This is what happened when Beelzebub the Cat decided to try to play my saxophone after I had foolishly left it on its stand without its mouthpiece cap.
He seriously needs to work on his embouchure.
I seriously need to disinfect my mouthpiece.
Microsoft unilaterally and quietly changed the spam filtering rules for Athabasca University’s O365 email system on Thursday afternoon last week. On Friday morning, among the usual 450 or so spams in my spam folder (up from around 70 per day in the old Zimbra system) were over 50 legitimate emails, including one to warn me that this was happening, claiming that our IT Services department could do nothing about it because it’s a vendor problem. Amongst junked emails were all those sent to the allstaff alias (including announcements about our new president), student work submissions, and many personal messages from students, colleagues, and research collaborators.
The misclassified emails continue to arrive, 5 days on. I have now switched off Microsoft’s spam filter and switched to my own, and I have risked opening emails I would never normally glance at, but I have probably missed a few legitimate emails. This is perhaps the worst so far in a long line of ‘quirks’ in our new O365 system, including persistently recurring issues of messages being bounced for a large number of accounts, and it is not the first caused by filtering systems: many were affected by what seems to be a similar failure in the Clutter filter in May.
I assume that, on average, most other staff at AU have, like me, lost about half an hour per day so far to this one problem. We have around 1350 employees, so that’s around 675 hours – 130 working days – being lost every day it continues. This is not counting the inevitable security breaches, support calls, proactive attempts at problem solving, and so on, nor the time for recovery should it ever be fixed, nor the lost trust, lost motivation, the anger, the conversations about it, the people that will give up on it and redirect emails to other places (in breach of regulations and at great risk to privacy and security, but when it’s a question of being able to work vs not being able to work, no one could be blamed for that). The hours I have spent writing this might be added to that list, but this happens to relate very closely indeed to my research interests (a great case study and catalyst for refining my thoughts on this), so might be seen as a positive side-effect and, anyway, the vast majority of that time was ‘my own’: faculty very rarely work normal 7-hour days.
Every single lost minute per person every day equates to the time of around 3 FTEs when you have 1350 employees. When O365 is running normally it costs me around five extra minutes per day, when compared with its predecessor, an ancient Zimbra system. I am a geek that has gone out of his way to eliminate many of the ill effects: others may suffer more. It’s mostly little stuff: an extra 10-20 seconds to load the email list, an extra 2-3 seconds to send each email, a second or two longer to load them, an extra minute or two to check the unreliable and over-spammed spam folder, etc. But we do such things many times a day. That’s not including the time to recover from interruptions to our work, the time to learn to use it, the support requests, the support infrastructure, etc, etc.
To be fair, whether such time is truly ‘lost’ depends on the task. Those ‘lost’ seconds may be time to reflect or think of other things. The time is truly lost if we have to put effort into it (e.g. checking spam mail) or if it is filled with annoyance at the slow speed of the machine, but may sometimes simply be used in ways we would not otherwise use it. I suspect that flittering attention while we wait for software to do its thing creates habits of mind that are both good and bad. We are likely more distracted, find it harder to concentrate for long periods, but we probably also develop different ways of connecting things and different ways of pacing our thinking. It certainly changes us, and more research is needed on how it affects us. Either way, time spent sorting legitimate emails from spam is, at least by most measures of productivity, truly time lost, and we have lost a lot of it.
It goes without saying that, had we been in control of our own email system, none of this would have happened. I have repeatedly warned that putting one of the most central systems of our university into the hands of an external supplier, especially one with a decades-long history of poor software, broken or proprietary standards, weak security, inadequate privacy policies, vicious antagonism to competitors, and a predatory attitude to its users, is a really stupid idea. Microsoft’s goal is profit, not user satisfaction: sometimes the two needs coincide, often they do not. Breakages like this are just a small part of the problem. The worst effects are going to be on our capacity to innovate and adapt, though our productivity, engagement and workload will all suffer before the real systemic failures emerge. Microsoft had to try hard to sell it to us, but does not have to try hard to keep us using it, because we are now well and truly locked in on all sides by proprietary, standards-free tools that we cannot control, cannot replace, cannot properly understand, that change under our feet without warning, that will inevitably insinuate themselves into our working lives. And it’s not just email and calendars (that can use only slightly broken standards) but completely opaque standards-free proprietary tools like OneDrive, OneNote and Yammer. Now we have lost standards-compliance and locked ourselves in, we have made it unbelievably difficult to ever change our minds, no matter how awful things get. And they will get more awful, and the costs will escalate. This makes me angry. I love my university and am furious when I see it being destroyed by avoidable idiocy.
O365 is only one system among many similar tools that have been foisted upon us in the last couple of years, most of which are even more awful, if marginally less critical to our survival. They have replaced old, well-tailored, mostly open tools that used to just work: not brilliantly, seldom prettily, but they did the job fast and efficiently so that we didn’t have to. Our new systems make us do the work for them. This is the polar opposite of why we use IT systems in the first place, and it all equates to truly lost time, lost motivation, lost creativity, lost opportunity.
From leave reporting to reclaiming expenses to handling research contracts to managing emails, let’s be very conservative indeed and say that these new baseline systems just cost us an average of an extra 30 minutes per working day per person on top of what we had before (for me, it is more like an hour, for others, more). If the average salary of an AU employee is $70,000/year that’s $5,400,000 per year in lost productivity. It’s much worse than that, though, because the work that we are forced to do as a result is soul-destroying, prescriptive labour, fitting into a dominative system as a cog into a machine. I feel deeply demotivated by this, and that infects all the rest of my work. I sense similar growing disempowerment and frustration amongst most of my colleagues.
And it’s not just about the lost time of individuals. Almost always, other people in the system have to play a role that they did not play before (this is about management information systems, not just the digital tools), and there are often many iterations of double-checking and returned forms, because people tend to be very poor cogs indeed. For instance, the average time it takes for me to get recompense for expenses is now over 6 months, up from 2-4 weeks before. The time it takes to simply enter a claim alone is up from a few minutes to a few hours, often spread over months, and several other people’s time is also taken up by this process. Likewise, leave reporting is up from 2 minutes to at least 20 minutes, usually more, involving a combination of manual emails, tortuous per-hour entry, the ability to ask for and report leave on public holidays and weekends, and a host of other evils. As a supervisor, it is another world of pain: I have lost many hours to this, compounding the ‘mistakes’ of others with my own (when teaching computing, one of the things I often emphasize is that there is no such thing as user error: while they can make mistakes and do weird stuff we never envisaged, it is our failure to design things right that is the problem). This is not to mention the hours spent learning the new systems, or the effects on productivity, not just in time and motivation, but in preventing us from doing what we are supposed to do at all. I am doing less research, not just because my time is taken with soul-destroying cog-work, but because it is seldom worth the hassle of claiming, or trying to manage projects using badly designed tools that fit better – though not well – in a factory. Worse, it becomes part of the culture, infecting other processes like ethics reviews, student-tutor interactions, and research & development. In an age when most of the world has shaken off the appalling, inhuman, and empirically wrong ideas of Taylorism, we are becoming more and more Taylorist. As McLuhan said, we shape our tools and our tools shape us.
To add injury to insult, these awful things actually cost money to buy and to run – often a lot more money than they were planned to cost, making a lot less savings or even losses, even in the IT Services department where they are justified because they are supposed to be cutting costs. For instance, O365 cost nearly three times initial estimates on which decisions were based, and it appears that it has not reduced the workload for those having to support it, nor the network traffic going in and out of the university (in fact it may be much worse), all the while costing us far more per year to access than the reliable and fully-featured elderly open source product it replaced. It also breaks a lot more. It is hard to see what we have gained here, though it is easy to see many losses.
The one justification for this suicidal stupidity is that our technological debt – the time taken to maintain, extend, and manage old systems – is unsustainable. So, if we just buy baseline tools without customization, especially if we outsource the entire management role to someone else, we save money because we don’t have to do that any more.
This is – with more than due respect – utter bullshit.
Yes, there is a huge investment involved over years whenever we build tools to do our jobs and, yes, if we do not put enough resources into maintaining them then we will crawl to a halt because we are doing nothing but maintenance. Yes, combinatorial complexity and path dependencies mean that the maintenance burden will always continue to rise over time, at a greater-than-linear rate. The more you create, the more you have to maintain, and connections between what we create adds to the complexity. That’s the price of having tools that work. That’s how systems work. Get over it. That’s how all technology evolves, including bureaucratic systems. Increasing complexity is inevitable and relentless in all technological systems, not withstanding the occasional paradigm shift that kind-of starts the ball rolling again. Anyone that had stuck around in an organization long enough to see the long-term effects of their interventions would know this.
These new baseline systems are in no way different, save for one: rather than putting the work into making the machines work for us, we instead have to evolve, maintain and manage processes in which we do the work of machines. The complexity therefore impacts on every single human being that is having to enact the machine, not just developers. This is crazy. Exactly the same work has to be done, with exactly the same degree of precision as that of the machines (actually more, because we have to add procedures to deal with the errors that software is less likely to make). It’s just that now it is done by slow, unreliable, fallible, amotivated human beings. For creative or problem-solving work, it would be a good thing to take tasks away from machines that humans should be doing. For mechanistic, process-driven work where human error means it breaks, it is either great madness, great stupidity, or great evil. There are no other options. At a time when our very survival is under threat, I cannot adequately express my deep horror that this is happening.
