Locked Doors to Openness

Something I have been struggling with lately is the continuum of open to closed in lots of contexts. So much of the conversation in the tech blogosphere is all about Apple and the App Store/iPad/iPod/iPhone lock in. It is a conversation that if taken on its own I am completely disinterested in. I bought in years ago and that is that. The App eco-system and the perceived heavy hand of Apple in the approval process does not interest me in the least. It is, however, in this conversation that I am trying to pay more attention to where I am in my own career and thinking.

I read a great post that John Gruber pointed to yesterday by Neven Mrgan titled, “The Walled Garden.” Again this post dealt with the App Store, but I think it has some serious implications for thought about the field of education technology and the way we are working within our institutions to radically open up education. It sort of caught me off guard how aligned some of my thinking is around this topic … and in many ways I find myself standing on the other side of a divide I thought I’d crossed.

Aren’t the benefits of a closed, carefully managed garden clearly visible? The experience is controlled, so it tells a story – one which may not emerge from a democratic, anything-goes process (or do you think this sort of slow and deliberate story would emerge in a busy American city in the year 2010?) Charging for admission means that the place can be maintained, improved, and marketed. There are downsides to this, of course — maybe the management makes boneheaded decisions now and then. Maybe you think that vine maple would look better a little to the left — maybe you’re even right.

via mrgan.tumblr.com

Even in my teaching I struggle with open versus closed and I am growing tired of the “versus” in that conversation. Some things are better closed and managed by the few — not all parts of my open class are democratic and I wouldn’t apologize for that, but for some reason I feel like I need to say I am sorry in other contexts for not being totally open. I know there are times my students feel they know better than I … and many times I know they are right.

In my work, I am being pushed at my institution to take a broader view of the landscape and that is forcing me to see perspectives that I am afraid are not widely held ideals of many of my peers (many of whom I count as mentors and friends) from across higher education. I spent the better part of the last 10 years pressing on the idea that “open wins, period” and lately I am finding that there are times when closed is as much a winner.

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via Shirley Buxton

I try to manage my own organization as openly as possible, but things are shifting under my feet. I recently did something I never thought I would do — I created a private blog space that only my staff can get to. Just the thought of that makes me cringe, but that is exactly what I did. I was finding that I was unable to share things that were in process openly as it was constantly being picked up and shared as gospel. As much as I enjoy seeing our work get recognized by the likes of our own Daily Collegian, Onward State, and the Chronicle of Higher Education the overhead of managing the fallout from it has worn on me. It isn’t a coincidence that I have stopped writing as much about my work openly … my work has changed and so has emerged a greater need to keep it guarded. So a private blog was born so I could once again be open with my own staff — it sounds crazy … I needed a closed space so I could be open. There is that gradient thing again.

I am chairing a committee charged with investigating the pedagogical affordances of various course management systems and that as well has me questioning some of my beliefs about it all. I have been a very loud opponent of the CMS in the past and I still don’t use our University-wide CMS in my own teaching, but through the work I am doing with a very smart group from across our Institution I am seeing it all in a new light. Why am I so damn embarrassed to admit that I do believe the CMS is an important part of what we do? I think these tools should be in place and more and more I see them as the access point to all of the innovative stuff we do outside the CMS — why not turn the place that nearly everyone uses into a portal into the Blogs at Penn State, our iTunes U dashboards, and perhaps even google services in the future? If my goal is to drive adoption of these types of (open) platforms I have needed to get beyond the “CMS is evil” stance and embrace it. Again, I need to pass through a closed space to arrive at opportunities for openness.

All of this is is interesting to me and I wonder what it means to where my work fits into the larger landscape of higher education. I have built much of the success of my organizations on being open, honest, and transparent. I want to continue to live in that space, but more and more I see value in some layers of control. I know we will continue to innovate and I know we’ll continue to share, but as the ideas of openness continue to spread I am seeing how closed is truly a part of the conversation. At the end of the day I do recognize the need for doors into wide open spaces — even in that realization I see the ridiculous contradictions. If the doors are locked, how does everyone get in? Maybe the open space on the other side isn’t locked? Not all fences enclose a whole area … what if the door is just the easy way for many of us to walk in and share out? I don’t know.

