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 criteria 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Dr. 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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