I suspect that the problem is in a large part due to short-sighted local thinking, which is a commonplace failure in hierarchical systems, and that gets worse the deeper and more divisive the hierarchies go. We only see our own problems without understanding or caring about where we sit in the broader system. Our IT directors believe that their job is to save money in ITS (the department dealing with IT), rather than to save money for the university. But, not only are they outsourcing our complex IT functions to cloud-based companies (a terrible idea for aforementioned reasons), they are outsourcing the work of information technologies to the rest of the university. The hierarchies mean a) that directors seldom get to see or hear of the trouble it causes, b) they mix mainly with others at or near their hierarchical level who do not see it either, and c) that they tend to see problems in caricature, not as detailed pictures of actual practices. As the hierarchies deepen and separate, those within a branch communicate less with others in parallel branches or those more than a layer above or below. Messages between layers are, by design, distorted and filtered. The more layers, the greater the distortion. People take further actions based on local knowledge, and their actions affect the whole tree. Hierarchies are particularly awful when coupled with creative work of the sort we do at Athabasca or fields where change is frequent and necessary. They used to work OK for factories that did not vary their output much and where everything was measurable though, in modern factories, that is rarely true any more. For a university, especially one that is online and that thus lacks many of the short circuits found in physical institutions, deepening hierarchies are a recipe for disaster. I suppose that it goes without saying that Athabasca University has, over the past few years, seen a huge deepening in those hierarchies.
Our university is in serious financial trouble that it would not be in were it not for these systems. Even if we had kept what we had, without upgrading, we would already be many millions of dollars better off, countless thousands of hours would not have been wasted, we would be far more motivated, we would be far more creative, and we would still have some brilliant people that we have lost as a direct result of this process. All of this would be of great benefit to our students and we would be moving forwards, not backwards. We have lost vital capacity to innovate, lost vital time to care about what we are supposed to be doing rather than working out how the machine works. The concept of a university as a machine is not a great one, though there are many technological elements and processes that are needed to make it run. I prefer to think of it like an ecosystem or an organism. As an online university, our ecosystem/body is composed of people and machines (tools, processes, methods, structures, rules, etc). The machinery is just there to support and sustain the people, so they can operate as a learning community and perform their roles in educating, researching and community engagement. The more that we have to be the machines, the less efficiently the machinery will run, and the less human we can all be. It’s brutal, ugly, and self-destructive.
When will we learn that the biggest costs of IT are to its end users, not to IT Services? We customized and created the tools that we have replaced for extremely good reasons: to make our university and its systems run better, faster, more efficiently, more effectively. Our ever-growing number of new off-the-shelf and outsourced systems, that take more of our time, intellectual and emotional effort, have wasted and continue to waste countless millions of dollars, not to mention huge costs in lost motivation and ill will, not to mention in loss of creativity and caring. In the process we have lost control of our tools, lost the expertise to run them, lost the capability to innovate in the one field in which we, as an online institution, must and should have most expertise. This is killing us. Technological debt is not voided by replacing custom parts with generic pieces. It is transferred at a usurious rate of interest to those that must replace the lost functionality with human labour.
It won’t be easy to reverse this suicidal course, and I would not enjoy being the one tasked with doing so. Those who were involved in implementing these changes might find it hard to believe, because it has taken years and a great deal of pain to do so (and it is far from over yet – the madness continues), but breaking the system was hundreds of times easier than it will be to fix it. The first problem is that the proprietary junk that has been foisted upon us, especially when hosted in the cloud, is a one-way valve for our data, so it will be fiendishly hard to get it back again. Some of it will be in formats that cannot be recovered without some data loss. New ways of working that rely on new tools will have insinuated themselves, and will have to be reversed. There will be plentiful down-time, with all the associated costs. But it’s not just about data. From a systems perspective this is a Humpty Dumpty problem. When you break a complex system, from a body to an ecosystem, it is almost impossible to ever restore it to the way it was. There are countless system dependencies and path dependencies, which mean that you cannot simply start replacing pieces and assume that it will all work. The order matters. Lost knowledge cannot be regained – we will need new knowledge. If we do manage to survive this vandalism to our environment, we will have to build afresh, to create a new system, not restore the old. This is going to cost a lot. Which is, of course, exactly as Microsoft and all the other proprietary vendors of our broken tools count upon. They carefully balance the cost of leaving them against what they charge. That’s how it works. But we must break free of them because this is deeply, profoundly, and inevitably unsustainable.
When I get new devices I tend to make notes about them: it’s part of my tinkering approach to research, a way to explore the edges of the adjacent possible. Most of the notes don’t get read by anyone else. This often seems like a bit of a waste so, having had a couple of days of vacation (and thus mostly doing the work I felt like doing rather than the work I had to do) this post is an assemblage of notes about a few of the devices I have acquired over the past year or so, at least partially to support my thinking on e-readers (though I cover more features of the devices in my notes).
I am very interested in e-reading because I do a great deal of it, and it is the primary means by which most online learners learn. There’s a fair bit of existing research into e-reading, but the vast majority of it fails to distinguish between desktop PCs, laptop PCs, dedicated e-readers, tablets and cellphones, let alone between different software tools and configurations. This is silly. It’s equivalent to generically comparing e-learning and p-learning which, as we all should now know, is a completely spurious thing to do.‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. It is particularly interesting that, though there are a few variations in paper books – size, font, hard/paperback, etc – the variation is not even close to that found in e-reading hardware and software, and we have barely begun to innovate in this area yet. To do so, it is useful to understand the benefits and weaknesses of existing tools. These notes are part of that process.
The devices I will discuss here are:
I got this device because I wanted to know what makes something a top-of-the-line e-reader. The Kindle Voyage, though heavily criticized for its price, had (at the time I got it) pretty much swept the board in comparative reviews, coming top in almost all of them. This is therefore my reference point.
The Kindle Voyage is very small: the (6 inch) page is smaller than the average paperback book, especially the slightly larger formats used mainly for academic books. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends a lot on the book. For text, I find that is good enough but, for diagrams, tables and images, it can be too small.
The monochrome e-ink screen is bright and very clear, with better resolution than many laser printers. It has a non-reflective etching that I have tried in bright sunlight and found to be extremely easy on the eye, with virtually no reflections unless you deliberately angle it at the sun. It is not quite paper, but extremely close to it and, in many ways, is superior to read from: flatness and consistency are mostly a positive thing, albeit that the curve of a paper page provides cues about location in a book and helps one to remember a page’s unique shape. It has very even backlighting that gently glows, and dims according to the level of background lighting – this is great, though I’d like it more if it had the option to tint it with red light – the blue-ish glow is not great last thing at night, when I tend to read the most. Battery life, even when backlit, is very good: the claimed 6 weeks of life assumes only half an hour of reading a day, which is way less than I’d normally do, but that still equates to a good 20 hours between charges in real life which, for something so tiny, is good. It appears to take a couple of hours to fully charge on a typical USB connection.
The device is very thin and very light – it feels much lighter than the average smartphone and far lighter than a small paperback – with a nice rubbery grippable back, and intelligently positioned ‘buttons’ on both sides of the screen, so it works well in either hand. The ‘buttons’ are actually pressure sensitive areas: pressing them gives a reassuring and very gentle haptic buzz when they are squeezed. After only 10-15 minutes of pressing them this can lead to finger cramp, however, so it is good that it is also possible to swipe across or up and down a page, in a manner that is quite familiar to phone and tablet users. There are two smaller back ‘buttons’ above the main page flippers, that are quite hard to reach with one hand. There’s an on/off button on the rear of the device, just out of reach of even my long-ish fingers. This is good – it is hard to turn it off accidentally. The bevel is not huge, but is about the right size to make it easy to hold without touching the screen, about the size of a normal book margin.
Performance is notably better than that of any other e-ink devices I have used, with screen refreshing that is fast and that seldom, and barely perceptibly, flashes (a generic issue with e-ink, that starts to burn in if not zapped occasionally with a reverse image). For reading, I find page turns fast enough not to interrupt my flow of reading at all. Much faster than flipping pages in a p-book although, as my weak eyes mean that I like to have a larger font, I tend to do this more often.
It has a web browser, but it’s awful. Soft buttons for the keyboard and tools are often quite unresponsive. Especially annoying is the lag and difficulty finding the right place to press for punctuation such as the @ symbol and period. Once you move on to pages that need scrolling it is very jerky, with multiple refreshes, and extremely slow responses to things like pinching to zoom, which is distracting to the point of making it virtually unusable for many pages: few are optimized for e-readers. Lack of colour also becomes a serious issue on such pages. That is also a noticeable problem when scrolling through my catalogue of books or the Kindle store (also available directly from the device), because many book covers blur into a grey mass: this is a surprising failure on the part of Amazon who, you might think, ought to be doing its best to sell books to you. If you cannot differentiate between them or even see their titles, there is not a lot of point. I still mostly need to get my books via a tablet, phone or PC. It is at least nice to be able to browse books on archive.org and download them (in the correct format) to the device.
On the subject of the book catalogue, the interface to it is tedious. I have hundreds of books that I like to browse, not simply search for, and it can take several minutes to scroll painstakingly through them. There are options for tagging and cataloguing books but, with a large existing catalogue, this is not a simple option. This is many times worse than even a disorganized pile of books, let alone proper bookshelves. The fact that you can search (and search for text within books) is a notable benefit, but the loss of random browsing is a serious disadvantage.
Whispersync works very well: it’s very easy to pick up on one device what was left off on another. I very much like the ‘free’ 3G connection that works in most countries and that allows books to be downloaded (and purchased) from almost anywhere in the world, without the need for wifi, but I deeply hate the fact that a fair number of my books are limited by DRM to a few devices. As a researcher into such technologies, I have a great many versions of the Kindle app on many devices, so I often hit these limits, then have to work out on which machines to disable reading (is it mac 1, or mac 4 that I am actually using? Very hard to tell). In fact, I deeply hate DRM, period. It is not fiendishly hard to convert and transfer non-DRM’d books from other devices but I find the fact that Amazon insist all should be in its proprietary format or PDF (not a good thing on a 6” screen) to be intensely annoying. Given that DRM is perfectly possible in the otherwise ubiquitous epub format, this is an annoying constraint.
