the ‘agile’ space

 

Technology Spaces

I am using the term ‘agile’ here to signal a new technology space in between handheld and portable. Devices which fit this space are particularly useful for teaching and learning purposes, as they offer the flexibility needed for modern learning practices. It has taken the iPad to really cement this space although there will be countless others arriving in the market fairly soon. Whether or not they will offer the right blend of features successfully of course remains to be seen.

For purposes of analysis, it can be useful to divide technology into ‘spaces’ in order to better understand the function of the various pieces of technology educational establishments typically use. The diagram below shows these spaces and the types of device which occupy them. Whilst this is an over-simplification of technology used in teaching and learning, it can be helpful when looking at what devices can offer and what role they play in a school, college, etc.

handheld

agile

portable

desktop

server

The 5th Dimension

Traditionally there have been 4 spaces in education: the handheld space contains products such as the iPod Touch and smart phones, devices which fit into the pockets of learners and are able to be taken anywhere as they can stay with the learner. Due to the small physical form factor and therefore small screen size, it is primary used for 1 to 1 learning. The portable space has been filled by laptops, notebooks and netbooks, offering screen sizes of 10” and above with the 17” display laptops offering close on desktop power and functionality. Desktop computers provide the power and screen estate to do serious video and audio editing work, both of which are more difficult to do meaningfully on other smaller machines. Finally, servers are the workhorses which provide the infrastructure behind institutional networks. There is obviously some overlap between these divisions, for example, some mobile devices are getting screens of 5, 6 and 7 inches and laptops with 17, 18 and 19 inch screens blur the distinction between spaces.

Theagile’ space now created by the introduction of the iPad, although tablet style devices have been around a while, has yet to be proven as educationally useful; indeed some are not convinced that there is any need for another ‘space’ in learning technology. However, many of us disagree with this view and believe products such as the iPad will be central to how many people learn in the coming years. This agile space has many of the attributes associated with handheld and portable devices whilst also creating new and innovative ways of using technology. It adds a level of flexibility which has been absent until now. For example, whilst the iPad won’t exactly fit in most pockets, it is very easily carried from one place to another and it won’t take a large heavy laptop trolley to trundle 15-20 iPads from one classroom to another in a school setting. Conversely, it offers the screen size of a small laptop/netbook which is significantly larger than a handheld
device, whilst avoiding the traditional form factor of a hinged-screen laptop. The importance here is that the laptop format is relatively clumsy when a small group is sharing the device and need to pass it from one learner to another. Furthermore, the fact that the iPad has only one plane, as opposed to the two planes (horizontal & vertical) of the laptop form factor, means that there is no physical barrier between the teacher and leaner or between learners when working together in groups.

Equally, an iPad has the ‘boot time’ of a handheld device without waiting for the mechanical start-up time of a laptop and its substantial operating system. It has the ‘always on’ status of handheld devices and it merely takes the pressing of a single button to bring the machine instantly to life. Equally, it has the battery life of a smaller device, up to 10 hours which is plenty to see learner through a typical school day. A mobile device with a genuine all-day battery life offers a level of agility not seen before in schools and can avoid the disruption which happens when a laptop runs out of power after 2,3 or 4 hours of use during a day.

The iPad uses the tactile ‘touch and gesture’ interface of handheld devices, which makes for a far more and engaging user experience than the ‘point and click’ input method of laptop operating systems. Many young people have now grown up with this form of interface with their use of mobile phones and iPod-like devices; it adds to the individual, informal and personal relationship many have with technology. Importantly, it is able to blend this immediacy with the greater degree of functionality which a laptop can offer due to its power and screen size. It is quite feasible to do meaningful and productive work on an iPad so that the device is capable of content creation and not just consumption. The iWork suite of apps (Pages, Keynote & Numbers) demonstrates this quite clearly by offering word processing, presenting and working with spreadsheets. In time it is likely that other developers will begin to offer competing products in this field. Given that we already have iMovie for the iPhone 4, it is possible that Apple will develop an iPad version of its iLife suite too, providing learners with more creative options for working with audio, video and images.

New and Innovative

So whilst the iPad blends some of the important features and functions of the handheld and portable spaces devices, justifying its position in the technology space continuum, it is the new ways of using agile technology which is perhaps most exciting and potentially useful for teaching and learning. Developers are finding ways to utilise the best of handheld and portable spaces to produce imaginative apps which allow users to work and create in new ways that other devices don’t easily accommodate. For example, the various drawing apps which allow artists to have a virtual canvas which is large enough to be functional, yet mobile enough to be taken anywhere. Music apps such as Beatwave, Mugcian and Magic Piano which enable users to create music in new and interesting ways. The Alice in Wonderland app which takes literacy to a whole new level. Corkulous and Tinker provide ‘sketchboards’ for creative note-taking, planning and idea generation. The stunning Elements app which brings the periodic table to life like never before combined with the countless reference and information based apps provide learners with a rich and engaging device for learning. Plus the ability to access the internet, watch videos, play audio, view photos and read books all on one device, makes the iPad a revolutionary learning tool with huge potential. It combines many functions which were only previously available in a number separate devices and takes this to another level with its form factor and touch/gesture input methods.

One of the key strengths of being agile, is that devices like the iPad can adapt and be applied in many diverse ways. They have the potential to cover many areas of the curriculum in new and engaging ways for learners. We all know that attention, patience and focus have become scarce commodities in the digital age, so anything which can attract and maintain the learner’s attention is likely to be useful for teaching and learning purposes. The iPad does this in abundance and is small and light enough to fit in a small school bag or backpack.