Vanishing Words

Agatha Christie’s cleverly plotted detective stories made her the 20th century’s best-selling fiction author—she sold billions of books throughout a career that spanned the 1920s to the 1970s. But her intricate novels may reveal more about the inner workings of the human mind than she intended.

via blogs.wnyc.org

This is really a must listen for so many reasons. It really makes me wonder what the importance of writing really holds for us as life long learners and participants in our own ongoing story as people.

I feel lucky to have jumped on the idea of keeping a blog active for the last 6 years or so as a place to reflect and record moments. I have at my fingertips the potential to look into my past and see my own thinking evolve. I truly wonder what my writing has to say about me at this moment and if there are things in it that can predict my future?

ETS Talk is Back!

For the second week in a row we have produced an ETS Talk. After several weeks of talking about it we decided it was time to get back on the podcasting bus … that and the fact that we are close to crossing over the 50,000 downloads to ETS Talk from our iTunes U space sort of motivated us.

Last week we had my 13 year old niece in the studio asking about teen use of technology … it really blew our minds listening to her. A good show. So good in fact that it pushed us to go back into the studio (my office) and deliver ETS Talk 57 this week. We spent lots of time talking about all sorts of things, but one thing we really focused on was how to think about measuring new IT services for success. It seems like with the kinds of things we are doing, simply counting people isn’t enough. More and more we struggle to rethink what it means to illustrate success. At any rate, you can go to our iTunes U space and give number 57 a listen. I’d love to hear any thoughts.

Game Platform or Platform for Games

I am not a huge gamer … I play a bit of Wii and have been known to kick some ass in Desktop Tower Defense, but beyond that I have not been able to catch the console game addiction. At the end of the day the controls have always limited my ability to really get into them — too many buttons and too much cinematic flourishes to really engage me. Back in the day I could play a mean Ninetendo, but that was when the controls were super simple and the games were about the game play and not the cinematic elements.

With all that said, last year I borrowed a PS3 and Little Big Planet based on the recommendations of friends and colleagues Bart Pursel and Allan Gyorke. It was an instant hit with my daughter and I. We nearly completed all the levels — eventually getting to a spot that I could not beat and gave up. We did pour lots of hours into it and learned to love the user generated levels as much as the ones that ship with the game. It felt like we were hanging out exploring YouTube, but interacting with peoples’ creations. It was as engaging as it gets. I wonder how the idea of game publishing will move into the mainstream as the tools to build games and levels become increasingly easy. I am wondering if we’ll see mashups emerge in the game space that become viral hits like so often happens in the digital video universe of YouTube?

This morning, Bart sent me a link to the LBP2 trailer and it got me excited about these questions and I started thinking about how I was going to save up for it and a PS3 to explore some of them … the kids will love it ;-)

A Month with an iPad

Since April 6 I have attempted to live almost entirely on an iPad as my only mobile computer — I still carry my iPhone with me everywhere and did use it to do routine things like mobile email, updating Twitter, and the like. During that time I have learned quite a bit about the device and how I interact with my computing platforms. I’ll try to sum up most of what I learned although I am still coming to grips with some of my experiences. Here’s the thing, the iPad is a little difficult to sum up — it isn’t a laptop and it certainly isn’t an iPhone. It lives somewhere along the path of computing, but fits much more into the lifestyle support category than strictly in the computing space. It is both really easy and radically complex — easy in that it is simple as hell to use and complex in that where it fails it makes things so much harder. Let me try to address a little of both.

Work

Overall if I am honest, I can do about 85% of my work from the iPad itself. If I describe my work life it gets added up like this — I do email, I go to a lot of meetings, I browse the web for information, I create information on the web, I read a ton, I design and give a lot of talks, and I create and edit a ton of documents. That pretty much makes up what I do aside from talking to people and doing day-to-day management.

It is without a doubt the best email experience I have ever dealt with. The way the built in iPad Mail app works is amazing. I deal with a ton of email and the ability to quickly filter things is a stunning UI breakthrough. Using my fingers to get rid of stuff is so much faster than using a mouse to check little boxes — speed counts when dealing with something as mind numbing as email. The faster I can get into my inbox, make sense of things, and get out the better.