I was encouraged after getting this device to try a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, which gives (as the name implies) Netflix-like access to over a million titles – an all-you-can-eat rental smorgasbord covering a vast array of subjects and genres, all for $10/month, with up to 10 books at any one time. This has been a disappointing investment so far. The overwhelming majority of the books are those that no one in their right mind would bother paying the typical asking price of between 2 and 6 dollars and would certainly not bother borrowing from a library. The majority are self-published, and some are scams that are not even meant to be read – they are just a means to leech a bit of money from Amazon, filled with nonsense. Within the area of science I found a great many books that are anything but scientific, with a preponderance of rubbish folk psychology, ’10 things’ books, and right-of-Hitler religious nutcases trying to disprove evolution and climate change. In fiction, there’s a lot of genre novellas and novels of the fan-fiction variety, most of which seem to be of extremely low quality and imagination. Very disappointing, though I have found a copious catalogue of Kurt Vonnegut books, many of which I have not read, so am happy enough for now. There are certainly some gems to be found but the effort of doing so is great, and none of those that I actually sought out have been there so far. The device does allow you to set up a library account to borrow books from your local library. I have not tried this yet, but find the idea appealing. You can, of course, do this on any device, but the convenience is worth having, especially given the complete lack of network charges.
Is it worth the money? I’d say not. Amazon’s own much cheaper alternative, with a very similar screen, the Paperwhite, is a little thicker, lacks the buzzing buttons and adaptive backlight, and is slightly slower, but these are not big enough differences to be worth $100. My only other notable e-ink device till this point was a tiny and now slightly elderly Kobo with a 4” screen. Apart from size and backlight, there is not too much to choose between them. Yes, the Voyage has a notably better screen, but not so much that it is worth nearly $200 more (the Kobo cost me less than $40) and bigger is certainly better, but not $200 better. The software on the Kobo is, I would say, mostly a bit nicer, but essentially extremely similar. Its native epub format is way friendlier, with far more books available without the need for conversion, albeit with less wonderful sync between devices. The main differentiator is the book stores behind them – Amazon’s catalogue is vastly much bigger and better. Vastly much. Though both can be used with books from elsewhere, as both are tightly integrated with their respective bookstores, this matters.
For all its weaknesses, the Voyage is a device that I have found myself using for at least an hour every day. It’s a great way to read books, especially fiction. It very rarely needs charging, sits unobtrusively by my bed, and just works. The interface virtually disappears, and there are no interruptions to your reading from a dumb device that thinks it needs a place in every part of your life. It is so light that you barely notice it in your hand – so much easier than a paper book. And I love the adaptive backlighting. Though it would be easy to dim and brighten the screen manually (as in the Paperwhite), the unobtrusive automatic dimming is surprisingly pleasant.
Amazon now has an even higher end device, the Oasis, that is a little lighter, has an extra boost for the battery in the cover, an ergonomic grip, and more LEDs for even more even backlight. Apart from that, it is hard to see why it would be worth getting: everything else is much the same. The Voyage is already too expensive, especially given how much Amazon will leech from you after purchase, so I cannot imagine why one would spend another $100 for a leather cover with a battery in it.
The DPT-S1 is an e-paper device that does pretty much only one thing – it lets you read and annotate PDF documents. True, it does have a note taking app that is quite serviceable and a web browser that is not at all serviceable but, basically, this is a very expensive one-trick pony that cannot even read standard ebook formats. How expensive? Over $1000 expensive. You could get a good iPad Pro for that money, or 4 or 5 Kindles. Or a pretty good PC laptop or tablet, or even a top of the line Chromebook. Or a nice bicycle. All in all, this is one incredibly expensive device that does very little.
So why did I want one? Well, obviously enough, it’s for that one thing. I get to read a great many documents, many of which are already in PDF format and most of which can easily be made so. The reading area of the DPT-S1 is effectively the same as a standard sheet of office paper and, in theory at least, provides a very similar experience, with similar resolution and contrast to a slightly greyish printed sheet, and similar ability to mark up the text. As far as I know, this is the only commercially available e-paper device with a screen this size.
One of the notable ways that p-reading is normally better than e-reading is that it provides a consistent, fixed visual layout. It is better because the shape of text on a page is important in helping us to remember where we read it and in what context, and human typesetters generally pay closer attention than machines to making pages readable and appealing. Most e-book formats re-flow the text according to device, font, etc, so there are few cues of this nature. It is true that, especially when making text larger for those with aged eyes, this is an advantage in many ways, but the loss of visual memory of the shape of the page is a cognitive trade off. PDFs are much more like print in this regard as the format is fixed, albeit that it remains difficult to get a sense of the context of the page in the broader text. On a small device, though, PDFs are usually unreadable, or require absurd amounts of scrolling, so a device that lets you see the whole page at its native size is a very interesting idea. Could this be a step towards what we need to replace paper for reading? Well…
The size of the DPT-S1 is great. The contrast is not quite as good as black ink on a white sheet of paper: blacks are not very black, and ‘whites’ are definitely grey. It’s not even close to the Kindle Voyage, but letters appear quite sharp and clear, and A4/Letter sized documents are very easy to read. Without the glow of most modern screens, it is relatively restful on the eyes. It is extremely light: it feels like a thick sheet of cardboard in the hand, lighter than even 20-30 pages of good printed paper, let alone the thousands of books it can carry. It is really easy to hold in one hand for prolonged periods. The screen is very readable in bright sunlight, and it is acceptable in a reasonably well-lit room. It has no backlight, though, so it is not much use in darker rooms. The battery life is fine – around 15 to 20 hours. You can certainly use it for a whole day without the need to recharge it. Recharging, through a standard micro USB plug, takes a while but you can use it at the same time or recharge it overnight. So far, so good. After that, though, it goes rapidly downhill.
The software is truly awful. My most important intended use for the device was to make marking of student work and reviewing of papers and books, etc, easier. Alas, it does not. The first big problem is actually getting documents onto it. The built-in (and atrociously unusable) web browser does not recognize PDFs from Moodle or Office 365 email as known file types. It does support WebDAV, but it only allows a single webDAV server to be configured. The wifi is as primitive as it gets, and far from reliable. Worse, the device unaccountably wipes out any files you have saved should you choose to go through the incredibly slow and tortuous process of changing the WebDAV server, using the highly unresponsive and annoying keyboard (there are always characters that are at least 3 keyboards away from the default) but I have found that so unreliable and slow (often it fails to connect because it takes so long to set up a simple, single, wifi connection, and it is very fussy about which webDAV variants it will support) that there is very little point, even for a single WebDAV server. I have found that it can use CloudApp via the web browser, which is fine for the odd one-off file, albeit that it can easily take 5 minutes to enter the URL and get the file. I could set up my PC as a WebDAV server but part of the point of this is to untether me from it and, if I’m going to be around it anyway, I might as well plug it in. The only sensible way to add files is thus to download the work onto my PC and transfer it from there via a USB cable. This is extremely clunky: it can easily take 5 minutes simply to get a file, once you factor in saving from wherever it is in the first place (e.g. Moodle, email, review sites). Though it does have a micro-SD card, the hassle of unmounting then remounting it is not worth the bother, especially as it demands removal of a small back-panel to get at the thing. Without even a means to upload files via the web browser, it is even worse trying to get it back again afer annotation: USB or SD card are the only plausible ways, notwithstanding the awful WebDAV implementation. This is far too clunky: the whole point is to streamline the process, not to make it more difficult. I can see that it might be OK if I had bulk documents to download and upload but that’s not how I normally work, nor how I wish to work.
The next problem is that navigation through texts is tortuous. I thought it would be great for reading and annotating a book that I am reviewing, but that turns out not to be the case. Unlike most e-readers, you cannot simply jump to references and back again. In fact, even skipping to the back of the book to look them up is incredibly tedious. As far as I can tell, you cannot even flip to the index, or the back, or the front. Switching to thumbnail view sounds promising, but actually means you lose your place as the current page is somewhere in the middle and not highlighted. Compared with the Kindle’s quite neat x-ray and other browsing tools, this feels like something from the Middle Ages. Even reading is less than perfect: it blanks the screen way too often (reversing black and white to clear the memory effect of e-paper screens) and takes too long to return. Book-length texts take an age to load.
After some time using it, a few other issues have arisen that make it even less useful. I had been using it as a simple way to record notes such as my daily to-do list. However, every now and then – like every couple of days or so – it needs a reboot, as it loses track of what’s in any file. All appear as blank. Sony are showing no signs of wanting to maintain this buggy firmware, and (though some have found complex ways to replace the customized Android operating system with their own) it is well locked down to prevent customization. Not that there is much to customize: it lacks even sound input or output, so cannot even do text-to-speech, let alone anything more useful. In fact, even some PDFs get mangled by it.
It feels very cheaply made: the buttons (3 standard Android buttons) are clicky, imprecise and toy-like. The body is made of flimsy plastic that bends a bit. Nothing quite fits. Its lightness means that it slips easily – indeed, it slid off my desk, making a soft landing on the floor about a metre below. Not a great thing to do, for sure, but, given that it is such a light device made of resilient plastic, I would not have expected much damage. However, the ugly fabric pen holder snapped off – apparently it is only lightly glued in place. This is shoddy. The screen itself gets messy very quickly which, given that the point is to write on it, seems a design flaw. It also picks up scratches easily. It comes with a cheap and ugly cover, but that virtually doubles the apparent weight and makes it far less comfortable to use. The dedicated cheap plastic pen is easy to lose, and there is a very small but perceptible lag between writing and the appearance of your writing on the screen. It doesn’t feel quite like using a pen – the screen is too slippery and, oddly, also scratchy at the same time. I like the instant erase button on the pen, but it is too easy to press it by mistake. The fine plastic point looks flimsy: I doubt it will last long. Replacements designed for graphics tablets should work, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.
