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In Defense of Messiness: David Weinberger and the iPad Summit

By Justin Reich — November 15, 2013 6 min read

We were very lucky today to have David Weinberger give the opening address at our iPad Summit in Boston yesterday. We’ve started a tradition at the iPad Summit that our opening keynote speaker should know, basically, nothing about teaching with iPads. We don’t want to lead our conversation with technology, we want to lead with big ideas about how the world is changing and how we can prepare people for that changing world.

Dave spoke drawing on research from his most recent book, Too Big To Know: How the Facts are not the Facts, Experts are not Experts, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room.

It’s hard to summarize a set of complex ideas, but at the core of Dave’s argument is the idea that our framing of “knowledge,” the metaphysics of knowledge (pause: yes, we start our iPad Summit with discussions of the metaphysics of knowledge), is deeply intertwined with the technology we have used for centuries to collect and organize knowledge: the book. So we think of things that are known as those that are agreed upon and fixed--placed on a page that cannot be changed; we think of them as stopping places--places for chapters to end; we think of them as bounded--literally bounded in the pages of a book; we think of them as organized in a single taxonomy--because each library has to choose a single place for the physical location of each book. The limitations of atoms constrained our metaphysics of knowledge.

We then encoded knowledge into bits, and we began to discover a new metaphysics of knowledge. Knowledge is not bound, but networked. It is not agreed, but debated. It is not ordered, but messy.

A changing shape of knowledge demands that we look seriously at changes in educational practice. For many educators at the iPad Summit, the messiness that David sees as generative the emerging shape of knowledge reflects the messiness that they see in their classrooms. As Holly Clark said in her presentation, “I used to want my administrators to drop in when my students were quiet, orderly, and working alone. See we’re learning! Now I want them to drop in when we are active, engaged, collaborative, loud, messy, and chaotic. See, we’re learning!”

These linkages are exactly what we hope can happen when we start our conversations about teaching with technology by leading with our ambitions for our students rather than leading with the affordances of a device.

I want to engage David a little further on one point. When I invited David to speak, he said “I can come, but I have some real issues with iPads in education.” We talked about it some, and I said, “Great, those sound like serious concerns. Air them. Help us confront them.”

David warned us again this morning “I have one curmudgeonly old man slide against iPads,” and Tom Daccord (EdTechTeacher co-founder) and I both said “Great.” The iPad Summit is not an Apple fanboygirl event. At the very beginning, Apple’s staff, people like Paul Facteau, were very clear that iPads were never meant to be computer replacements--that some things were much better done on laptops or computes. Any educator using a technology in their classroom should be having an open conversation about the limitations of their tools.

Tom then gave some opening remarks where he said something to the effect of “The iPad is not a repository of apps, but a portable, media creation device.” If you talk to most EdTechTeacher staff, we’ll tell you that with an iPad, you get a camera, microphone, connection to the Internet, scratchpad, and keyboard--and a few useful apps that let you use those things. (Apparently, there are all kinds of people madly trying to shove “content” on the iPad, but we’re not that interested. For the most part, they’ve done a terrible job.)

Dave took the podium and said in his introductory remarks, “There is one slide that I already regret.” He followed up with this blog post, No More Magic Knowledge:

I gave a talk at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit this morning, and felt compelled to throw in an Angry Old Man slide about why iPads annoy me, especially as education devices. Here’s my List of Grievances:




    • Apple censors apps
    • iPads are designed for consumers. [This is false for these educators, however. They are using iPad apps to enable creativity.]
    • They are closed systems and thus lock users in
    • Apps generally don’t link out

That last point was the one that meant the most in the context of the talk, since I was stressing the social obligation we all have to add to the Commons of ideas, data, knowledge, arguments, discussion, etc.

I was sorry I brought the whole thing up, though. None of the points I raised is new, and this particular audience is using iPads in creative ways, to engage students, to let them explore in depth, to create, and to make learning mobile.

I, for one, was not sorry that Dave brought these issues up. There are real issues with our ability as educators to add to the Commons through iPads. It’s hard to share what you are doing inside a walled garden. In fact, one of the central motivations for the iPad Summit is to bring educators together to share their ideas and to encourage them to take that extra step to share their practice with the wider world; it pains me to think of all of the wheels being reinvented in the zillions of schools that have bought iPads. We’re going to have to hack the garden walls of the iPad to bring our ideas together to the Common.

The issue of the “closedness” of iPads is also critical. Dave went on to say that one limitation of the iPad is that you can’t view source from a browser. (It’s not strictly true, but it’s a nuisance of a hack--see here or here.) From Dave again:

“Even though very few of us ever do peek beneath the hood -- why would we? -- the fact that we know there’s an openable hood changes things. It tells us that what we see on screen, no matter how slick, is the product of human hands. And that is the first lesson I’d like students to learn about knowledge: it often looks like something that’s handed to us finished and perfect, but it’s always something that we built together. And it’s all the cooler because of that.”

I’d go further than you can’t view source: there is no command line. You can’t get under the hood of the operating system, either. You can’t unscrew the back. Now don’t get wrong, when you want to make a video, I’m very happy to declare that you won’t need to update your codecs in order to get things to compress properly. Simplicity is good in some circumstances. But we are captive to the slickness that Dave describes. Let’s talk about that.

A quick tangent: Educators come up to me all the time with concerns that students can’t word process on an iPad--I have pretty much zero concern about this. Kids can write papers using Swype on a smartphone with a cracked glass. Just because old people can’t type on digitized keyboards doesn’t mean kids can’t (and you probably haven’t been teaching them touch-typing anyway).

I’m not concerned that kids can’t learn to write English on an iPad, I’m concerned they can’t learn to write Python. If you believe that learning to code is a vital skill for young people, then the iPad is not the device for you. The block programming languages basically don’t work. There is no Terminal or Putty or iPython Notebook. To teach kids to code, they need a real computer. (If someone has a robust counter-argument to that assertion, I’m all ears.) We should be very, very clear that if we are putting all of our financial eggs in the iPad basket, there are real opportunities that we are foreclosing.

Some of the issues that Dave raises we can hack around. Some we can’t. The iPad Summit, all technology-based professional development, needs to be a place where we talk about what technology can’t do, along with what it can.

Dave’s keynote about the power of open systems reminds us that knowledge is networked and messy. Our classrooms, and the technologies we use to support learning in our classrooms, should be the same. To the extent that the technologies we choose are closed and overly-neat, we should be talking about that.

Many thanks again to Dave for a provocative morning, and many thanks to the attendees of the iPad Summit for joining in and enriching the conversation.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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