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February 2013
28 February 2013

How teachers are using technology at home and in their classrooms


A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project of teachers who instruct American middle and secondary school students finds that digital technologies have become central to their teaching and professionalization. At the same time, the internet, mobile phones, and social media have brought new challenges to teachers, and they report striking differences in access to the latest digital technologies between lower and higher income students and school districts.

The survey finds that digital tools are widely used in classrooms and assignments, and a majority of these teachers are satisfied with the support and resources they receive from their school in this area. However, it also indicates that teachers of the lowest income students face more challenges in bringing these tools to their classrooms:

Mobile technology has become central to the learning process, with 73% of Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers saying that they and/or their students use their cell phones in the classroom or to complete assignments

More than four in ten teachers report the use of e-readers (45%) and tablet computers (43%) in their classrooms or to complete assignments

Teachers of low income students, however, are much less likely than teachers of the highest income students to use tablet computers (37% v. 56%) or e-readers (41% v. 55%) in their classrooms and assignments

Similarly, just over half (52%) of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with 35% of teachers of the lowest income students.

> See also this FT blog post

28 February 2013

Future Imperfect: Evgeny Morozov vs. Steven Johnson


A couple of weeks ago Evgeny Morozov and Steven Johnson had a very public spat (writers’ favorite kind), prompted by Evgeny’s review of Johnson’s latest book in the New Republic.

The result was predictable: two geeky boys with big egos each hell bent on proving the other wrong. ThIn the end, the big winner was … the New Republic — and the authors’ respective book publishers. Nothing attracts a crowd like a public tussle, and a crowd is precisely what the publishing industry so desperately needs. Notably absent from their nitpicking and clawing, however, was a thoughtful discussion of ideas, specifically the ideas that each one presents in his latest respective book.

David Sasaki offer his own interpretation of what Evgeny and Steven have each contributed to our understanding about our relationship with the Internet.

28 February 2013

On legitimacy, place and the anthropology of the Internet


In this thoughtful piece for Ethnography Matters, Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) discusses the ways in which the internet has transformed the relationship between the writer and the people about whom he or she writes. Sarah has written extensively about open access to scholarly publications (‘one paper (she) uploaded to… helped Uzbek refugees find a safe haven abroad’, according to one interview). 

In this post, Sarah writes about a deeper question regarding the openness of the research process and the ways in which the internet has led to a leveling of the playing fields in a way that some anthropologists would rather ignore than confront. After all, when the “subaltern speaks” and anyone, not just anthropologists, can hear, who exactly is doing the exposing?

The article was adapted from a chapter of her dissertation which she had been encouraged to publish in an academic journal, but since she actually want people to read it, she published it online instead.

In the article, she asks why anthropologists ignore the internet as a field site and what challenges they may face if they continue to do so:

“Today anthropology is facing a crisis of place, representation, and legitimacy similar to what journalism experienced a decade ago. Like journalists at the turn of the millennium, anthropologists have dealt with the challenges posed by the internet by ignoring them, downplaying the importance of the medium, and discounting its impact on the lives of the people they study. Despite the importance of the internet to people all over the world, there are few ethnographic studies of internet use conducted by anthropologists, and the anthropologists who do conduct this kind of research are marginalized and dismissed.[…]

Anthropology of the internet forces the question of whether being seen as an anthropologist is more important than doing meaningful ethnography. It strips the discipline of its elite trappings, requiring no excessive funding or dramatic upending of one’s life. What it does require is for the researcher to rely on more than just a dateline. When you are not going anywhere, you have to make the journey matter.”

28 February 2013

Computer interfaces: tech’s next great frontier


Since the invention of personal computing three decades ago, how we interact with computers has remained about the same: monitor, keyboard, mouse. Monitors have gotten a bit bigger, keyboards are smaller, and mice are wireless, but today’s PCs at Best Buy would still be familiar to a computer user from 1984. That’s begun to change, and today there’s an explosion of innovation in interface design, driven by huge strides in processing power, memory, and bandwidth.

Some of these new technologies are intuitive, others are bizarre, but as computers find their way into everything from car dashboards to kitchen appliances, there’s greater need to control them more easily—and to make sense of their data without drowning in it.