Overall, this should be a very promising device, but it fails to even do the one thing it is supposed to do at all well. I would love a better thought-through device with this screen format, or the same thing at a tenth of the price but, right now, this is one to avoid like the plague.
The Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro 10 is mostly a fairly conventional 10″ Android tablet with one significant twist: it has an integrated pico projector. It’s remarkably hard to find the specs for the projector, but I would guess it must be about 50 lumens and perhaps 800 x 600 resolution, or maybe a little higher.
The device runs Android 5.1 with only a few slightly annoying differences from the stock version. I fail to understandand why almost all manufacturers insist on doing this: while the projector does mean it needs a few small tweaks, there’s no good reason to mess with the rest. It has the usual range of sensors, expandable memory (by microSD card), and a stonkingly big 10,200 mAh fast charging battery from which it is claimed one can get 18 hours of use. I think that’s an exaggeration: you’d need some gentle apps, low screen brightness, and no wifi to get anything like that but, in normal use, with web browsing, email, Kindle, a bit of streaming video and light use of the projector, I have easily got well over 12 hours, which is not bad at all. Unfortunately, being Android, it keeps eating power when you are doing nothing with it so, unlike an iPad (that could be left for weeks and still have power) it will die when left alone for a few days, unless you turn it off completely (in which case it will last well over a month). That being said, you could certainly watch three or four movies before needing to recharge. The price paid for this is, unsurprisingly, in extra weight and bulk, but that is mostly taken up by a side handle that is fairly comfortable to hold and that also contains the projector, speakers, rear camera and a really well designed built-in prop that also doubles as a means to hang it on a hook on the wall. All in all, though you are aware of the weight, it is well balanced and sits comfortably in the hand. It feels solid and well engineered. The other stand-out features are a full Quad HD screen that is at least as nice as that on the iPad Pro (though much smaller), and Dolby sound from four JBL speakers that are remarkably good at spatial stereo – it seems that the sound spreads from a far wider area than the device itself. It would be better with 3G/4G, but wifi is available most places so I can live without that, though I do miss fingerprint authentication: passcodes and gestures are not at all as convenient. One quite nice feature is that you can use anything conductive as a stylus, including a steel pen or even a pencil. Also unusual in a tablet is the inclusion of a buzzer. It is also splashproof to IP21 (ie. it can cope with condensation and light showers) which brings it a little closer to a p-book in resilience.
Unfortunately, even more than most Android devices, it is flaky. Apps crash very regularly, have more bugs than their iOS counterparts, pause for no obvious reason, and the whole thing feels very unresponsive most of the time. Given a quad core Atom CPU running at 1.4GHz and 2GB of RAM, this is quite surprising. It is partly a generic Android thing, but I think Lenovo have made it worse: I get nothing like these problems on other Android devices, even on those with lower specs. I have tried very hard to love Android over many years, because I approve of its (general) relative openness and its flexibility, but I always feel a sense of profound relief coming back to my far better and smoother iOS devices. It’s the same trade-off as that between Windows or Linux and Macs: you can pick flexibility but sub-optimal flakiness, or something that works really well but that limits your choices. Even ignoring Apple’s superior hardware and operating system, such inequality is inevitable: developers can test on pretty much all Apple devices, but even the biggest developers cannot hope to do so on the tens of thousands of Android machines. iOS simply works better, but good luck to anyone wanting a built-in projector or waterproofing on their iPad (though it can be done).
One of the main reasons I got this was to try e-reading at gigantic size. Using a projector is an interesting alternative to book-like e-readers that has not been researched much, if at all. It does work for this, up to a point. With normal room lighting the projected image is pretty bright up to about 30 inches, but decays rapidly after that. In darkness, I reckon it is pretty good at 90 inches or more. Colours are clear, the image is sharp. It does a very good job of showing anything on the screen, has intuitive controls, and is pretty smart at automatically adjusting the keystone and focus as you move the device around. The focal length is not as wide/adjustable as I’d like – you have to be some way from the wall or ceiling to get a decent picture, far further than for my dedicated pico projector, but I guess that is so that you can sit on a sofa in a normal sized room to control it. Unfortunately the focus is not wonderfully even, so the corners and edges are a bit blurred. However, with a reasonably large font, it is perfectly possible to read it. I have yet to figure out whether it is possible to display it vertically, though, for easier page reading: it seems no one in the design team considered the possibility that someone might want to do that, and it does not flip like the standard screen: pages are therefore always horizontal, whatever their original orientation. The dimness and relatively poor resolution mean that it is not great for looking at details, which is one thing I hoped might be a strength, especially for books with pictures and diagrams. If the projector had the same resolution as the screen itself, you could easily display multiple pages and read them, but that’s not going to happen. Another thing that I had not really thought too deeply about until I tried is is that many of the same problems with reading on a laptop or desktop machine remain: the fixed distance between reader and book is really bad for reading, and not at all comfortable after a little while, though I have enjoyed lying in bed reading a book from the ceiling (albeit that the ceiling texture can make a bit difference to legibility). However, another thing that should have been obvious to me is that, to control it, you need to be holding the device. This means two very bad things happen. First, and most annoyingly, it wobbles. This is incredibly bad for reading. Secondly, it divorces the page turning and highlighting action from the reading surface. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to coordinate hand movements on a tablet when you are not getting direct visual feedback, far worse than, say, using a graphics tablet on a conventional PC. So, though it is kind of nice to be able to read a book with a partner in bed (not something you’d want to do all the time), the projector is by no means a great e-reading device. The standard 10″ screen itself is perfectly usable for reading, if a bit too shiny, and it has the widescreen aspect ratio favoured by most Android tablets, which is good for movies but not so much for reading books. The resolution of the built in screen is very good indeed, but that is not unusual nowadays.
My second use case was to explore its potential as a more social device than most personal machines. Tablets tend to be more social objects than cellphones or PCs anyway – it’s one of the key things that makes them a different product category. Tablets are things that get passed around, peered over together, talked about and used in a (physical) social context. People do use phones that way but only because of the convenience and availability of the devices: they are too small and too personal (texts etc keep popping up) to be really useful in that context. A device with a projector ought to be more interesting. While the projector’s limitations mean that it can’t be used outside or in a brightly lit room, and it’s not much use unless you can find a blank bit of wall to display onto (surprisingly absent in most public social venues like pubs and cafes), in the right physical context it becomes a shared object, a catalyst for conversation and conviviality, and a means to engage with one another. It seems especially useful for things like short YouTube videos, photos, and so on. Having the device on the table when there is a gathering of friends and family means that when (as someone usually does) people refer to something they have seen online, everyone can share the experience as a group, not as separate individuals one or two at a time. This changes the meaning of the activity quite considerably. It notably blurs the online/physical space. For a full TV show or movie, I would almost always prefer to make an event of it and gather round a TV or proper projector than use this inevitably makeshift device. However, it has already proved useful, even in that context. We had a family movie night the other day, with large projector screen, and the PC driving it dropped its Netflix connection, refusing to return. As we only had a few minutes left of the movie, it took all of 2 minutes to switch on the device, aim it at the screen, and pick up where we left off. Another thing that is very appealing about it is that it needs no wires at all – just set it down and play. I’ve not yet had a chance to use it in another similar setting, with two or more collocated groups working at a distance. I suspect that it might be quite effective when using webmeeting or Skype-like software, though the inability to pan the selfie camera might negate the benefits.
Overall, I am quite pleased with this: if it were my only tablet, it would do most, if not all, of what I need a tablet for, and it is not bad for the price, even without the projector, closely comparable to a similar iPad. If the software and hardware combination were more reliable, more consistent and responsive in performance, and less rough at the edges, it might be a very good competitor to my iPad Air 2, but it just isn’t. They are mostly small irritations but there are many of them, from buttons that take a second to respond to random crashes to simple flakiness and inconsistency in software design. Taken together, they make the whole experience profoundly unsatisfying. The device does not disappear as it should. I like the prop, I like the battery life, I like the projector, even though its e-reading uses are limited. It strikes me that there’s room in the market for an iPad accessory that includes integrated projector, battery, maybe speakers and prop. It would be easy enough to implement and much handier to add it when needed than to have such things all the time when, mostly, they are not needed.
The Google Cardboard viewer I purchased is one of the hundreds of cheap generic plastic VR headsets into which one slots a smartphone. It comes with a small, generic, bluetooth controller that is supposed to allow you to control the phone, that works very poorly and intermittently on an Android device, and is virtually useless for an iPhone, though technically supported.
It is quite scary, at first, to place one’s big, expensive phone into this flimsy plastic container and dangle it a few feet above the ground. However, the phone is gripped well and seems in no danger of falling. The device is not very comfortable to wear, especially over a prolonged period, especially if you have a prominent nose. I find the rubbery eye mask to be hot and awkward after a little while, and the elasticated bands begins to be noticeable after a short time. With a big phone, it pulls forwards on your face. Virtual reality is still an uncomfortable place. You look really stupid wearing it.
