Will the Apple Tablet Support or Hinder Users Cognitive Fitness?

Rumor has it that Apple is going to announce a tablet com­put­er, which may well become a rev­o­lu­tion­ary new way for users to read and expe­ri­ence all kinds of edu­ca­tion­al content.

Will it sup­port or hin­der our Cog­ni­tive  Fitness?

In this arti­cle, I describe the cri­te­riachecklist that a tablet com­put­er and its tech­no­log­i­cal ecosys­tem must meet in order for the solu­tion to make users more knowl­edge­able and smarter. To achieve these lofty goals, the tablet must be much more than an read­er. The offer­ing must be an inte­grat­ed learn­ing envi­ron­ment with which users trans­form the infor­ma­tion that they read, hear and view on the tablet into their own knowledge.

The key con­sid­er­a­tion in design­ing such a sys­tem is that pro­duc­tive read­ing is active read­ing. In oth­er words, learn­ing involves a lot of think­ing, writ­ing, draw­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Learn­ing involves antic­i­pat­ing what the author will say, set­ting learn­ing objec­tives, detect­ing knowl­edge gaps, writ­ing com­ments on the doc­u­ment, draw­ing diagrams.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, today’s com­put­ers do not make this an easy task. Most browsers, for exam­ple, do not inher­ent­ly allow you to anno­tate text (e.g., to make a note of what is impor­tant or you don’t under­stand). Anno­tat­ing requires an add-on, and the anno­ta­tions are usu­al­ly just text or high­lights that are trapped in soft­ware; they can­not be linked to oth­er doc­u­ments, email or diagrams.

In order to be a suc­cess­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ment, the Apple tablet must match the incum­bent (paper) and also address the cri­te­ria list­ed below.

Beat The Incum­bent Com­peti­tor — Paper

First, Apple must take into account the major strengths of a tablet’s main com­peti­tor: paper. Despite its many draw­backs com­pared to com­put­ers, paper cur­rent­ly has many advan­tages. Spencer (2006), for exam­ple, has found that her dis­tance edu­ca­tion stu­dents find paper to be more depend­able, flex­i­ble, and ergonom­ic. Spencer’s stu­dents pre­ferred to print com­plex arti­cles than to read them online.

Paper has a pre­dictable struc­ture and lay­out. It is easy to use and it has a def­i­nite start and end point. Most read­ers can very rapid­ly access any page of a book, use the table of con­tents, index to quick­ly nav­i­gate. Read­ers don’t have to wait for a page to load, they can turn it. Also, paper is less busy and less dis­tract­ing: it does not beep while you are concentrating.

More­over, users can write on their own paper to their heart’s content.

These fea­tures present chal­lenges to read­ing and learn­ing technology.

Check­list for a Tablet Com­put­er to Make us Smarter

In this sec­tion I focus on some of the fea­tures that can make a tablet a use­ful learn­ing envi­ron­ment. This goes beyond hard­ware, and deals with cog­ni­tive soft­ware and services.