Learn about the Tongueduino (!) and more

26 February 2013

How ‘Minority Report’ trapped us in a world of bad interfaces


“There are better ways to handle spatial ideas,” writes commercial artist Christian Brown, “ways which are more in line with the way our bodies are built. Human hands and fingers are good at feeling texture and detail, and good at gripping things—neither of which touch interfaces take advantage of. The real future of interfaces will take advantage of our natural abilities to tell the difference between textures, to use our hands to do things without looking at them—they’ll involve haptic feedback and interfaces that don’t even exist, so your phone shows you information you might want without you even needing to unlock and interact with it. But these ideas are elegant, understated, and impossible to understand when shown on camera.” […]

“Like porn, techno interfaces are more focused on what looks good than what feels good. And like porn, it’s pretty hard to get people to stop buying.”

26 February 2013

The future of lying


Someone told Intel’s futurist Brian David Johnson that technology could do away with all lying in the future. He was horrified by the idea and wrote this:

The Future of Lying – Can society survive if computers can tell fact from fib?

“There are really two kinds of untruths. First, you have the bad lies, the ones we tell to actively deceive people for personal gain. These are the lies that hurt people and can send you to jail. At the other end of the spectrum are the white lies, the little lies we tell to just be nice—“social lubricant,” as Tony puts it. “It’s like when you bump into someone and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ You’re really not sorry, but you say it so you can both just move on. These kinds of lies just keep our days moving forward. They keep the friction down between people so that we can get done what we need to do in a world full of people.” You know, the kind of fibs that keep us humans from killing one another.

Between deception and comfort lies a vast expanse of bullshit. Bullshit isn’t lying. Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt explains in his book On Bullshit that the bullshitter’s intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. It is to conceal his or her wishes. Bullshit can be the gray area between doing harm to someone (taking advantage) and making them feel better (white lies). It comes down to a question of intent. Are you bullshitting to be nice, or are you bullshitting to deceive and gain an advantage?

This Liars’ Landscape is helpful because it makes us examine how we could use technology to make people’s lives better while at the same time not making them less human.”

25 February 2013

The problem with our data obsession


To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs Book, 2013
432 pages

In the very near future, “smart” technologies and “big data” will allow us to make large-scale and sophisticated interventions in politics, culture, and everyday life. Technology will allow us to solve problems in highly original ways and create new incentives to get more people to do the right thing. But how will such “solutionism” affect our society, once deeply political, moral, and irresolvable dilemmas are recast as uncontroversial and easily manageable matters of technological efficiency? What if some such problems are simply vices in disguise? What if some friction in communication is productive and some hypocrisy in politics necessary? The temptation of the digital age is to fix everything—from crime to corruption to pollution to obesity—by digitally quantifying, tracking, or gamifying behavior. But when we change the motivations for our moral, ethical, and civic behavior we may also change the very nature of that behavior. Technology, Evgeny Morozov proposes, can be a force for improvement—but only if we keep solutionism in check and learn to appreciate the imperfections of liberal democracy. Some of those imperfections are not accidental but by design.
Arguing that we badly need a new, post-Internet way to debate the moral consequences of digital technologies, To Save Everything, Click Here warns against a world of seamless efficiency, where everyone is forced to wear Silicon Valley’s digital straitjacket.

Review by Brian Bergstein (MIT Technology Review)

“The quest to gather ever more information can make us value the wrong things and grow overconfident about what we know.”

“Evgeny Morozov worries that we are too often […] opting to publish more information to increase transparency even if it undermines principles such as privacy or civic involvement. […]

Transparency is ascending at the expense of other values, Morozov suggests, mainly because it is so cheap and easy to use the Internet to distribute data that might someday prove useful. And because we’re so often told that the Internet has liberated us from the controls that “gatekeepers” had on information, rethinking the availability of information seems retrograde—and the tendency toward openness gathers even more force.”

25 February 2013

Isobel Demangeat on the UX of augmented reality


A bit of an older talk, but still quite interesting:

Isobel Demangeat, UX researcher at Qualcomm Corporate R&D Cambridge (UK), spoke at MEX in December 2011 on the nuances of short-range mobile interactions through augmented reality. Her in-depth talk shares the results of ongoing studies at Qualcomm’s labs in Cambridge, UK, bringing a much needed user-centred design perspective to the hype around AR.

24 February 2013

Call for Papers for EPIC 2013 London


Since its inception, the EPIC conference has brought together a dynamic community of practitioners and scholars concerned with how ethnographic thinking and methods for understanding the contemporary social world are used to transform design, business and innovation contexts. Presenters and attendees come from innovation consultancies, design firms, universities and design schools, government and NGOs, research agencies and major corporations.