The software needs a lot of work. The best I have managed so far with it is to look around in a few virtual worlds. With its dreadful controller, it is really hard to even click a hovering button, and the disconnect between the heads-up display and the crappy controls is huge. It might be fun to try this with a circa 1992 data glove, or the super-smart HTC Vive controllers, but that would rather negate the point of a wire-free VR device. This is no Vive or Oculus – not by a long chalk. It’s about the same kind of experience as early 2000s VR, without the wires. The field of view is quite small, the resolution is not great, the movement is jerky and obvious, even on a fast iPhone. It was not notably worse on an old Nexus 4, and Moto G, so I think this is more down to software than hardware.
Once you have exhausted the possibilities of the demo apps that Google provides, it is actually quite tricky to find decent apps for it. It’s not that no apps are available. They are just not very good. It is hard to set them up, many just don’t do anything, and virtually none are properly supported by the bluetooth controller. I would have expected the potential for augmented reality to be a selling point, as the camera is deliberately uncovered. Not so much. Most apps don’t use it at all.
As an e-reader, it is hopeless. Though an Phone 6+ has plenty of definition and is about as big as what the case will hold, all of that is lost when viewed through cheap plastic lenses, and the slight differences in viewing angle from each eye make it quite dizzying to read even large text (without the stereo). Oculus or HTC Vive does this sort of thing quite well, but at such a high price (in every way) it is an absurd idea to even try it. For all such things, the fact that you have to exclude the entire outside world in order to use them makes these deeply anti-social devices. Perhaps the Magic Leap will provide a better answer, as it has both high resolution and integration with the real world. It would be cool to mimic a bookshelf in AR, and would not be a terrible way to read text. Some of the videos – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2E1x3l45YUO2eOhRv-A7lw – are amazing. However, it appears not to be too portable. Something that gave both the portability of the Google Cardboard box and the power of a Magic Leap might be well worth having. There are plenty of suitable desktop variants for such devices.
Overall, this particular device is a badly conceived toy: it is difficult to use, limited, uncomfortable and flaky. Fun to play with for a few minutes, but not good for anything.
Most mainstream smart watches (the Apples and Androids) have glowing screens with battery lives of a day or two at best, and almost all the rest seem to be focused on golf players, runners, or people that want really basic email and phone alerts. The Pebble, however, hits a sweet spot: a claimed battery life of a week or more, a big app ecosystem, an always-on e-paper (not e-ink) LCD screen, and a few sensors to make it useful. I started with an original monochrome Pebble (a fabulous bargain at $79 – less than many fitness trackers alone, and a really good watch) but, after a couple of weeks, passed it on, after realizing that I am too rough on my watches for a plastic screen. So now I have what was, at the time of purchase, the top-of-the-line, colour, voice-recognizing, Gorilla-Glassed Pebble Time Steel ($200). This is on the verge of being superseded by the Pebble Time 2, with a larger viewing screen, keeping the same size for the watch, which is a good thing: the usable screen (it has a big bevel) is too small. I can at least read the time without glasses, though some of the apps use text and images that are too small to read unassisted. I have never come close to the claimed battery life of 10 days: mostly I manage 6-7 days, though I have not run it into the ground so may be misjudging its staying power. However, that’s fine: I just have to take it off for a couple of hours once a week to charge it with its magnetic charger. It does warn you about a day ahead of when it is going to die, so there’s usually time to charge it before it goes completely.
Instead of a touch screen favoured by most smartwatches, the Pebble has just four buttons, that you can use to control almost anything. They are hopeless for data entry (the calculator apps are all but useless) but they are fine and intuitive for getting around the various menus. The Time Steel has voice recognition, that is used in a few apps, but I don’t find it at all accurate and it is weird to talk to a watch, repeating things that it fails to understand over and over. I’m guessing it uses a cloud service to perform the translation itself: a bit bothersome for privacy. I really don’t get the Star Trek notion of talking to your computer. Sure, it’s fine for quick look-ups but I don’t think the evangelists for such things ever looked at how real people actually behave. It’s bad enough having to add things to my shopping list in a supermarket, make appointments on a bus, or take notes in a cafe. Can you imagine dictating a report or a paper in a crowded office or Starbucks? Especially when more than a few people are doing it? Even in the family home it is plain weird to hear someone talking into their computer in the next room and, for many things, confidentiality and privacy are serious issues. So, for a vast number of use cases, the only way to use voice recognition is in a soundproof room. Surprisingly, perhaps, computers that you talk to are considerably more anti-social than those that you write to.
Like most such devices, the Pebble relies on a smartphone for much of its functionality, pulling apps and data (such as GPS coordinates, weather, news, etc) from the phone as needed, keeping only the more recently used ones in its cache. Some apps require separate companion apps on the phone (as opposed to just the Pebble app itself) but, as most eat more battery, I have tried to avoid those where I can. I started by installing a lot of apps but soon realized that most were entirely pointless. On the whole, it is easier to reach into your pocket and use the phone app than to navigate through menus on the watch to find the reduced-functionality one that you need. There are a few that I use all the time: the watch itself, notifications, weather, a shopping list, the alarms, a sailing tracker.
I installed O365 and Evernote note reading apps, but never used them after testing that they worked: it’s basically a terrible way to read notes. I quite liked being able to control presentations from my watch until, the first time I tried to use it for a keynote and despite having tested fine beforehand, it didn’t work at all. A high stress public talk is a bad place to find that out.
As an e-reader, not unexpectedly, the Pebble leaves a lot to be desired. There are various apps that will read text, RSS feeds, etc, by scrolling at a fixed rate, as well as those that let you painfully scroll through text files but one in particular intrigued me: AFR (a faster reader). This displays words one at a time at a configurable speed, laid out in a way that keeps your focus on a central coloured letter (an implementation of RSVP). It’s a strange and disconcerting experience. A standard e-book is bad enough for reducing the contextual information needed to remember what you have read, but AFR decontextualizes every single word, flowing like a video through the text, one word at a time. It cannot read PDFs or DRM’d books (though you can copy your iPhone’s clipboard into it) – and it can be a bit complicated to get text into it, despite useful sharing options in iOS. It also requires a companion app in iOS. It chokes on even mildly complex formatting, and the backlight turns off as usual while it is running so, unless you are in brightly lit conditions, it is not easy to read. There is no control over the text size which, on my watch, is difficult to read even with normal reading glasses. It is also pretty buggy, prone to freezing, and, worst of all, the speed of text on the Pebble does not match that on the iPhone (in fact, it often reads as nonsense, skipping words rather than just slowing down, and showing them at a rate of about one per second, which is hopeless). However, as a concept, I think it is quite neat and well worth exploring further.
As a watch, the Pebble Time Steel is great. I love the backlight. I love that it is waterproof. I can live with charging it once a week. I love the alarms. However, like all computers, it crashes occasionally. Not every week, but maybe every month. Relying on the alarm can, therefore, be a bit risky if it really matters. I’ve experienced one major crash in the past 3 months, which required a device reset. This was annoying, not just for the hassle of having to figure out the weird button combinations needed for the reset, but also because it lost all my settings (including the alarms, that I only realized quite late the next morning). It is also annoying that the app has to be running in the background on the iPhone, and the iPhone doesn’t let you force an app to remain running. The first couple of times it stopped were quite confusing, because the watch told me it couldn’t communicate with the phone, even though I could see it was connected via bluetooth. I just needed to start the app again. I suspect the Android app might be better in that regard though, unfortunately, you cannot pair the watch with more than one device at a time so I’ve not tried that. Though it uses a very lightweight bluetooth connection for most of its activities, it does eat more of my phone battery than I’d like: perhaps 10-20% of its capacity per day. This is a nuisance, but my phone still lasts more than a day on the whole (well, at least it did before Pokémon GO) so it is not too bad.
Overall, I like the Pebble Time Steel. It’s not going to be my e-reader of choice, but it’s a darn good watch. It’s neither ugly nor attractive – the strap is actually very tasteful – it’s comfortable, it tells the time, it withstands bangs and dunkings, it wakes me up, it provides useful information, it doesn’t get in the way, it doesn’t need constant care, it’s always there. But I doubt that I will keep it for very long. In the past, watches used to last for 10 years or more (my Swiss watch is about 20 years old) but I would be quite surprised if this lasts me even a couple of years. Maybe less – its reliance on a proprietary app and phone is quite worrisome and could fail at any time. Such is the way of modern tech. We do not own the things we buy any more.
At first sight the iPad Pro seems like an odd idea. It’s too uncomfortable to hold in one hand, too big to fit in an iPad pocket, it needs a (non-included) pen to operate its smartest features, and it is really expensive, even compared with a quite high-spec laptop. But the ‘Pro’ nomenclature reveals some of what Apple is aiming for: this is not meant as a device for the masses but is instead for those seeking serious productivity from their device, a different way of engaging with a tablet, beyond media consumption, game playing and simple interaction. Indeed, Apple has gone so far as to claim it can be a laptop replacement, if you add a keyboard.
The device feels huge at first, albeit that it is slim and beautiful to hold. After a few hours, though, using a standard iPad feels cramped and small, and the Pro feels quite normal. You’d not want to hold this in one hand for any length of time, of course. It doesn’t actually weigh noticeably more than the first generation iPad, but the force it exerts on your hand can be considerably greater, unless you get the balance exactly right. That’s actually not too hard, though it does call for a change in approach. I tend to use the device on my lap, or propped up in bed, or in its keyboard case resting on a chair or table. I can walk around with it when I need to, and that’s a world away from walking around with a laptop, and it is vastly much easier to share with other people around you. I have found that its extraordinarily good video display makes it a far more interesting social device than smaller tablets when sitting around with other people. I am very used to passing a tablet around for my wife, family and friends to look at but, with the iPad Pro, we can all look at the same thing together, sitting on a sofa or at a table. It’s surprisingly superior to the same experience using a laptop too. Perhaps it is the lack of other intrusions, or the cleanness of just a screen and nothing else to interfere with the experience. The iPad largely disappears, leaving only the content it displays. Those that hold it tend to be reluctant to let go again. The battery life is good: 9 or 10 hours seems about normal.
