Computers are getting smaller. The day of the desktop appliance wanes into the era of the laptop, the notebook, the tablet, and the handheld. Schools and students purchase many more laptops than desktops. Small devices like the iPod, iPhone, Palm, cellphone and Blackberry incorporate more and more of the capabilities of computers. And they are about to get even smaller.
Researchers at the I.B.M. lab in San Jose are perfecting new computer chips that can hold 100 times more data than the ones we use now. According to the New York Times,
That means the iPod that today can hold up to 200 hours of video could store every single TV program broadcast during a week on 120 channels....Not only would it allow every consumer to carry data equivalent to a college library on small portable devices, but a tenfold or hundredfold increase in memory would be disruptive enough to existing storage technologies that it would undoubtedly unleash the creativity of engineers who would develop totally new entertainment, communication and information products.
So it looks like we're in for even smaller, more powerful devices that allow us to hold all the information we need in our pants pocket. What does this mean for education? What possibilities for new forms of teaching and learning will it make possible? What can we do now to take advantage of the move toward miniaturization?
On my little iPhone, I can call up maps of just about any place in the world. They appear instantly in high-resolution. I can zoom in and out with my fingers. I can even see the traffic jams. (The maps connect to the Internet to gather real-time traffic conditions so that I can see the backups on route 128.)
Imagine maps that show the westward expansion of the U.S. during the 19th century, or the voting patterns in all of the national elections since 1790, or the growth of the Sahara over the last 50 years, or the shrinking of the Amazon rain forest during the same period. Available in your student's hand, 24 hours a day. Imagine the critical thinking lessons that you could assemble. Imagine the illustrated reports your students could compose.
My little iPod can download books, in oral format or in text. I can store hundreds of them at once. I can listen to them as a drive, or read them as I relax. I can follow links from one page to another, as cross-references. I can click on an unfamiliar (or foreign) word and hear it pronounced. The author may add background music or illustrations to enhance the page I am reading.
Imagine a collection of original source materials on this week's unit of study -- all the relevant items from your school's library for instance -- in each student's pocket. Imagine all your assignments, worksheets, lectures, and handouts available 24 hours a day, no matter where they are. All readable, listenable, downloadable, and printable. Imagine your students mining these veins of information to support their theses, and presenting their findings on the big screen, playing directly from their iPods.
All of this is possible now -- we need not wait for the IBM scientists to finish their work. The little devices in your students' pockets today are capable of the educational applications described above. How can a teacher take advantage of these possibilities?
Download. Go online and gather some downloadable academic content designed for the iPod. (Don't worry -- even if you don't have an iPod yet, you can watch and listen on your computer.) Start at the iTunes Store. Check out the Audiobooks section. Then browse the Podcasts. Download some examples from your subject area. Then go on up to iTunes U and see what your faculty colleagues at Duke, Stanford, and Yale are producing for their students.
Develop. Now that you see (and hear) what's possible, create some of your own material. Make a podcast introducing this week's assignment. Arrange the maps from last week's lecture into a slide show that can be played on an iPod. Collect some texts, images, and music on this week's unit of study and let your students download it to their iPods. Then assign a project that draws from these portable data. (To help with this work, read Audio Homework 1 in this series. And Audio Homework 2. Learn to create a video podcast, through a text article or an audio podcast.)
Demand. Let your textbook publisher know that you want to see the next edition appear in digital form, downloadable to whatever devices might appear in the marketplace. Ask your school to set up a podcasting server where all of this digital curriculum material can be organized and made accessible to students.The technology may be getting smaller, but the educational applications seem to be growing. Consider adapting your teaching to the possibilities of pocket-sized productions.