining them.

ICT is learning how to drive the car, the driving instructor is the ICT teacher, and while this is a part of the role of someone like me, a 'Digital Literacy Coach' that's not at the heart of it. Why? Because it's still focused on the act of driving the car as an end in and of itself, what DLCs and all educators should be more interested in is, great, now you can drive - where do you want to go? On a vacation? To work? To school, college? The possibilities are endless, and with all/most of them, the technology is merely a (transformative) means to an end.

IT: Automotive engineering
ICT: Driving instruction/education
Digital Literacy: ROAD TRIP!


Technology Terminology

It is clear from the literature that many terms abound within this arena of learning, from the ubiquitous but ambiguous ‘technology’ to ‘21st Century Learning’ – used in a way where the term is assumed to bring with it an ‘obvious’ digital context, ie, the use of computers.


The term ‘technology’ is a particularly broad and ill-defined one (Ohler, 1999). Currently it is most often used as shortening of the full term, ’digital technologies’ ‘computer technologies’ or ‘ICT’, although of course it can mean, in theory, any application of human knowledge to solve practical problems. My Apple dictionary defines it simply as,

“the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” 

As such it includes not only mechanical artefacts, but also procedures and practices. Even when technology is interpreted as only mechanical objects, the range of objects is almost inexhaustible: from simple things such as an overhead projector, to a pencil, and consequentially, to more complex systems such as the computer and of course, the Internet. Even when we further narrow technology down to the computer, the list of things teachers need to know and do, using these technologies is still a challenging one. So it transpires that the issue of technology as a barrier is not new. Far from it, clearly, teachers have wrestled with technologies since time out of mind, although the ‘wrestling’ was generally more of that involving the need to sharpen pencils, or replace the ink in a pen – a dichotomy Mishra and Koehler (2006) approach by separating them into two distinct, but obviously related categories; namely, ‘standard’ technologies, “such as books, chalk and blackboard”, and more ‘advanced’ technologies, “such as the Internet and digital video (p 1027)”. So the problem then is more one of the rate of change than the actual use of technologies in teaching. As Mishra et al explain:

“… the rapid rate of evolution of these new digital technologies prevents them from becoming ‘transparent’ any time soon. Teachers will have to do more than simply learn to use currently available tools; they also will have to learn new techniques and skills as current technologies become obsolete (ibid, p 1023).”

A point endorsed by Cuban (2001) noting out that teachers’ definition of ‘technology’ is very selective, as since the 19th century, chalk and blackboard, pens, pencils, and textbooks have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable and useful classroom technologies.

“Teachers added other innovations such as the overhead projector, the ditto machine (later the copying machine), and film projector (later the VCR) because they too proved reliable and useful. But most teachers continue to see the computer as an add-on rather than as a technology integral to their classroom content and instruction. (p 163; my emphasis).
But, and it's a big but.

It is that ‘But’ that is at the heart of many barriers to integration.

‘Digital’ literacies and ‘multiliteracies’

The concept of digital literacies is fascinating both in its definition and its application. The term captures an arena of rapidly developing practices, as humans interact with technologies in new ways and for innovative purposes. The exponentially expanding ‘digital world’ of the latter part of the 20th Century and the early 21st Century are creating new opportunities for people to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression. 

By exploring new interests, tinkering, and ‘messing around’ with these new kinds of media, we acquire various forms of technical and media literacy. Through trial and error, we add new media skills to our repertoire, (Ito et al, 2008). Within my own context, the term ‘Digital Literacy’ has been adopted as a replacement for what used to be referred to as ‘IT’. The assumption being that it fulfils the previous terms, and somehow implies something greater, more meaningful. The reality is all that has happened in most cases is the term has been misappropriated as meaning the same thing, which it does not. When Paul Gilster (1997) coined this term it is highly doubtful that he never intended for this term to be used in this way, what he was doing was introducing a term that very powerfully distinguished between the defining of a ‘thing’ to the more important business of using it. 

Move the conversation on from the mechanics and on into the potential of it to make meaning.


“The concept of literacy goes beyond simply being able to read; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning, and to understand. It is the fundamental act of cognition. Digital literacy likewise extends the boundaries of definition.” (p 2)

Of course since then others have attempted their own definitions, “digital literacy means knowing how technology and media affect the ways in which we go about finding things out, communicating with one another, and gaining knowledge and understanding” (Hague and Williamson, 2009) or “Digital Literacies are an enabling skill allowing for a broader range of learning interactions, using a greater range of tools, which then offers the possibility of a wider range of traceable meanings to be made in society.” (Technology Enhanced Learning phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme). 

What they invariably have in common is a shift in focus from the machines (IT) to their potential as tools for making meaning (Digital Literacy).