The iPad is superior at meetings for several reasons … I’ve already written about how much it stays out of the way of interacting with others and after a full month I still feel that way. It is a natural in meetings unless you are taking a lot of notes and then I find it falls down a bit. I have learned to type on it very fast so it has gotten better, but the lack of google doc editing is killer. As a matter of fact this is the reason why I can’t really do all areas of my job on it — I am just too embedded in the google docs World. I have had a harder time dealing with that than when I switched away from Office for a year. Until I have a good way to edit those documents it is destined to not be a primary machine.

Consuming anything on it has been a pleasure. Browsing the web, watching TV shows and movies, and reading are all first class activities. As a matter of fact I much prefer it to my laptop for reading online. Navigating makes more sense and I can still pinch and zoom pages to get a closer look. I miss not being able to do that with my laptop. Creating text content for the web is easy and natural as well. Where things fall down is when you need to multi task — grabbing a Flickr picture to put into a blog post is a complex task that requires a good deal of thought. I can do things like that, but I have had to relearn the steps and have had to understand how the machine multi-tasks from within apps instead of switching from window to window. It isn’t bad because I think there are some things that just work better this way. The other thing I’ll mention here is that not being able to bounce from window to window has pushed me to focus a little more on doing tasks one at a time.

The iPad falls down when dealing with non-web content. Keynote works really well and I can create presentations with relative ease — something I do quite a bit of. The problem lies in the restrictive way content gets to the device. I get that Apple wants us to travel through a USB cord to iTunes, but not taking better advantage of iwork.com or even Mobile Me seems very last decade to me. They insist on making us email files or using a crazy move interface to get stuff on it … and then once it is there it is a copy, not a truly synchronized version. Why not let me use a folder on Mobile Me that I can keep a single in sync file? This is something that I hope Apple changes — copies of files being emailed around is plain old stupid. Without this limitation and the ability to edit google docs this thing would be close to perfect. Without them, you better have a computer around.

One other thing we are learning is how nice these can be as loaner machines for staff. Our IT group can manage a couple that can be simply handed to a staff member and synced from their own Mac for a trip. It isn’t without some details to deal with, but we are planning to keep a few 3G iPads ready to go for people who need Internet access while traveling — it is actually much more reasonable than buying USB cell modems for staff.

Life

The iPad is a joy to use at home. I mean that. It is the best device for work/life balance … it is fast as hell as tasks such as email, looking something up, checking my calendar, and showing pictures. So much faster than going to get a laptop, opening it up, waiting for it to connect to wifi, and launching applications. In the time it used to take to do all that I am already back to the conversation I was having that spawned the need to look something up in the first place. I no longer need to take my laptop home and that has been a very positive change for me.

My wife and kids love to use it for all sorts of things. The App Store may piss a lot of people off, but to easily discover kids apps and games it is killer. Before this I would have never purchased Dr. Seuss books or Scrabble … I honestly wouldn’t even know where to go to buy that software. Yes the apps cost money, but that is what I would expect. My three year old can use with such ease it is mind bending. My wife wants to use it to play Scrabble and surf the web. My daughter wants to use it to read books. And I just want to be able to use it.

Exploring the iPad

This leads me to another observation and that is it really needs to have some sort of user account environment. I trust handing it to anyone in my family, but I do get a bit nervous demoing the iPad with other people. When I pass it around a room it is fully logged in and that means my email, Evernote, and other apps are ripe for browsing. The thing is that people, when they touch the iPad, want to use it. It would be nice if I could have a guest account on it that would allow me to hand it around a room without worrying about it.

Consuming media is a first rate experience. I’ve gotten back into video and audio podcasts so I always have fresh content on the device. The screen is beautiful and all of the media capabilities are really nice to work with. When you combine that with the battery life, you have a device that you nearly never worry about charging. It is truly the first device I can take with me for the day and not worry about it running out of juice — ever. I can actually go multiple days without plugging it in.