The Pro is great for reading of news sites, letting you see large amounts of individual articles and links to other articles on a page. Much more convenient than a newspaper, but with a similar capability to show not just what you are reading but other stories around it. Oddly, though, it is not as satisfying as I had thought it might be for normal e-books. In some ways is exacerbates the problem of there being a lot of undifferentiated, non-typeset text, emphasizing the fact that there has been no human involvement in laying it out on screen. However, for books with many diagrams and images, it is a lot better than smaller devices and, for those with particularly bad eyesight, it might be wonderful. For simply reading a long-form linear text, however, the Kindle Voyage wins hands down.
One big hope that I had for this was, like the DPT-S1, to be able to comfortably read – and annotate – PDF files originally designed for print. This has actually worked out pretty well – far, far better than the rotten DPT-S1. Reading is easy on the eye, immune to most light levels apart from really bright sun or spotlights, and the experience is mostly smooth and slick. The size of the screen means that there is even enough space for apps like Goodreader to show previews of surrounding pages, which helps a lot in getting a sense of where you are in a text (a perennial problem with most existing e-readers), and largely eliminates one of the major cognitive hurdles in reading e-texts, that there is no consistent visual pattern to help you remember what you have read. When I have a lot of work to mark, this is great. It is much lighter and easier to carry than (say) a paper thesis or dissertation, and almost as easy to mark up, though nothing like as light as the DPT-S1. One notable difference between paper and all the software I have used, however, is that it is much harder to flick between multiple pages, to hold two or three open at once from different parts of the manuscript to compare and connect them: it would be so useful to find a good way to replicate this, especially for writing my own books and papers. Though bookmarks help, it is nothing like as fluid or easy as holding a manuscript with fingers on each passage that interests me. I suspect that a desk-sized tablet, with the same retina resolution and an Apple Pencil, might solve this problem, with the right software. Though quite a few ‘tablets’ with such dimensions do exist, all of those I have seen cannot come close to this resolution, including the ludicrously priced Microsoft Surface Hub. We might have a generation or two to go before that becomes a reality and, by then, heads-up displays will offer a much more cost-effective and flexible alternative. I think perhaps that the main problem is the metaphor of a screen as being a window into virtual space. Windows frame things that should not be framed.
There are numerous annotation-friendly apps for PDFs available, with different strengths and weaknesses. It bugs me, though, that every app maintains its own storage so you cannot seamlessly flit between different apps to take advantage of their different features. This is one of the things that makes iOS secure, but it makes it very annoying to manage documents, even though cloud storage services can reduce that pain a little. Essentially, though, you have to copy documents between one app and the next, rather than simply working on them with whatever you want to use. There is no sense of connection and continuity. I guess, if I were wise, I would simply use a single moderately good app like Goodreader, with its own storage and copious links to cloud storage for shifting documents around, and leave it at that, but that’s not the kind of guy I am, and it doesn’t handle all document workflows well, especially with regard to conversion between formats. I want to keep chasing the adjacent possible.
I am far from being a visual artist, but there are many occasions that it would be useful to draw things, create diagrams, design 3D objects for printing or VR, sketch ideas, mockup interfaces, sketch over images, and so on. In dedicated apps, with the Apple Pencil, the iPad mostly feels much like working on paper, with all the additional tools, views, perspectives, layers and wonderful extras that the computer-based environment provides. Very different too from working with a graphics tablet that, because it is separate from the created object, has always felt alienating and awkward to me. There are also plenty of tools that let you annotate PDFs and images. But I would like to be able to do this kind of thing and seamlessly incorporate it into anything that I am doing – to sketch in a slideshow, or word processor, a book, a paper, or whatever, wherever I am. The notion that documents are of a particular type – not just text, image, diagram, etc but specific formats of such things (Word, Kindle, PNG, etc) – is deep in the genes of even the smartest tablets. We seem trapped in a 1980s timewarp on this. It is even true of formats that ought to support such flexibility like word processors, perhaps because of Microsoft’s stranglehold on word processing paradigms that has kept us in a typewriter mindset for decades. Even Apple’s own otherwise great Pages is victim to this. At best, you can embed an image or use a separate app within the main application.
After Apple’s hype, I wondered whether it might also work as a laptop replacement, and so I got a backlit Logitech keyboard to test this theory out. I have tried this experiment with various different tablets (Apple, Android, and Windows) over the past 6 years or so, but all my efforts so far had been less than wonderful. Fine for a day or two on the road, but not at all close to the laptop experience. The iPad Pro is better, but still not ideal. I’m typing this on the Logitech keyboard and finding it to be at least as comfortable as typing on my MacBook Pro. The screen is incredibly bright and clear. WIth the enormous Logitech case, though, it is very heavy indeed, perhaps heavier than my MacBook Pro and far less well balanced. The case has only one position – comfortable-ish, but not great. It has a nice set of iPad optimized function keys, though, and works with most Mac keyboard shortcuts, e.g. app switching. I also like that it just works, sipping power from the iPad itself. It is a vast improvement on smaller machines – especially with the dual-window view – and might be OK for a few days at a pinch if I were not doing anything apart from using the Internet, doing a bit of writing, and maybe a bit of presenting. There probably are some people that could use it as a laptop all the time but, as a technologist and computing professional, it is nothing like close enough: the software is simply not sufficiently capable. It’s OK at a pinch for remote-controlling the Macbook Pro, but not a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the new iOS Scrivener app, which is very close to the desktop version in power and usability, but it lacks the tight integration with reference libraries of the desktop version, and I use such things a great deal.
The retina resolution makes a really great second screen that I can use while travelling or on my boat, using the terrific Duet app for a virtually lagless and seamless experience. I have done this with the smaller iPad Air 2 for some time, but it has always been just a little bit of extra real estate, not a seriously useful extra monitor: helpful for, say, viewing incoming email or writing brief notes, but not in the same league as a real second monitor. The iPad Pro can be used for real work – programming, marking, research, etc are a breeze with a big screen attached. Not quite as amazing as my 29” Apple monitor, but good enough for real gains in productivity. Though it has to be tethered to the MacBook Pro for this, it allows you to read papers etc from the much more flexible computer with at least some of the benefits of a tablet.
Another good surprise is the onscreen keyboard, that is not far off complete, with a row of numbers and a good range of punctuation available at all times, and a size that fits my hands well. This only applies to apps that have been optimized for the iPad Pro – there are still quite a few that make use of the more basic and less functional keyboard of the older iPad. In fact, there are even a few iPhone apps that do run on the Pro, albeit not completely full-screen (even with double scaling) which looks entirely weird, like clunky toys. But, when you get the full iPad experience, typing on the screen is far easier and friendlier than in previous models.
One irritation is that quite a few websites decide that I am using an iPad and therefore give me a mobile-optimized – ie. less functional – view. With all that screen real estate it is silly to have a set of buttons etc that are made to work on a cellphone. Conversely, sites that are designed for desktop use can be fiddly, especially when they disable pinch-to-zoom. Google Books (which could be amazingly useful in this format) is a real pain – its tiny zoom buttons are hard to press and it overrides all the usual controls – especially zoom – that one would normally use to deal with that.
Using it in the sunshine is fine, from a screen perspective, but risky: it gets very very hot very very quickly. The first time I realized it was happening I had to rush inside and train a fan on it because the battery was notably in peril. A case is essential for outdoor summer use. It is not great in the rain either.
The Apple Pencil is a real surprise. I was in two minds whether to get it at all. Seriously, $115 for a pencil that doesn’t even write, and that only works with one device (now two)? I could get two cheap tablets for the price of this thin white stick. To make things worse, though it is quite pretty in its simplicity, this is not a well designed tool. The magnetic lid for the lightning connector is guaranteed to be lost, as is the connector that allows it to be charged using a standard lightning cable. I have no idea where I put the spare rubber tip for when the current one wears down. Apple used to be better than this – I am quite sure Steve Jobs would not have allowed this one out of the door. There’s no way to keep it with your iPad, unless you want to 3D print something to hold it or use sticky tape, and neither the Apple nor the Logitech keyboard cases have any means to attach it, which seems bizarre. It is incredibly easy to lose. When just putting it down, the fact that it is magnetic means it will stick to the side of the iPad, but not strongly enough to hold on when it is tilted. It’s not terrible on a flat surface because it is counterweighted a little so that it doesn’t roll too much – a nice design touch. On a white tablecloth, though, it is easily missed. It is just difficult enough to find that it becomes an active decision to use it. It would certainly cure the problems of, say, non-zooming screens in web browsers but, unless it is directly to hand, it is too much hassle to go find it when such needs occur. The fast charge option, though, which gives about 30 minutes use on a 15 second charge, is quite smart, and I love the way it disables the touch sensitive screen when it gets close to it, so you can very comfortably rest your hand and trust that you will not suddenly start drawing with knuckles or other parts of your anatomy.