Literacy

Literacy’ is a powerful concept to centre this focus. The widespread struggle among educators, parents, researchers and policy makers to conceptualise what it is (young) people “know” or need to know when using digital technologies, and by extension, the Internet, is usefully resolved by conceptualising this knowledge in terms of literacy. Unfortunately this also broadens the argument into a debate over the nature of literacy, which in turn leads us to a deeper question, which literacies are encompassed by this term? Livingstone (2008) alone includes print literacy, audiovisual and media literacies, information literacy, advertising literacy, cyberliteracy, games literacy, critical literacy, and many more. So it is that these ‘multiliteracies’ (Gillen & Barton, 2010) generally refer to the multitude of forms of literacy made possible by the phenomenal pace of IT development. 


Digital Literacies

The term "digital literacies" itself is relatively new within the field of literacy studies. Its definition remains open, but human judgment, or criticality, is assumed in most understandings of digital literacies and at the centre of the concept of ‘multiliteracies’.

Howard Rheingold (2012) has argued that we must actively cultivate skills such as mindfulness and “crap detection” that are central to these new realities of the digital and networked world, or more commonly referred to as ‘critical thinking’. In an online world awash with knowledge/opinion with the border often blurred between the two – critical thinking is essential, the ability to literally critique content, to extricate one from the other, knowledge/opinion, fact/fiction/feeling. 

What is clear is that these ‘digital’ literacies are in a deep and profound sense new literacies, not merely the traditional concept of literacy – reading and writing – carried on in new media. (Kress, 2010)


Accompanying the plurality of these digital literacies, we find a range of terms used by different researchers when extricating one from from another, including but not limited to; internet literacies, digital literacies, new media literacies, multiliteracies, information literacy, ICT literacies, and computer literacies. Coiro, et al (2008) notes that all these terms “are used to refer to phenomena we would see as falling broadly under a new literacies umbrella” (p 10).

These literacies need a unifying context, such as the notion of the learner in the 21st Century and digital literacies: Rheingold describes digital literacies in terms of, 'civil engagement in the Digital Age', what he calls ‘21st century literacies’ (Rheingold 2009), as requiring “attention, participation, cooperation, critical consumption, and network awareness.” Rheingold and Ito et al (2008; 2013) see this kind of learning as situated within the participatory online culture of 21st Century.

We find ourselves with a powerfully unifying focus, so let's stop talking abut technology and talk about literacy—whether that is linguistic, numeric, or digital, these are now the modes by which we learn everything else, it is, all of it, in the service of making and refining meaning.



* Interesting to note that as of September 2013, the term "ICT" in the UK National Curriculum, where it originated, has been replaced by the broader term "computing", I would imagine this is in order to mitigate the current confusion, and emphasise its computer science 'coding' credentials, as opposed to its capacity for communication. 

iPads vs Macs

Why use an iPad in the classroom, if you can use a Mac?

OSx vs iOS

This is a question that has plagued me for some time, and behind it lies the assumption that if you are going to use an iPad, then you should make sure that you're using it to do something that you couldn't have just used a Mac for. Of course this assumes that you have the choice of using a Mac or an iPad, for the sake of this discussion I assume a context where the students would use an iPad in the classroom exclusively in place of a MacBook or an iMac. After some initial scepticism, I now believe that these devices do have a unique contribution to make to the classroom; below I will attempt to outline my reasoning as to why I believe this may be...

Cost

Cheaper than MacBooks at about a half to a third of the price (depending on the generation you buy), this means that you can get double or triple the tech for the same cost, especially important if you're attempting to get as many devices per student as possible. This can be the difference between one computer shared between four, or the difference between a classroom that is 1:1 or 1:2 compared to a classroom that is 1:2 or 1:4. It has to be said that iPads in particular lend themselves to a 1:1 context, as sharing them is not as easy as sharing a Mac, as they do not support multiple user accounts.

There are 'hidden' costs to consider, you most likely need to include a case, (I don't believe in screen protectors) a trolley for syncing/storage, and don't underestimate the amount of tech support required to sync and keep them updated, which is most likely much greater that that required for laptops etc.

Simplicity & Efficacy

iOS is a much simpler operating system than OSX, this means, especially with younger students, the operating system gets out of the way and students instead can concentrate on actually using the tech to learn, which is the point, right? Simply put, this means that students do not need to navigate through menus, create folders, filenames, organise files and folders and navigate the many additional conventions that would be expected by using a typical desktop operating system. Of course the question that follows this is ... When do we teach students how to use these operating systems? Surely that is also an important consideration…?

Apptasticicity (Is that word? It is now.)

The plethora of applications available for this device at a low cost or even zero cost makes for an extremely powerful learning tool. Yes, there are also plenty of Applications on the MacBook and iMac, but the Apps on the iPad are cheaper, and especially focused on doing very specific things. One App for spelling, one App for TimesTables, one App for drawing - I think you catch my drift?