In 2013, EPIC comes to London for the first time. The dates are 15-18 September. The organizers are taking advantage of this opportunity by reaching out for contributions from a broad range of organizations and communities of practice in the hope of further enriching the EPIC ‘gene pool’ with those dedicated to illuminating social phenomena through ethnographic theory and practice. They are seeking engagement with social design firms, public policy developers, think tanks, the variety of marketing sciences, business schools, the service design sector, in fact anyone using ethnographic research to inform design, business, or innovation.

EPIC strives to serve as the premier site for deepening the contributions of ethnographic theory and practice in business and for maintaining a vibrant discussion about the significance of this work for industry and the world. In 2013, they break from the tradition of having a specific conference theme to refocus on how ethnographic ways of knowing the world are currently being used to transform it.

In 2013 they’re particularly interested in submissions of original research and material that address how ethnographic work is being thought about and practiced in the contemporary world. This may take the form of various theories made relevant and useful today, present discussions on technology such as Big Data, and the future of various public sectors which are in a state of transition.

In particular they seek submissions that illuminate:

  • how ethnographers are pushing the boundaries of theory from the social sciences and humanities (i.e., rituals, symbolic interpretation, gift-exchange, kinship, participation, access and agency, etc.), to interpret, understand and render contemporary practices and processes intelligible
  • the phenomenon of Big Data and the use of technology to support ethnographic data collection, organization and analysis
  • how ethnographic research and social science thinking inform sectors in transition, such as finance, education and energy

– Papers and PechaKucha: 9 March 2013
– Artifacts: 9 April 2013
– Doctoral and Masters Colloquium: 11 May 2013

23 February 2013

Designing empathy into an open Internet of Things


The mobile technology of tomorrow may be real-time, always on and algorithm driven in its characteristics, writes designer Jessi Baker, but there is a real opportunity to design, create and promote open, empathetic systems allowing the Internet and connectedness to not only empower us to act as a global society, but to embed this in our every action, forging more than communication, but empathetic, social connections, between us, our lives and actions and other people, societies and environments.

23 February 2013

Cultivating empathic design in an analytical world


There is an empathy gap in technology development, argues April Demosky on the FT’s Tech Blog.

“In the analytic, data-driven world of Silicon Valley, emotions often do not get factored into the latest product design.

This comes down to the way engineers and technicians think, says Anthony Jack, the director of the mind, brain, and consciousness lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. […]

That tension appears in the hallways of Google and Facebook, where technical thinkers reign. Understanding how people in Africa use a product, or how people who speak Dutch use it, often starts with looking at data. […]

At the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, Mr Jack urged technology leaders to do more to incorporate empathic-minded people into the production process, so that their tools were more relevant and useful to everyday folk.

“It’s still hard for a Google employee to really understand what it’s like for an average user to use a Google product,” Mr Jack said.”

Related article: Cerebral circuitry on on whether gadgets are changing how our brains work as regards empathy and human interaction:

“Online culture, and social networks in particular, are oriented toward outer lives, rather than inner lives, [says Jaron Lanier, a prominent Silicon Valley technologist]. It favours objective, quantitative thoughts over subjective, qualitative feelings.

Today’s dominant internet programs reflect the analytic minds of the engineers who built them and fail to capture the humanistic elements of everyday life, he says. As a result, technology is reducing the range of cognitive styles, similar to monocropping in agriculture, where the cultivation of one massive crop of wheat on the same land year after year reduces the diversity of soil nutrients and results in less resilient plants.”

22 February 2013

The curious cult of the connected thermostat


Nick Hunn, CTO at Onzo, a “smarter than normal” Smart Energy start-up, criticizes the service model of the Nest thermostat:

“A basic programmable thermostat in the US costs under $20, not the $250 price tag of the Nest. As such, Nest appeals to those who like buying technology and form rather than function – it’s no surprise that it sells as an accessory in Apple Stores in the US. It has all of the glamour and pizzazz of Apple products, but with a worrying limitation – it is just hardware – there’s no service model. In other words, it’s a bit like an iPhone without an App Store.” […]

“[Also] this new generation of connected wireless thermostats has an Achilles’ heel – they need someone to support the web service for their life, which may be ten to twenty years, and I can’t see where that’s been factored in.” […]

“This is an issue with every new connected device that comes to market – who will keep the servers running? It’s not so much of a problem for fast moving consumer products, which will get replaced regularly. But it is very big problem for home infrastructure products like smart thermostats.”