Apps

I already mentioned that I am not as upset about the App Store model as some people, so I’ll just share some of the Apps that I actually use. I thought I would use the iWork suite more, but have only really extensively used Keynote. I’ve done a few documents with Pages and it works well, but getting files on and off of the iPad doesn’t support that kind of work in my opinion. Below are the Apps that I use the most … beyond those, I live mostly in Safari and use my browser to access news, social networks, and stuff that on my iPhone I use apps for. At any rate, here are the top Apps for me:

  • Safari is very fast and I’ve found I like browsing on it more than I do on my Mac.
  • I’ve already sung Mail’s praises, so I’ll leave it at that.
  • GoodReader is a must for managing access to files across cloud based storage environments. It takes the place of the Dropbox app and the iDisk app.
  • YouTube, the built in iPod/Video app, and Netflix app are simple genius for consuming content. The YouTube interface is easier to use than the website.
  • 1Password is a must and there are easy ways to integrate it with Safari.
  • NetNewsWire is a strong RSS reader, but what makes it so well designed is the Instapaper, Twitter, and Email integration. It allows for strong multi-tasking from within the same application.
  • Evernote has become my full on outboard brain and the syncing with my Mac is killer.
  • Twitterific is my Twitter client of choice and I do use Twitter quite a bit on the iPad.
Evernote for iPad

Conclusions

Again, it seems like the iPad is a very capable machine that does support a vast amount of tasks that one must do to keep it going at work. It is a joy to use at home and I can still easily keep up with things I need to do in the evenings and on weekends. Until google docs cannot be created and edited (either in the browser or in some sort of app) I cannot use it full time. It hasn’t pushed me to retire my laptop to the corner, but one thing it has pushed me to do is switch from a 15″ machine to a smaller 13″. The small form factor of the iPad is unreal and it made my MBP look like a tank.

The other thing that I believe needs more work is Apple’s model for keeping files in iWork synced. Passing around versions is something that is simply crippling. I can see myself traveling with just an iPad, but I’ll have to be very thoughtful of what I will need before I go. One thing I have started to do more of is take advantage of my iDisk and Dropbox storage spaces so the contents are always available via GoodReader. If Apple gets serious about cloud services I can see this thing supporting upwards of 95% of the work I need to get done while traveling.

The machine needs a way to lock people out of certain apps so it can be passed around a room. I doubt they’ll add accounts, but perhaps a way to authenticate apps on an individual basis? I am really interested to see how students respond to the device and if it can actually be used to support their workflow. I think you actually have to spend quite a bit of time with one to start to understand how it can be used in partnership with your desktop machine. I have made changes to the ways I do things based on what I have learned and most of it has been positive. Will I continue to use the iPad as my only mobile device? No, but I will continue to use it heavily.

My Big iPad Complaint

The big thing that is keeping me from really using the ipad to it's fullest is the lack of google doc editing in Safari. I figured by now there would be an app that would allow for an elegant solution, but either that hasn't yet happened or I just don't know about it. With all that said, I was just running through tweets using Twitterific when I saw a tweet that linked to an open google doc. I was curious so I clicked it and Twitterific opened it in within its own browser. To my absolute shock, it remained editable. I couldn't invoke the onscreen keyboard, but was able to change formatting and see comments happening in real time … So much more than can be done in mobile safari. It gives me hope and makes me wonder if I had my keyboard connected would it allow me to edit the document? When I can live edit google docs the iPad will be a much more viable solution for me.

Baiting the Hook

This is a wonderful short presentation by Dan Meyer at TedxNYED (I’d love to do one of those events here at PSU). There is so much packed into 12 short minutes just screaming to be discussed and explored. One of his main points is the potential problems of practice related to teaching from and relying strictly on textbooks — not that he doesn’t say textbooks are evil or anything, shows how to better take advantage of them in a 21st century world. Watch it and see if it moves you to take the time to react. I’d love to hear ideas and reactions.


Sounds Familiar

For the next 30 days I will use my iPad instead of my MacBook Pro in every
scenario that a common college student would use a laptop. From taking notes
in class, to researching information, to studying for tests, and even
Facebook creeping, my iPad will be there every step of the way. I will put
this new device to the test.

via theothermacblog.com

Very much like my own experiment, but from the perspective of a college student. I'm following along.