The power of iOS apps versus full on computer applications is another major benefit. These are generally much, much simpler versions of their big brothers. Even the Pages App on the iPad is a much simpler pared down version of the full Pages application on the Mac. Often it seems to me that when using the full version of Applications on the Mac etc., most people are using 10%, maybe 20% of the capability of a program but the Apps on the iPad appear to focus on just doing the 10 to 20% that most people actually need. This means from a teaching perspective, we focus on the use of the tools in a way that is very effective and avoid getting sidetracked by less relevant or less important features that are not required for the task at hand.

Control

Especially for younger students the freedom from having to control a mouse device to manipulate the cursor on the screen is a huge advantage, very few younger students have the necessary fine motor skills to control a device as (relatively) large as a mouse and often struggle to do so, especially managing left and right, and double clicking, never mind the dreaded drag 'n drop. The iPad, by using a haptic interface touch system completely bypasses all of these issues and is as easy for a three year old to control as for a 43 year old to control.

The iPad is a much more "modal" device, that is, the user is focused on one 'mode' or application at a time, you don't have the problem (or some would say, the advantage) of having multiple Apps open and accessible and usable at the same time. With the iPad it is very much one thing at a time, better for teaching and learning.

Tactility

Whether you choose to use a stylus or to use the digits that God gave you (no I'm not a big fan of stylii) it has to be said that it is a much more natural, authentic experience to 'draw' or ''paint' on an iPad and it has ever been or is on a Mac, even if you try to use the trackpad as a substitute surface. 'Screencasting' Apps in particular are absolutely revolutionary on this device; I really cannot see any App on the Mac that comes even close to offering the power of annotation combined with drawing and talking offered by apps like Explain Everything and Screenshot et al. When this facility is applied to drawing, painting and image manipulation Apps, it takes on a completely new level of experience - with the ability to intuitively smudge and blur with tactile swipes and dabs there really is a sense of interaction with pixels which is almost as physical as print. Yes, I said it.

Mobility

The portability of the device makes it particularly appropriate for capturing content with the on-board camera or capturing video, and then seamlessly knitting this content together in a meaningful way on the device with a minimum of hassle. Yes, this can be done with a MacBook, but trying to use a MacBook as a camera is something which would be impossible for small children to do and not advisable even for older students and adults. You have to bring the content to the MacBook whereas with the iPad you can bring the iPad to the content- particularly useful for field trips or subjects that are not portable, ie cannot be brought to the device.

Organisation

The ability to group apps into folders very easily very much assists the pedagogical process as teachers can direct students to a group of apps that are focused on a particular skill, this is not often the case with a typical computer operating system.

No desktop. This saves a lot of trouble for the teacher, as the desktop paradigm leads to many problems, with a plethora of icons scattered across that virtual space - trust me this is the bane of my tech integration life. Students and teachers alike struggle with the organisation of files and folders and this often leads to work that is hard to locate or difficult to save in a way that allows the same files to be easily retrieved. The way iOS stores files within the application makes things much easier for student and teacher alike.

Sharing of student work is easy, utilising the Reflection App on a Mac (although using a classroom Apple TV makes this an option for MacBooks running Mountain Lion or later). Sharing iPad content with students using AirPlay is as easy as a couple of clicks, and then the content of the student's iPad is beamed onto the board for the whole class to see.




So why would you ever use a Mac?

Using an iPad is often very much about working around the limitations, although it has to be said that what a techie person might call "limitations" is what an ordinary student or teacher might call a welcome relief from complexity. Put bluntly, a full powered computer offers so many options that it easily becomes overwhelming - the simplicity of the iPad very much restricts what is capable of being done, but for most ordinary people this restriction is a relief rather than a frustration. But, no the Mac is not dead, not for more 'demanding' users anyway. There are times when you really need to use the other 80% of features left out of iPad Apps. Here are a few of the aspects of an iPad classroom that require some patience:


Professional/advanced Applications

If you are one of those few people, (especially High School/FE teachers/students) who actually need to use more advanced applications, I'm thinking particularly here of high end video editing, production, design, VFX, 3D modelling, CAD CAM, and applications that can that model dynamic simulations, then using an iPad is far from satisfactory. All of these require a 'proper' fully featured operating system like that afforded by an iMac or Macbook, or even a PC! But, in my experience, that puts you in the bracket of the few people who know how to use the 80% of the capabilities of a professional app that are ignored by 80% of 'normal' computer users.

Difficulties with printing 

Although there are ways around this, but you actually might not want to bother, as although this seems to be a problem with the devices, I think it highlights our over zealousness for hard copies. I actually feel this is really an opportunity to discourage the propensity for teachers and students alike to print everything that they can. The iPad encourages users to find digital medium to share their work rather than relying on printed paper.