22 February 2013

Lean and user experience, again


When anthropologist Natalie Hanson was asked last year to contribute to a new book called The Handbook of Business Anthropology, edited by Rita Denny and Patty Sunderland (who also wrote Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, 2007) wrote a chapter about Lean and User Experience, because she feels that this is a critical trend for user experience professionals to understand.

As a sneak preview to the chapter, she shares (an earlier incarnation of) the methods part of the chapter.

Natalie Hanson is a trained anthropologist (with PhD from Temple University) working in the business world. Currently she is the Associate Principal for User Experience at ZS Associates. In her previous role at SAP, she served as a global Senior Director of Strategic Programs and User Experience in the Operations Board area. She founded the acclaimed anthrodesign listserv in 2002. Now in 2013, the list has nearly 3000 members (including social scientists, designers, and many others) who engage in dialogue both online and in person at local gatherings.

22 February 2013

How will big data change design research?


Will design researchers (and our models and explanations) be replaced by data tables and “experience actuaries” that tell us what to build, for whom, and what it should be like? Artefact’s Dave Mc Colgin doesn’t think so.

“In our field of designing products and experiences, the ‘why’ stays at the center of our process and creativity. Many designers work mostly on new products and services for which there may not yet be reliable data available. To do this work, we need to understand whether insights from the past are applicable to new people and contexts. While Big Data can inform designers on how to improve once they put something out there, it is design research that provides principled guidance towards good solutions all along the way. Big Data can’t help us do that right now.

However, Big Data can augment design in other ways. It provides us with new resources when determining which people our products should be made for. Its ability to find patterns and correlations allows us to reach a broader set of research participants. Over time, it can deepen our understanding of human behavior, interaction and preferences, making our designs better and our ability to understand and predict the outcome of our work more accurate.”

20 February 2013

Experientia partner joins Interaction14 organizing team


Interaction, the annual interaction design conference organized by IxDA (the global Interaction Design Association), will head to Amsterdam in in February 2014.

Conference chair Alok Nandi asked Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken to be the Interaction14 Lead of Marketing and Communications (Marcomm Lead). Mark (and Experientia) are extremely honored by this request.

Interaction14 will be the second IxDA conference to be held in Europe, following from the successful staging of Interaction12 in Dublin.

IxDA currently has 78,754 members, and about 1000 of them attended Interaction13, which took place a few weeks ago in Toronto.

The Amsterdam conference will offer four days of presentations and workshops from 5-8 February 2014.

Although very much at the beginning of his (volunteer) mandate, Mark – who is not a designer himself – is pushing for the event to aim beyond its confines and reach out to the city and the local design fabric, which seems to be very dynamic, to the global UX and IxDA community (irrespective of whether they can make it to Amsterdam or not), but also to many others who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves designers, but can still be intruiged by the issues many interaction designers face. An event during the Milan Furniture Fair is also in the works.

The planning committee is currently in a very open phase and good ideas are highly welcome. Interaction14 is also looking for sponsors (so pass the word).

19 February 2013

Teenage usability: designing teen-targeted websites


Recently published Nielsen/Norman Group research shows that teens are (over)confident in their web abilities, but they perform worse than adults. Lower reading levels, impatience, and undeveloped research skills reduce teens’ task success and require simple, relatable sites.

16 February 2013

Tablet use in California and Ontario high schools – Field observations by Experientia collaborator


Francesca Salvadori (Italian blog) is an Italian high school teacher who runs a 1:1 iPad pilot program in her school, and collaborates with Experientia on the topic of digital publishing. A few weeks ago she visited five schools in California and Ontario. Putting People First provides an English translation of the first part of her Italian report:

How far along is the introduction of new technologies in American schools? How are tablets used in the classrooms of Silicon Valley and how easy was it for teachers to adapt to the use of these tools in their daily activities? Do tablets actually help students to learn better, or learn more?

A trip to California and Ontario became an opportunity to come to an initial understanding of how technology is being used in schools on the other side of the Atlantic.

The scope of the research

I did what was possible during a single trip and visited five schools in seven days (two of which I was down with the flu!). Notwithstanding the limited number of schools visited, the technical and educational findings are quite clear, and at least partly, generalizable beyond the schools observed.

The five schools are of course not representative of the “average” American school: they are private institutions located in an area where the use of technologies is probably more advanced than anywhere else. Moreover, the selection was not systematic: knowing that I was going to visit the Bay Area, I approached institutions that had published some information online on their 1:1 iPad programs, so it is entirely possible that there are other deployments in the area that I am not aware of and that may have implemented different ways of working.

