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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The PDA and iPod Effect: Disruptive Technologies

When considering the role of handhelds in hybrid courses, I suddenly realized that interactivity would have to be reconsidered. I needed to ask myself some very fundamental questions.

Play the podcast.

These questions were the following:

--What was the nature of the old “correspondence courses?” How did the learner interact with the texts and the booklet of questions?

--What were the flaws of the old correspondence courses? If they came bundled with audio files, tapes, and movies, what were the limitations?

--How do people use handheld video gaming devices such as Nintendo’s Gameboy? What makes them popular? What are the emotional “rewards”?

It started coming together. What we were talking about was a return, more or less, to the old concept of correspondence courses.

Instead of static, clunky books, you’d have something else. You’d have something you could watch and listen to while in your bunk at night. You could see it, even if you only had 8 inches between you and the bunk above you, and it was dark, hot, and stuffy. You wouldn’t have to turn pages, or sit up and write. You could lie down, watch a little screen light up with bullet points of objectives, then an audio file come on, synched with a little slide show. This would either be through a Flash player, or on the Powerpoint 2003, that came installed in the 4-inch long Dell Axim handheld computer. You could listen to the audio through earphones. You could watch scenarios, think about how things are being written, and listen to a person go through the steps you’re trying to get across.

For example, in an English composition course, in the unit on “compare-contrast” essays, you could focus on learning how to write vivid descriptions. There would be an example of a first draft – a staid, descriptionless paragraph. Then, you’d see two or three iterations – revisions, expansions, adjustments to the goals of the writer and the rhetorical situation.

I could imagine a young Marine lying on his bunk, listening to the progression of descriptions:

Description 1: The horse was small.

Description 2: The chestnut-colored pony was the perfect size for an 8-year-old girl.

Description 3: My cousin’s 8-year-old daughter was thrilled when she saw the chestnut-colored pony standing next to the gate. “He’s bigger than Max!” she exclaimed breathlessly. Max, the blonde husky-golden retriever mix, cocked his head at the mention of his name. “Whadya expect, anyway? I’m a dog, not a horse!” he seemed to say.

Later, the Marine could scroll through the menu to small movies. These would be 2-3 minute video clips, shot in the style of reality television, that would illustrate a point. For example, this sequence could illustrate how to support your argument with supporting details

Taking a Position Video 1: The video is of a busy intersection. The student must take a position on whether or not to improve the light and pedestrian crosswalk, and support the position with compelling arguments. The facts would come from observing the video.

After viewing the video, the student can listen to one student’s version.

Taking a Position Video 2: Video of an apartment sidewalk that contains some sort of hazard (ice, branches, rocks). Ask the student to write a description of the scene to support the argument that the apartment management needs to improve safety conditions.

After viewing the video, the student can listen to a flawed description. The student is asked to be alert to inconsistencies and logic flaws.

Perhaps there is not a lot of reading or writing in this approach, but the concepts are clear, and the techniques are in place.

Work would be done in regular pen-and-pencil notebooks, and later turned in to the education officer.

I mentioned the fact that I was developing a course for delivery on PDAs. Not surprisingly, the first thing I heard was, “I can’t imagine reading a book on my Palm!” or, “My syllabus would never fit on a Palm – how are you going to put a course and a textbook on there?”

Of course, those were good questions. But – the key to remember is that you’re not trying to replicate the textbook. After all, they already have their textbooks. However, this is done to develop instructional materials that improve learner efficacy.

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