Friday, March 19, 2010

An iPad, a decal, and the future of learning

I preordered an iPad about an hour after the form opened.  Apparently, so did about 120,000 of my closest friends

In an effort to convince myself that I'm not just a member of this herd, I started pondering personalization.  When I had a similar crisis with my iPhone, I designed a custom decal for the back with a WWII nose art motif.  (I hate cases, but a decal adds zero bulk and absorbs some wear and tear.)  For the iPad I'm leaning toward something that makes more of a statement about why I'm excited about the device. 

I'm a science fiction nut (thanks Dad!) so I started by considering if there was something from SciFi that I could pay homage to.  Jonathan Ive says that the iPad is "magical," but Arthur C Clarke taught me that's just another word for "sufficiently advanced technology."

The first thing that came to mind was the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a bottomless computerized travelogue that guides Arthur Dent through zany adventures in space.  That's how I'd like to think I'll be using my iPad (instead of reading Fark on the throne).  On the other hand, as much as I like the "Don't Panic" sentiment, I think the eyeless green mascot is creepy, and every part of the 2005 movie (except Zooey Deschanel) makes me hesitate to identify with this franchise for a few more years.

What other inspiring references are there?  In my head, the "desk" computers in Ender's Game look just like iPads, but I don't know how other Battle Schoolers imagine them.  I dig Cryptonomicon, but I'm not a security wonk, so that's likely to become a conversation piece for conversations I'm not interested in.  My favorite Star Trek is the skinny-Shatner era, but I don't think that boxy blinkenlights look is iPad-compatible.  Do people even read in Star Wars?

Finally, the object that jumped out at me was the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer from Diamond Age.  The Primer is a nanotech-powered book that teaches the main character, Nell, in subjects from reading to self-defense to nanotechnology.  It combines written stories with narration and video and interactive games to teach a gestalt lesson. 

This got me thinking about what's missing in the world to make the Primer a reality.  What's holding us back from a device that can teach reading as easily as particle physics? 

I think multimodal teaching is critical.  The Kindle seems like a rockstar for textbooks and simple diagrams, but I personally thrive on lectures and lab work, both of which require a frame rate that digital ink seems a long way from fulfilling.  The very best way to solve this problem may be a constellation of devices: Steve Jobs wants to convince us that the iPad belongs next to a $200 cell phone and a $1200 laptop, maybe there's room for a really great reader there, too.  But I think one cross-functional "good enough" device is going to outsell a stack of best-of-breed tools.

I originally thought some of the Primer's features like speech recognition and human narrators were a bit of fantasy overkill, but now I'm not so sure.  Certainly at the very young end, having almost no artificial interface is a beautiful affordance.  I'm still unconvinced of its utility in adult education; I work in a cubicle and live with two other people, I've got very little time where I can talk to a computer without driving someone else nuts.

I'm worried about the state of educational software, I don't think it aims high enough.  I grew up with Carmen Sandiego, and my wife fondly remembers Oregon Trail, but I think they each represent only a part of "teaching."  Carmen Sandiego feels like the same class as every IT course I've ever logged into: trivia memorization.  And Oregon Trail seems to do the same job as the Giant's game in Ender's Game: making an academic lesson visceral.  I can't come up with any software that has taught me the entirety of a new task, at least nothing deeper than Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

I think there's more that software can be doing that is both needful (trivia in the age of Google seems extra pointless) and that brings cheap CPUs to bear on the problem of teacher:student ratios.  When I'm watching the SICP lectures, the examples could follow along in a REPL I can play with.  When I'm learning guitar, the guitar could be jacked into the computer, so the software can comment when my sloppy fingering causes fret buzz.  Why isn't there an App to teaches me how to braid or fold origami using touch?

So I'm delighted that I've got some time to figure my iPad out for myself before my 6 month old daughter, Valentine, is ready to learn more than how to get her feet in her mouth.

Oh, by the way, for the decal, I'm working on something that looks like the leather-and-gilt cover of a book, with "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by John Percival Hackworth" embossed.  I'm hoping the fact that I'm not a young lady is going to give me a chance to introduce a great book to new people, and to pitch these ideas about improved educational tools.


  1. That sounds like an awesome cover and I would love to see a picture when it's ready.

  2. If you are a big fan of the iPad like me (and us) check out -- would love to have ya as a member there.