However, the analogies between the current practices at the five schools were striking. There is clearly an emerging trend that is driven by a careful methodological preparation and a precise assessment of the objectives these schools set out to reach.

With such a clear trend, I think it will not take much for these practices to spread like wildfire.

Tablet use in Bay Area schools

The Saint Ignatius Preparatory High School of San Francisco was the first school I visited, thanks to the great support I received from its Educational Technologist, Eric Castro.

It is a private Jesuit school with 1,300 students and a 1:1 iPad program that started in 2009. It is in fact one of the largest iPad deployments in the Bay Area.

Eric is a real expert, with deep technological knowledge but also with a healthy critical approach that comes from his background in social sciences. Those interested in technologies in education should definitely explore his Restless Pedagogue blog.

I asked Eric how widespread tablet use is in Bay Area schools at the moment. The answer (confirmed the next day by Albert Boyle, Director of Technology of the San Francisco University High School) is that only 12 schools have 1:1 iPad deployments at the moment. They are all private, with yearly tuitions between 17,000 and 35,000 USD.

The State of California is financially nearly bankrupt and has great difficulties to guarantee the regular functioning of its public schools. I was told that it is therefore impossible for them to finance tablet based learning programs. Less populated States such as Maine are in a different situation.

But is money really the decisive factor? I thought of some of the tablet programs in Italian schools such as the Lussano Lyceum of Bergamo or the Majorana school in Brindisi, which are also public schools without huge funding. Yet they found a way to embark on tablet initiatives which are now systemic and involve nearly their entire student bodies.

How to manage the digital transition? The role of teacher training and Educational Technologists

One of the key goals of my trip was to understand the ways in which the transition to tablet based learning practices is actually managed. What training do the teachers get once the leadership of the school has decided to introduce iPads?

There are analogies with what is happening in Italy, but also deep differences.

All the people I spoke with told me that teachers obtained their iPads some considerable time before they were introduced in the classrooms, and could decide freely if and how they wanted to use them in their classes. There was no pressure how quickly they have to be introduced or on the way they ought to be used. In short, the approach was one of a gentle ‘invite’ to change.

Vince Delisi, Director of Technology and Innovation at the Holy Trinity School of Richmond Hill, Ontario, told me a story about one school that he knew where teachers who didn’t want to make the technological leap, were offered a golden handshake, with the suggestion that they might have to find themselves a new professional challenge in life. But this was clearly the exception to the rule.

All the schools I visited preferred a “soft” transition, taking into account the fundamental impact of this change and the importance of adapting the didactic practices of the school to the capabilities and styles of each of their teachers.

I didn’t find any evidence of substantial training support from the State or Federal Government. To be honest, Based on what I heard about the inclusive political initiatives spearheaded by Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education of the Obama administration, I was actually expecting a more widespread diffusion of technologies in California, also in its public schools – and the absence of such might also be the reason for the lack of widespread training support. Thus, the deep divides that characterize the American school system, exemplified by the profound hiatus between public and private schools, create a situation where those who are more informed and have more financial resources can de facto act in full autonomy.

This does not mean that teachers had no training.

All the schools that I visited, from Saint Ignatius with its 1,300 students to the Drew School which has “only” 350, have staff members whose role it is to support and help the teachers in this transition. A much more structural and long-term approach therefore, than the brief training sessions that textbook publishers tend to organize in schools when they want to sell their multimedia products (as is often the case in Italy), or than the afternoon sessions that schools organize for their teachers just to be able to say that they too train their teachers.

The support staff I met are real specialists in technology applied to education. They work full time in their schools and have a double role: they support teachers in achieving their educational objectives with these new digital tools, while also keeping them continuously informed on whatever becomes available in this rapidly developing market. The training is both serious and long lasting. It is lifelong learning in the field, based on research and constant updates, which allows teachers to make a smarter use of the technologies available to them.

Hail Mary! The difference is all in the mindset

But how did teachers react when they were asked by the management of their schools to change their ways of working and to question their established teaching practices?

All educational technologists – Eric, Albert, Tom, Kate and Vince – told me that in the end all teachers have shown interest, goodwill, and often enthusiasm to the idea of using tablets as part of their teaching. Yes, there were the occasional refusal, but in absolute numbers these were isolated cases.

Moreover, this openness to change is not affected by one’s age or the number of years one has been teaching: the best example was Mary McCarty, a powerhouse under a helmet of white hair, who has enthusiastically embraced the tablet in her late career.