  1. The tablet should have a per­son­al task man­ag­er. Peo­ple are most pro­duc­tive when they set goals for them­selves that are SMART (spe­cif­ic, mea­sur­able, achiev­able, real­is­tic and time­ly). Learn­ing is an activ­i­ty like any oth­er, and would ben­e­fit from such a sys­tem so that when learn­ers approach a chap­ter, for exam­ple, they can set their learn­ing objectives.
  2. The tablet should have a detailed user-activ­i­ty mon­i­tor. The sys­tem should be able to quan­ti­ta­tive­ly mon­i­tor the amount of time the user spends on each learn­ing resource (each book, each chap­ter, each page) and each type of activ­i­ty. It should be able to report such facts as: how much time have I spent surf­ing the web as opposed to read­ing? How much time have I spent read­ing active­ly (tak­ing notes, etc.) vs. read­ing pas­sive­ly (skim­ming)? How much time have I spent draw­ing dia­grams vs. watch­ing youtube? What is my read­ing rate? This can allow the user to set new goals to be more pro­duc­tive in how they learn and use their tablet.
  3. The tablet should have an exten­sive anno­ta­tion sys­tem. This would enable active read­ing. Users should be able to make notes about all kinds of infor­ma­tion: e.g., to select some text in the brows­er doc­u­ment and then make a com­ment about it. The notes should be attached to the con­tent. Users should also be able to anno­tate PDFs, edi­tor doc­u­ments, dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tions, dia­grams basi­cal­ly any­thing. Would­n’t it be use­ful to be able to pause a movie and make a note that is anchored to a spe­cif­ic frame or seg­ment? One could then jump to the parts of the movie or pod­cast describ­ing impor­tant mate­r­i­al, and skip the rest. Or make a note in a spe­cif­ic part of a physics dia­gram to indi­cate what you don’t under­stand some­thing that can be done on paper. Users should be able to tag not only entire web pages, but any item (such as part of a sen­tence), and they should be able to re-use com­mon tags (e.g., Don’t under­stand, Impor­tant), and eas­i­ly link items to new or exist­ing tasks (Review this). Users should even be able to over­lay their own links from exist­ing con­tent to exist­ing content.
  4. The tablet should con­tain a rich graph­ic orga­niz­er, so that users can cre­ate con­cepts maps, doo­dles or struc­tured draw­ings. This will allow users to lever­age their visu­al motor capa­bil­i­ties as they learn. The read­er could sum­ma­rize a page with a draw­ing linked to that page.
  5. The tablet should con­tain a pow­er­ful out­lin­er. An out­lin­er allows users to orga­nize their thoughts in a hier­ar­chi­cal fash­ion. Users can col­lapse, pro­mote, demote and move entire sec­tions of a doc­u­ment very eas­i­ly. An out­lin­er sup­ports think­ing, writ­ing and cre­at­ing sum­maries of lec­tures, books and videos. The anno­ta­tion sys­tem should also embed the out­lin­er, and allow out­lines to be linked to any content.
  6. The tablet should con­tain a spaced learn­ing (self-test­ing) sys­tem. We remem­ber much bet­ter when we prac­tice recall­ing from mem­o­ry. Beyond rote recall, ques­tions can require com­pre­hen­sion. Users (and con­tent providers) should be able to asso­ciate ques­tions with each chap­ter (or page). And users should be able to gauge for each resource what their degree of learn­ing is as mea­sured by the space learn­ing sys­tem (com­bined with the oth­er mon­i­tors men­tioned above). Ques­tions should be link­able to exact­ly where the answers are found in text, mul­ti­me­dia, etc. And why not allow users to direct­ly add dic­tio­nary entries to their self-test­ing data­base, so that they nev­er have to look up the same word twice? After cre­at­ing ques­tions, users should be able to enter a review mode to inter­act with their ques­tions and link back to the appro­pri­ate con­tent when desired.
  7. The tablet should be part of a larg­er sys­tem beyond the tablet. Apple should pro­vide sync­ing ser­vices to allow users to move back and forth between the tablet, an iPod and a note­book or desk­top. Nei­ther the con­tent one pur­chas­es nor the anno­ta­tions and con­tent one cre­ates should be trapped on the tablet. The dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment should allow for the same book pur­chase (license) to be avail­able on a num­ber (e.g., 3) of dif­fer­ent devices. If one’s tablet is lost or bro­ken, one can still pre­pare for that pre­sen­ta­tion or exam by switch­ing to anoth­er machine, with­out los­ing a beat. Sim­i­lar­ly, the sta­tus of the tasks one sets on the tablet should be updat­ed when one moves back to one’s tra­di­tion­al com­put­er. This could lever­age MobileMe and iTunes.
  8. The larg­er sys­tem should also sup­port col­lab­o­ra­tion. For exam­ple, users should be able to share their anno­ta­tions and oth­er con­tent they devel­op, so that they can review doc­u­ments and oth­er resources togeth­er and learn from each other.
  9. Con­tent should be very afford­able, easy to obtain, and served with an intel­li­gent rat­ing sys­tem so that qual­i­ty con­tent can dis­tin­guish itself from the rest.
  10. There needs to be a mute func­tion, so that with one action, all dis­tract­ing noti­fi­ca­tions can be silenced, allow­ing one to con­cen­trate on one’s cur­rent task.

The impor­tance of a com­plete solu­tion can­not be under­stat­ed. It is essen­tial that users should be able to seam­less­ly move from their tablets to their lap­tops with all their con­tent intact. This way they will be able to flex­i­bly lever­age the strengths of each platform.

I believe such an inte­grat­ed learn­ing envi­ron­ment can ulti­mate­ly make users smarter and more cog­ni­tive­ly pro­duc­tive. Once Apple releas­es more infor­ma­tion on its new tablet, I will eval­u­ate it accord­ing to these cri­te­ria to help answer the key ques­tion, Will the Apple Tablet Sup­port or Hin­der Users Cog­ni­tive Fitness?

LucPBeaudoinDr. Luc P. Beau­doin is Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty. He spe­cial­izes in the­o­ret­i­cal and applied cog­ni­tive sci­ence. He has been doing research and devel­op­ment on inte­grat­ed learn­ing envi­ron­ments since 2001. He is also doing research and devel­op­ment in the areas of cog­ni­tive fit­ness and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. He was amongst the first employ­ees of two of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful high tech star­tups (as soft­ware devel­op­er and writer). He has also been Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mil­i­tary Psy­chol­o­gy and Leadership.


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  1. Steven | The Emotion Machine on January 29, 2010 at 8:00

    Very inter­est­ing pre-analy­sis. I think I remem­ber see­ing some­thing on TV about the Tablet explain­ing some of these fea­tures (exten­sive anno­ta­tion sys­tem, graph­ic orga­niz­er). Per­son­al­ly, I think the thing is too darn expen­sive. My lap­top does just fine orga­niz­ing all my read­ing and writing.

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