In most apps (not all), lines appear instantly, with no perceptible lag, a great deal of accuracy (Apple make the point that the level of control is tens of times more accurate than even the best passive pens) and a reassuring amount of tactile feedback. I have used other styluses that are best of breed – Pencil (the non-Apple one), for instance – but they don’t come close enough to replicating the experience of drawing on paper. The Apple Pencil does. Drawing with hard rubber on glass is certainly not at all the same thing as writing on paper with pen, pencil, charcoal or brush, but it’s a lot better than a hard-tipped or blobby rubber-tipped stylus, and it is easy to get used to it, especially thanks to the near-instant feedback. I can create extremely small details, with a similar amount of precision as I would get with a ballpoint ben, though maybe a little less than with a proper drawing pen like a Rapidograph or even a fine rollerball. However, that tends to be no big problem because, in most apps, you can zoom in to any level of detail you like. I was quite surprised to find it really easy and natural to, for instance, draw lines using a real ruler, which (on older tablets) is possible but totally weird, and prone to accidental artefacts. You can even trace or draw around things, which is neat for 3D design, especially. There is, though, still a very slight perceptible distance between the drawing surface and the stylus. The glass is extremely thin indeed – a hair’s breadth – but it is still there, and it separates you from the page. It’s like the difference between playing a guitar and playing a piano: the feedback is between hand and brain rather than hand and medium. It’s not quite direct.
I am enjoying the Apple Pencil more and more. Its precision turns out to be extremely useful at times, allowing manipulations and selection of small objects with ease, and I enjoy writing and sketching with it. It just disappears (sadly, literally sometimes) and it changes the nature of the interaction with the tablet in some very good ways.
Overall, I was not expecting wonders from the iPad Pro – at least compared with the Air 2 – and was totally in sympathy with Steve Jobs’s edict to avoid styluses on such things, but I have been very pleasantly surprised. The size of the iPad Pro makes a huge difference for reading (though seldom of e-books) and working in general, the Pencil is really effective for all its design flaws, and this, after my Macbook Pro and iPhone, is one of my favourite and most-used devices.
Some amazing stories have been emerging lately about Pokémon GO, from people wandering through live broadcasts in search of monsters, to lurings of mugging victims, to discoveries of dead bodies, to monsters in art galleries and museums, to people throwing phones to try to capture Pokémons, to it overtaking Facebook in engagement (by a mile), to cafes going from empty to full in a day thanks to one little monster, to people entering closed zoo enclosures and multiple other dangerous behaviours (including falling off a cliff), to uses of Pokémon to raise money for charity, to applause for its mental and physical health benefits, to the saving of 27 (real) animals, to religious edicts to avoid it from more than one religion, to cheating boyfriends being found out by following Pokémon GO tracks.
And so on.
Of all of them, my current favourite is the story of the curators of Auschwitz having to ask people not to play the game within its bounds. It’s kind of poetic: people are finding fictional monsters and playing games with them in a memorial that is there, more than anything, to remind us of real monsters. We shall soon see a lot more and a lot wilder clashes between reality and augmented reality, and a lot more unexpected consequences, some great, some not. Lives will be lost, lives will be changed. There will be life affirming acts, there will be absurdities, there will be great joy, there will be great sadness. As business models emerge, from buttons to sponsorship to advertising to trading to training, there will be a lot of money being made in a vast, almost instant ecosystem. Above all, there will be many surprises. So many adjacent possibles are suddenly emerging.
AR (augmented reality) has been on the brink of this breakthrough moment for a decade or so. I did not guess that it would explode in less than a week when it finally happened, but here it is. Some might quibble about whether Pokémon GO is actually AR as such (it overlays rather than augments reality), but, if there were once a more precise definition of AR, there isn’t any more. There are now countless millions that are inhabiting a digitally augmented physical space, very visibly sharing the same consensual hallucinations, and they are calling it AR. It’s not that it’s anything new. Not at all. It’s the sheer scale of it. The walls of the dam are broken and the flood has begun.
This is an incredibly exciting moment for anyone with the slightest interest in digital technologies or their effects on society. The fact that it is ‘just’ a game just makes it all the more remarkable. For some, this seems like just another passing fad: bigger than most, a bit more interesting, but just a fad. Perhaps so. I don’t care. For me, it seems like we are witnessing a sudden, irreversible, and massive global shift in our perceptions of the nature of digital systems, of the ways that we can use them, and of what they mean in our lives. This is, with only a slight hint of hyperbole, about to change almost everything.
There has been a lot of hype of late around AR’s geekier cousin, VR (virtual reality), notably relating to Oculus, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR, but I’m not much enthused. VR has moved only incrementally since the early 90s and the same problems we saw back then persist in almost exactly the same form now, just with more dots. It’s cool, but I don’t find the experience is really that much more immersive than it was in the early 90s, once you get over the initial wowness of the far higher fidelity. There are a few big niches for it (hard core gaming, simulation, remote presence, etc), and that’s great. But, for most of us, its impact will (in its current forms) not come close to that of PCs, smartphones, tablets, TVs or even games consoles. Something that cuts us off from the real world so completely, especially while it is so conspicuously physically engulfing our heads in big tech, cannot replace very much of what we currently do with computers, and only adds a little to what we can already do without it. Notwithstanding its great value in supporting shared immersive spaces, the new ways it gives us to play with others, and its great potential in games and education, it is not just asocial, it is antisocial. Great big tethered headsets (and even untethered low-res ones) are inherently isolating. We also have a long way to go towards finding a good way to move around in virtual spaces. This hasn’t changed much for the better since the early 90s, despite much innovation. And that’s not to mention the ludicrous amounts of computing power needed for it by today’s standards: my son’s HTC Vive requires a small power station to keep it going, and it blows hot air like a noisy fan heater. It is not helped by the relative difficulty of creating high fidelity interactive virtual environments, nor by vertigo issues. It’s cool, it’s fun, but this is still, with a few exceptions, geek territory. Its big moment will come, but not quite yet, and not as a separate technology: it will be just one of the features that comes for free with AR.
AR, on the whole, is the opposite of isolating. You can still look into the eyes of others when you are in AR, and participate not just in the world around you, but in an enriched and more social version of it. A lot of the fun of Pokémon GO involves interacting with others, often strangers, and it involves real-world encounters, not avatars. More interestingly, AR is not just a standalone technology: as we start to use more integrated technologies like heads-up displays (HUDs) and projectors, it will eventually envelop VR too, as well as screen-based technologies like PCs, smartphones, TVs, e-readers, and tablets, as well as a fair number of standalone smart devices like the Amazon Echo (though the Internet of Things will integrate interestingly with it). It has been possible to replace screens with glasses for a long time (devices between $100 and $200 abound) but, till now, there has been little point apart from privacy, curiosity, and geek cred. They have offered less convenience than cellphones, and a lot of (literal and figurative) headaches. They are either tethered or have tiny battery lives, they are uncomfortable, they are fragile, they are awkward to use, high resolution versions cost a lot, most are as isolating as VR and, as long as they are a tiny niche product, perhaps most of all, there are some serious social obstacles to wearing HUDs in public. That is all about to change. They are about to become mainstream.
The fact that AR can be done right now with no more than a cellphone is cool and it has been for a few years, but it will get much cooler as the hardware for HUDs becomes better, more widespread and, most importantly, more people share the augmented space. The scale is what makes the Pokémon GO phenomenon so significant, even though it is currently mostly a cellphone and GO Plus thing. It matters because, apart from being really interesting in its own right, soon, enough people will want hardware to match, and that will make it worth going into serious mass production. At that point it gets really interesting, because lots of people will be wearing HUD AR devices.
Google’s large-scale Glass experiment was getting there (and it’s not over yet), but it was mostly viewed with mild curiosity and a lot of suspicion. Why would any normal person want to look like the Borg? What were the wearers doing with those very visible cameras? What were they hiding? Why bother? The tiny minority that wore them were outsiders, weirdos, geeks, a little creepy. But things have moved on: the use cases have suddenly become very compelling, enough (I think) to overcome the stigma. The potentially interesting Microsoft Hololens, the incredibly interesting Magic Leap, and the rest (Meta 1, Recon Jet, Moverio, etc, etc) that are queueing up in the sidelines are nearly here. Apparently, Pokémon GO with a Hololens might be quite special. Apple’s rumoured foray into the field might be very interesting. Samsung’s contact-lens camera system is still a twinkling in Samsung’s eye, but it and many things even more amazing are coming soon. Further off, as nanotech develops and direct neural interfaces become available, the possibilities are (hopefully not literally) mind blowing.
What this all adds up to is that, as more of us start to use such devices, the computer as an object, even in its ubiquitous small smartphone or smartwatch form, will increasingly disappear. Tools like wearables and smart digital assistants have barely even arrived yet, but their end is palpably nigh. Why bother with a smart watch when you can project anything you wish on your wrist (or anywhere else, for that matter?). Why bother with having to find a device when you are wearing any device you can imagine? Why take out a phone to look for Pokémon? Why look at a screen when you can wear a dozen of them, anywhere, any size, adopting any posture you like? It will be great for ergonomics. This is pretty disruptive: whole industries are going to shrink, perhaps even disappear.
Futurologists and scifi authors once imagined a future filled with screens, computers, smartphones and visible tech. That’s not how it will be at all. Sure, old technologies never die so these separate boxes won’t disappear altogether, and there’s still plenty of time left for innovation in such things, and vast profits still to be made in them as this revolution begins. There may be a decade or two of growth left for these endangered technologies. But the mainstream future of digital technologies is much more human, much more connected, much more social, much more embedded, and much less visible. The future is AR. The whirring big boxes and things with flashing lights that eat our space, our environment, our attention and our lives will, if they exist at all, be hidden in well-managed farms of servers, or in cupboards and walls. This will greatly reduce our environmental impact, the mountains of waste, the ugliness of our built spaces. I, for one, will be glad to see the disappearance of TV sets, of mountains of wires on my desk, of the stacks of tablets, cellphones, robots, PCs, and e-readers that litter my desktop, cupboards and basement. OK, I’m a bit geeky. But most of our homes and workplaces are shrines to screens and wiring. it’s ugly, it’s incredibly wasteful, it’s inhibiting. Though smartness will be embedded everywhere, in our clothing, our furniture, our buildings, our food, the visible interface will appear on displays that play only in or on our heads, and in or on the heads of those around us, in one massive shared hyperreality, a blend of physical and virtual that we all participate in, perhaps sharing the same virtual space, perhaps a different one, perhaps one physical space, perhaps more. At the start, we will wear geeky goggles, visors and visible high tech, but this will just be an intermediate phase. Pretty soon they will start to look cool, as designers with less of a Star Trek mentality step in. Before long, they will be no more weird than ordinary glasses. Later, they will almost vanish. The end point is virtual invisibility, and virtual ubiquity.