With great ease she moves through the classroom with her iPad, demonstrating me the use of, an innovative site that integrates key Latin texts with an interlinear word list, that students are constantly referring to in their translation exercises.

Mary is the evidence in person of people’s capacity to adapt. She demonstrates that the desire to be effective in a transforming world is not based on age. It is not true, I think, that the young are more able and quick to adapt to the new and to welcome the challenges that technologies have to offer. It is, I think, all based on one’s mindset and adaptability. All that’s needed is a desire to continue learning, and the willingness to make mistakes and to take on the challenge to find new ways to communicate with students. A pragmatic and non ideological approach is also essential – which might be a challenge for Italian schools where teachers often have strong ideologically biased views on new technologies.

Understanding the difficulties

But what about the varied and sometimes unpredictable reactions of teachers? The most interesting insight on this came from Kate Miller, Instructional Technology Specialist at the Menlo School (Atherton, CA).

Menlo is the school of the 1%. Kate does the same work as Eric [Castro], but in an even more privileged environment.

We are at a stone’s throw from Palo Alto and Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Menlo’s dream campus with its impressive and luminous spaces, its very advanced technologies (all devices are last generation Apple), and its highly professional teachers and staff bring it close to our – somewhat unreal – image of the “perfect school”.

Kate told me that she taught in environments that are far less exclusive. Probably because of that she has an empathy for those who are not so enamored by technology, and might even nurture resistance towards it or at least a profound detachment.

Despite her role as a technology “specialist,” Kate understands those who do not want to spend hours playing games on their iPads or try out the latest apps, but prefer to do something else (like reading a printed book). The challenge for those who support the digital transition, she thinks, is to understand the difficulties of those who are not so digitally adapt and have different mental models than those who design these devices and apps.

Teachers may never become real “technology experts,” but it is crucial that someone competent and sensitive is there to help them, someone who understands what is needed to make their professionalism more powerful. From that point of view, an intelligent psychological approach, such as Kate’s, is not the only determining factor. Equally important are solid technical expertise and the willingness to quickly find solutions to the practical problems that technology often creates for teachers.

Eric Spross, Director of Technology at the Menlo School, is gifted with this important combination, and gladly makes his insights available to those less technologically savvy, like myself. Even though I am not even working at his school, Eric gladly showed me which tools to use to replace Apple TV when the class uses different operating systems. In the end, I was able to return to Italy with a clear idea of what to do and what to buy. If I had to find and evaluate all the relevant technical info by myself, I would have spent much more time and energy.

After all, the rules of the game are that the technology has to be made available to us, and not the other way around…

How the use of tablets is changing teaching and learning

One of my main interests was to understand how teaching itself is changing with the use of the tablet. I had developed my own thoughts, based on my personal experiences using tablets in my classroom. Observing the work of colleagues who are working in a school and educational context that is so different from our own, brought the question even more to the fore.

Using a tablet in the classroom means first of all saying goodbye to frontal teaching, while providing space and guidance to students’ independent research, writing or other creative activities. In this new world, the classroom changes from a conference room to a practice room, which implies that pedagogical practices need to be inverted. The students I saw working away in their classrooms, had absorbed the lecture contents at home – through readings, videos, etc. – which at school were then elaborated upon by the teacher. The teachers’ role of the latter has changed fundamentally: they are mainly providing stimulation and guidance to the research and exercises of the students (the so-called “inverted classroom”).

But if students become researchers, the main teaching objective is to bring them to ask the right questions and to stimulate their critical thought. The classes that I was sitting in on struck me foremost because of their dialectic approach: the focus was never on the facts – interesting to notice how that transforms History teaching – but on the underlying questions. Students are asked to reflect upon these, but also to argue their proper point of view. This dialectic approach is of course not really new in the Anglo-Saxon educational context, but the use of technologies pushes it even more: the real issue is no longer finding the facts but selecting, understanding and interpreting them.

The end of the digital whiteboard

I didn’t see any interactive whiteboards. Anywhere. I asked why and the answer was always the same: “not useful and way too expensive.”

All classrooms are equipped with a projector that is connected wirelessly to the tablet of the teachers or the students – depending on the type of work – by means of a video streamer (e.g. an Apple TV) that projects its screen image onto a scroll-down screen, a whiteboard or a white wall.

