15 November 2012

On finding one's own way

I've finally bought a tablet. It's not an Apple product; I admire their design, of course, but as a colleague remarked the other day, "I refuse to be dictated to about what I can and cannot buy to run on the machine." My first netbooks ran Linux--the ideological antithesis to the Jobs model (despite being the infrastructure of the MacOS)--and they were brilliant. Up to a point.

But the iPad famously comes without a manual--an act of typically Jobsian chutzpah--and it appears that its emulators feel obliged to demonstrate their intuitiveness in an equally minimal way. Indeed this story suggests that a machine might be the ultimate stimulus for discovery learning. (Caveat; it does originate from here--not that that is necessarily an issue.)

I'm less interested in the arguments and the one-upmanship (Stephen Potter, of course) than in the experience of learning by experience forced upon one by the lack of guidance.

But I did not have the advantage of ignorance. I came to the tablet with preconceptions about how it should work. For years, my PC use has been based on folders and files; files are tied to default applications (with some exceptions), so if I want to edit something, I find it in a file manager and click on it--it finds its default application--and there it is. Very rarely do I go the application first. Even when I want to create something from scratch, I am usually already using the application, so I just find whatever passes for File -> New File nowadays.

The File Manager on Android is so clunky as to be almost useless. That's OK; in this model of user interaction, it is "back office" stuff. It's routine business the user should not have to bother his pretty little head about.

It's all about Apps. I've carefully referred to "applications" so far for earlier interfaces, where they have been [more clearly] servants. They have now been promoted to maitre d' or gatekeeper status. "There's an app for that!" is the new mantra.

They have become easier to use, at the expense of flexibility. I have spent hours--yes, hours*--trying to work out how to do things I no longer need to be able to do. Or at least, someone has decided I no longer need to do them...
  • the proper url of a webpage appears fleetingly, and there is no way to copy it...
  • because the keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl+C etc.) don't work (I've searched for an app. to reinstate them--there isn't one. Come on, someone!) [Shift + > or < does highlight, but Ctrl+ anything just leaves the page, it appears. Granted, formatting can be done by poking a finger at the toolbar, but even Windows of umpteen earlier editions ago allowed several routes to the same result...]
  • there is no right-click menu.
(Note: I started writing this on the tablet--it's an Asus Transformer, with dedicated keyboard--but had to revert to the netbook, in order to manage some basic formatting. Like italicising this.)

OK--that's the grumpy stuff. What's the point?
  • I'm groping about in the dark. This is ultimate problem-based learning. But I don't even know what I need to know
    • So I pass through various procedures without noticing them because I don't know that they are important stepping stones to doing something I want to do. It's only when I realise, "I've been here before!" that I can start to chain them together.
    • They worked. Not necessarily very well, but they did work. And I remember them. So that's what I'll do again... (Yes, behavioral** theory can account for that.) It's a dead end***.
    • So how will I back-track to find an even better way?
  • I've complained principally on the basis that things don't work as I am used to. But what I am used to says more about me than about the quality of the UX (user experience).
  • The tablet interface is designed to facilitate consumption. Music, movies, news... and  elaboration (social networking) and conversation (ditto) or even modification (wikis) but not origination. I'd wager that few blogs are by default written on tablets, and even fewer stand-alone sites.
  • And that is what happens with learning purely from the bottom up... I'm really intrigued about Negroponte's experiment (referred to above) because if his subjects did indeed hack into the tablets and change the rules of the game by activating the cameras, they went beyond that stage. Without teachers. 
Next week I start teaching a unit on "curriculum"... I think I'll use this as a starting point. And of course Allen Tough's work. Except these are not on the curriculum...

* I would say "literally, hours", had "literally" not become devalued in current usage into its opposite--"apparently" or "virtually". Hey-ho--my baggage is showing again...

** I know there is a missing "u" there, but site statistics are potent reinforcers! 

*** Getting to "just about works"--survival level--and then getting stuck there, is a real problem. For many years--16 at the last count--I have obsessionally edited, written and up-dated a course handbook. I have used at least 70% of Word's capabilities (and some of its incapabilities), from elementary styles to labour-saving cross-references and table formats to definitive tables of contents and glossaries. All automatic. All automatically up-dating with every revision. See page x was always the correct x. It appears no-one else in the institution knows about these brilliant features--if I let anyone else touch the file it will come back broken... This year I had to pass it on. Disaster.

And strangely enough that disaster is the product of colleagues' learning from experience. That tends to be self-limiting. It needs not so much a teacher, as someone who can hold out a vision of something even better, to transcend the immediate answer and push on to the next level. (I'm amazed that I can draw such meta-lessons from Word, but so it goes.)

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