Lack of Web 2.0 support

The '3 Cs' of Web 2.0 (creativity, collaboration and communication) are arguably one of the foundational elements of what is commonly called "21st century learning" and due to the kind of cutting edge web technology these websites require, many Web 2.0 sites will will not function as effectively (if at all) on an iPad - although this is changing everyday. It should be noted that many of these Sites provide App versions of their content, albeit usually scaled down. The Google suite of Apps are definitely more iPad friendly than ever, but they still have frustrating restrictions, like not being able to edit tables in Google Docs. If you really want to utilise Web 2.0 (bear in mind that most require students to be at least 13 years of age) you are still almost certainly better off using a Mac rather than an iPad.

iPads make it more difficult for users to share their content on third party platforms, eg, Google Apps, Sites or Picasa etc., most of these platforms cannot be exported to directly from an iPad and requires a mediating device, eg a laptop or desktop computer.

Export

Getting content off the iPad is tricky. I've been using a central email account to make this easier, so students can just email content to the teacher, straight from a generic account on the device. Exporting captured video is more problematic, while it can, in theory, still be exported wirelessly, this in practice is extremely frustrating. Students do need to be taught the explicit skill to be able to transfer video from an iPad to a computer using a cable; on a Mac this is much easier if they use the Image Capture application instead of iPhoto. Sharing to Youtube, Vimeo, Soundcloud etc. are an option, but not if you want to avoid a whole lot of account detail entering ... Students can also utlise share Apps like Dropbox and Google Drive for this but these boil down to being variations on the email idea, and are just as useless for transferring video in my experience.

Distraction

Distractions are a common temptation, this is true of any computing device but especially so with a device like the iPad that is now commonly seen by students as a gaming platform. The student may be intending to read an eBook but with the plethora of distractions only a swipe away this is something which will require close monitoring... That said this kind of monitoring is required for any acticvity is it not? I found plenty of ways to get distracted with pens, pencils and paper when I was a kid - yes, noughts and crosses, boxes, passing notes, paper aeroplanes, spit balls and biros, I'm looking at you.

There is no support for multiple user accounts; this means that in practice sharing an iPad is much more tricky than sharing for example, a MacBook. Because all of the content created by users is shared on the same device this mean they will need to be particularly careful about respecting work created by others and not deleting content that does not belong to themselves.

No Flash support

While this is gradually becoming less of an issue as more and more website shift over to content like HTML 5 etc, it is still far from being a non-issue, especially considering that so many educational websites still rely on Flash as their media tool of choice. It is possible to get around this issue by using for example the Puffin Browser App, but it is still far from satisfactory.

Logistics

Logistics are a major headache with managing these iOS devices, and there are so many ways to do this although I personally find cloning one device onto multiple machines is the simplest solution. The biggest problem concerns the fact that these devices were designed to be used by one person who owns the device and not to be shared, this is clearly an argument for 1:1, but with young children many of the 'Cloud' services that are designed to make these devices so easy to use are not actually legally available for anyone under the age of 13. This effectively makes using Cloud services like Google Drive and Dropbox etc quite challenging, as it often means the teacher having to create an account which is then individually created or cloned onto each one of the class and devices; with 1:1 this is easily 22 devices or more, very time-consuming and very tedious. This is something that any user of an iOS device should be wary of, the time consuming/tedious nature of attempting to configure devices individually one by one - something I believe should be avoided as far as possible! Which is why I still rely on a mediating platform, ie, a class iMac which the students can use to offload, transfer, archive, share content, etc. That said, on a literally daily basis the ever expanding capabilities of Apps like Google Drive continue to make many of these points obsolete, iteration by iteration, eg Picasa used to be a no no, but 3rd party apps like Web Album now allow students to directly upload video and image directly to their Picasa accounts, even allowing management of albums etc, what will there be next week?

Caveat Emptor

All of these devices are changing, fast. For for all I know the next release of iOS could well make all of my concerns history - the next App update could make a tool that was a fiddly frustration into a dynamic delight; the Google suite of Apps comes to mind, although these are still far from being as effective as their equivalents on a desktop operating system.

The bottom line to me is sometimes less is more (more often in my experience less is just less) and that is often the case with the choice of an iPad over a MacBook or an iMac - for the kind of things that we want our students to use these devices for, we need LESS - we rarely need a state-of-the-art computer, a state-of-the-art tablet may well be much a more appropriate choice.

Using an iMac or MacBook for just web browsing and word processing really is just using a Ferrari to deliver milk.

Feel free to add your ifs, yes buts, and whys and more besides in the comments below.


Thanks to Shaun Kirkwood @shaunyk for providing the impetus for this post and some great feedback.