No maintenance, no burnt-out bulbs, no walls that cannot be used for anything else. If you use tablets, you have no longer any need for interactive whiteboards. No need to throw them away, but we need to find ways to make them work with the new touch devices (a solution could lie in connecting them directly with a video streaming device, which seems to be possible, or through an Airplay mirroring app such as Reflector). And we should stop buying new ones.

The contents: an open challenge for schoolbook publishers

From Eric Castro to Shane Carter (History Teacher at the Drew School) to Stefanie Portman (History Instructor at the Menlo School) to Ohad Paran (English Teacher at the Menlo School): all have declared war on textbooks.

While it is certainly true that textbooks never had the central role in the American educational system that they have in our own, it is also true that I heard a unanimous choir of complaints on how publishing houses are reacting to the challenge of digitalization.

Teachers and school administrators underlined the inadequate offering of the publishing houses and their nearly hysterical obsession with the copyright of their products – which has made it nearly impossible in the USA to commercialize digital textbooks, without substantial limitations in their use. What’s more, they also point out that publishers simply do not understand the “open” nature of the web.

My observations herald a future that looks quite worrisome for publishers: teachers of various stripes and with various backgrounds, who only share the use of the tablet in their classrooms, have jointly decided to no longer use textbooks in their teaching practice. Instead they have opted for materials that they themselves have selected, assembled and shared, taking advantage of the immense archive of the web, including Open Educational Resources (OER) and whatever else can be useful in classroom activities.

The unsurmountable problem of textbooks lies in their lack of adaptability to a teaching practice that has become increasingly creative and personalized, thanks to digital tools. Hybrid solutions, which seek to salvage the old by packaging it as something new, have therefore little potential of success.

So should we sing the funeral mass for the publishing houses? I don’t think so. The “big three” in the USA – Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw Hill – are preparing for the future by buying up or partnering with start-ups that are able to create contents of a new generation, and by building platforms that combine highly modularized copyrighted contents with OER materials.

The various directions will show their strengths and weaknesses very soon. The only certainty now is that the current wait-and-see approach of the publishing housesand the underlying unwillingness to deeply reconsider the role of their services and offerings, will only bring about a situation where teachers create their own books even more rapidly, exactly like they want them.

But does tablet use improve student performance?

No. Or at least, we don’t know yet.

Some iPad programs, like those at the Menlo School or the San Francisco University High School, are very new (initiated only this year), while others, e.g. those at Saint Ignatius or at the Holy Trinity School, are now in their second or third year.

Everyone told me that tablets are but a tool that no one should expect miracles of. Paul Molinelli (Director of Professional Development at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory School) said that the primary goal for the staff of Saint Ignatius, is not to raise the academic scores but to make the classes more “engaging”, closer to the language and the communication style of the students. With great honesty, Paul mentioned that the digital transition may even have created some setbacks: e.g. one class did less well than normal because students needed time to adapt to the new educational requirements and to the evaluation methods which had partly changed.

Also Vince Delisi insisted on the need for a bit of patience in evaluating the results. He underlined that it is still too early to evaluate the academic performance of tablets. We move ahead and wait, he said, because the praxis needs to be perfected and consolidated before we can see tangible results: the most encouraging fact at the moment is the enthusiasm of the students and their families.

The resources of the private school

We discussed earlier how the role of the Educational Technologists is fundamental. Their involvement is not something that came about by coincidence; there is a deeply rooted awareness in these schools of the digital revolution currently taking place, and of the importance to seriously commit to strong support to all protagonists in the educational process in this phase of digital transition. These schools understand that such a radical paradigm shift cannot be left to chance, but requires the involvement and the support of experts who know what they are talking about.

Of course, the extraordinary organization and the amount of resources that a private school system can avail itself of, cannot but impress an Italian teacher. Perhaps we need to reflect on the consequences of our (Italian) obsession with equality, that has created an educational system that will never have schools like Saint Ignatius and Menlo.

Notwithstanding the empty pre-election statements here in Italy or the feel-good declarations to make our public servants happy, we have to admit that no one really invests in our schools. Not the state. Not the private sector. The result is an old and somewhat marginal educational system, with occasional points of excellence, that are often due to the heroic efforts of individual teachers or headmasters.

Let’s push for leaders who are seriously committed to investing in our future.

I want to thank all those who have welcomed me through their writing, or by providing me with guidance, picking me up at train or metro stations, guiding me around, or being available for conversations or interviews during this very interesting journey. In particular I want to thank Eric Castro, Paul Molinelli, Tom Wadbrooke, Juna McDaid, Shane Carter, Kate Garret, Albert Boyle, Kate Miller, Eric Spross, Ohad Paran, Stefanie Portman, Vince Delisi, and John Edgecombe for their extraordinary availability.

14 February 2013

First outputs from Intel research centre on sustainable connected cities


The Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities – a cooperation between University College London (UCL), Imperial College London and Intel – was launched in May 2012, which a focus on how to enable future cities to be more connected and sustainable. Their activities entail investigating, developing and deploying adaptive technologies that can optimize resource efficiency, and enable new services that support and enhance the quality of life of urban inhabitants and city visitors. Their approach is interdisciplinary, combining methodologies from computer science, the social sciences, interaction design and architecture to improve how cities are managed and maintained in order to ensure and enhance citizen well-being.

The Institute is directed by Duncan Wilson of Intel, assisted by Charlie Sheridan. Other people involved include David Prendergast (Intel senior researcher and anthropologist), Yvonne Rogers (UCL Professor of Interaction Design and Director of the UCL Interaction Centre), Licia Capra (UCL Reader in Pervasive computing), and Johannes Schöning (professor of computer science with a focus on HCI at Hasselt University, Belgium).

According to an initial overview article, the focus of the Institute is to be human-centred:

“Our perspective in the Sustainable Connected Cities Institute is to be human- centred. We have wide-ranging expertise and background in user experience, interaction design, ethnography, together with research in the built environment, commerce, engineering, anthropology, the arts, and social psychology. We also work as inter-disciplinary teams that can make a real change to enrich and extend city dwellers lives.” […]

We will develop and exploit pervasive and sensing technologies, analytics and new interfaces, putting humans at the centre of technological developments. Our approach is to address four main themes:

  • City Experience: How do we enhance the City Experience and communicate services?
  • City as a Platform: How do we create the digital platform of the city from sensor/edge to cloud?
  • Sustaining Sustainability: How to sustain behavioural change?
  • Connecting the Invisible City: How do we visualize the Human-Environment Interface?”

Meanwhile the Institute has published its first research papers and articles:

Toward a real-time city health monitor
A common metaphor to describe the movement of people within a city is that of blood flowing through the veins of a living organism. We often speak of the ‘pulse of the city’ when referring to flow patterns we observe. Here we extend this metaphor by hypothesising that by monitoring the flow of people through a city we can assess the city’s health, as a nurse takes a patient’s heart-rate and blood pressure during a routine health check. Using an automated fare collection dataset of journeys made on the London rail system, we build a classification model that identifies areas of high deprivation as measured by the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, and achieve a precision, sensitivity and specificity of0.805, 0.733 and 0.810, respectively. We conclude with a discussion of the potential benefits this work provides to city planning, policymaking, and citizen engagement initiatives.

Smart Citizens in the Data Metropolis
Article with some insights on the discussions around smart citizens and community engagement. It was original published in the website of the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona.

Reflecting on the Institute, Mandeep Hothi, programme leader at the Young Foundation, writes:

“Much of the institute’s outputs will be relevant to local government. For example, a recent study shows a link between measures of multiple deprivation and patterns of passenger flow on public transport in London.Researchers propose that this data could become an early warning system for identifying areas of high deprivation, helping local government to better target its resources.

Data sensors such as Oyster card readers are becoming ubiquitous and the availability of real-time data is going to vastly increase.

It is important that the applications that emerge are co-created with local citizens, using ethnography and design as the starting point. Not only will this maximise usefulness, it should ensure technologists and officials respect issues such as personal privacy and autonomy.”

13 February 2013

Report: Divided Brain, Divided World


Divided Brain, Divided World; Why the best part of us struggles to be heard is an RSA report that explores the practical significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’.

It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain.

The evidence-based case is that the abstract, articulate, instrumentalising world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, holistic but relatively tentative world view of the right hemisphere.

Divided Brain, Divided World examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. It features a dialogue between McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics. This workshop led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.

13 February 2013

From GoPros to vanity camera drones


Nicolas Nova went skiing and saw a lot of GoPro cameras on people’s heads. He got intrigued, and wrote an Ethnography Matters column where he questions informal urban bricolage, weird cameras, curious gestures and wonders about their cultural implications.

“Head-mounted cameras, necklace cams, vanity drones… all these artefacts highlight how digital photography evolved and how their design encapsulates assumptions about their use. One can see a trend towards the automation of data collection, which correspond to common practices on the Web and social media. To put it differently, these devices reveal the intricate relationships between their design and our information ecosystem.”