Pokémon GO has barely scratched the surface of this adjacent possible, but it has given us our first tantalizing glimpses of the unimaginably vast realms of potential that emerge once enough people hook into the digitally augmented world and start doing things together in it. To take one of the most boringly familiar examples, will we still visit cinemas when we all have cinema-like fidelity in devices on or in our heads? Maybe. There’s a great deal to be said for doing things together in a physical space, as Pokémon GO shows us with a vengeance. But, though we might be looking at the ‘same’ screen, in the same place, there will be no need to project it. Anywhere can become a cinema just as anywhere can be a home for a Pokémon. Anywhere can become an office. Any space can turn into what we want it to be. My office, as I type this, is my boat. This is cool, but I am isolated from my co-workers and students, channeling all communication with them through the confined boundaries of a screen. AR can remove those boundaries, if I wish. I could be sitting here with friends and colleagues, each in their own spaces or together, ‘sitting’ in the cockpit with me or bobbing on the water. I could be teaching, with students seeing what I see, following my every move, and vice versa. When my outboard motor needs fixing (it often does) I could see it with a schematic overlay, or receive direct instruction from a skilled mechanic: the opportunities for the service industry, from plumbing to university professoring, are huge. I could replay events where they happened, including historical events that I was not there to see, things that never happened, things that could happen in the future, what-if scenarios, things that are microscopically small, things that are unimaginably huge, and so on. This is a pretty old idea with many mature existing implementations (e.g. here, here, here and here). Till now they have been isolated phenomena, and most are a bit clunky. As this is accepted as the mainstream, it will cascade into everything. Forget rose-tinted spectacles: the world can be whatever I want it to become. In fact, this could be literally true, not just virtually: I could draw objects in the space they will eventually occupy (such virtual sculpture apps already exist for VR), then 3D print them.
Just think of the possibilities for existing media. Right now I find it useful to work on multiple monitors because the boundaries of one screen are insufficient to keep everything where I need it at once. With AR, I can have dozens of them or (much more interestingly) forget the ‘screen’ metaphor altogether and work as fluidly as I like with text, video, audio and more, all the while as aware of the rest of my environment, and the people in it, as I wish. Computers, including cellphones, isolate: they draw us into them, draw our gaze away from the world around us. AR integrates with that world, and integrates us with it, enhancing both physical and virtual space, enhancing us. We are and have only ever been intelligent as a collective, our intelligence embedded in one another and in the technologies we share. Suddenly, so much more of that can be instantly available to us. This is seriously social technology, albeit that there will be some intriguing and messy interpersonal problems when each of us might be engaged in a private virtual world while outwardly engaging in another. There are countless ways this could (and will) play out badly.
Or what about a really old technology? I now I have hundreds of e-books that sit forgotten, imprisoned inside that little screen, viewable a page at a time or listed in chunks that fit the dimensions of the device. Bookshelves – constant reminders of what we have read and augmenters of our intellects – remain one of the major advantages of p-books, as does their physicality that reveals context, not just text. With AR, I will be able to see my whole library (and other libraries and bookstores, if I wish), sort it instantly, filter it, seek ideas and phrases, flick through books as though they were physical objects, or view them as a scroll, or one large sheet of virtual paper, or countless other visualizations that massively surpass physical books as media that contribute to my understanding of the text. Forget large format books for images: they can be 20 metres tall if we want them to be. I’ll be able to fling pages, passages, etc onto the wall or hovering in the air, shuffle them, rearrange them, connect them. I’ll be able to make them disappear all at once, and reappear in the same form when I need them again. The limits are those of the imagination, not the boundaries of physical space. We will no doubt start by skeuomorphically incorporating what we already know but, as the adjacent possibles unfold, there will be no end to the creative potential to go far, far beyond that. This is one of the most boring uses of AR I can think of, but it is still beyond magical.
We will, surprisingly soon, continuously inhabit multiple worlds – those of others, those others invent, those that are abstract, those that blend media, those that change what we perceive, those that describe it, those that explain it, those that enhance it, those we assemble or create for ourselves. We will see the world through one another’s eyes, see into one another’s imaginations, engage in multiple overlapping spaces that are part real, part illusion, and we will do so with others, collocated and remote, seamlessly, continuously. Our devices will decorate our walls, analyze our diets, check our health. Our devices won’t forget things, will remember faces, birthdays, life events, connections. We may all have eidetic memories, if that is what we want. While cellphones make our lives more dangerous, these devices will make them safer, warning us when we are about to step into the path of an oncoming truck as we monitor our messages and news. As smartness is embedded in the objects around us, our HUDs will interact with them: no more lost shirts, no guessing the temperature of our roasts, no forgetting to turn off lights. We will gain new senses – seeing in the dark, even through walls, will become commonplace. We will, perhaps, sense small fluctuations in skin temperature to help us better understand what people are feeling. Those of us with visual impairment (most of us) will be able to zoom in, magnify, have text read to us, or delve deeper through QR codes or their successors. Much of what we need to know now will be unnecessary (though we will still enjoy discovering it, as much as we enjoy discovering monsters) but our ability to connect it will grow exponentially. We won’t be taking devices out of our pockets to do that, nor sitting in front of brightly lit screens.
We will very likely become very dependent on these ubiquitous, barely visible devices, these prostheses for the mind. We may rarely take them off. Not all of this will be good. Not by a mile. When technologies change us, as they tend to do, many of those changes tend to be negative. When they change us a lot, there will be a lot of negatives, lots of new problems they create as well as solve, lots of aggregations and integrations that will cause unforeseen woes. This video at vimeo.com/166807261 shows a nightmare vision of what this might be like, but it doesn’t need to be a nightmare: we will need to learn to tame it, to control it, to use it wisely. Ad blockers will work in this space too.
AR has been in the offing for some time, but mainly as futuristic research in labs, half-baked experimental products like Google Glass, or ‘hey wow’ technologies like Layar, Aurasma, Google Translate, etc. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, all the big players, as well as many thousands of startups, are already scrabbling frantically to get into this space, and to find ways to use what they already have to better effect. I suspect they are looking at the Pokémon GO phenomenon with a mix of awe, respect, and avarice (and, in Google’s case, perhaps a hint of regret). Formerly niche products like Google Tango or Structure Sensor are going to find themselves a lot more in the spotlight as the value of being able to accurately map physical space around us becomes ever greater. Smarter ways of interacting, like this at www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA_HZVmmY84, will sprout like weeds.
People are going to pay much more attention to existing tools and wonder how they can become more social, more integrated, more fluid, less clunky. We are going to need standards: isolated apps are quite cool, but the big possibilities occur when we are able to mash them up, integrate them, allow them to share space with one another. It would be really useful if there were an equivalent of the World Wide Web for the augmented world: a means of addressing not just coordinates but surfaces, objects, products, trees, buildings, etc, that any application could hook into, that is distributed and open, not held by those that control the APIs. We need spatial and categorical hyperlinks between things that exist in physical and virtual space. I fear that, instead, we may see more of the evils of closed APIs controlled by organizations like Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and their kin. Hopefully they will realise that they will get bigger benefits from expanding the ecosystem (I think Google might get this first) but there is a good chance that short-termist greed will get the upper hand instead. The web had virgin, non-commercial ground in which to flourish before the bad people got there. I am not sure that such a space exists any more, and that’s sad. Perhaps HTML 6 will extend into physical space. That might work. Every space, every product, every plant, every animal, every person, addressable via a URL.
There will be ever more innovations in battery or other power/power saving technologies, display technologies and usability: the abysmal battery life of current devices, in particular, will soon be very irritating. There will likely be a lot of turf wars as different cloud services compete for user populations, different standards and APIs compete for apps, and different devices compete for customers. There will be many acquisitions. Privacy, already a major issue, will take a pounding, as new ways of invading it proliferate. What happens when Google sees all that you see? Measures your room with millimetre accuracy? Tracks every moment of your waking life? What happens when security services tap in? Or hackers? Or advertisers? There will be kickback and resistance, much of it justified. New forms of DRM will struggle to contain what needs to be free: ownership of digital objects will be hotly contested. New business models (personalized posters anyone? in situ personal assistants? digital objects for the home? mashup museums and galleries?) will enrage us, inform us, amuse us, enthrall us. Facebook, temporarily wrong footed in its ill-considered efforts to promote Oculus, will come back with a vengeance and find countless new ways to exploit us (if you think it is bad now, imagine what it will be like when it tracks our real-world social networks). The owners of the maps and the mapped data will become rich: Niantic is right now sitting on a diamond as big as the Ritz. We must be prepared for new forms of commerce, new sources of income, new ways of learning, new ways of understanding, new ways of communicating, new notions of knowledge, new tools, new standards, new paradigms, new institutions, new major players, new forms of exploitation, new crimes, new intrusions, new dangers, new social problems we can so far barely dream of. It will certainly take years, not months, for all of this to happen, though it is worth remembering that network effects kick in fast: the Pokémon GO only took a few days. It is coming, significant parts of it are already here, and we need to be preparing for it now. Though the seeds have been germinating for many years, they have germinated in relatively isolated pockets. This simple game has opened up the whole ecosystem.
I guess, being an edtech blogger, I should say a bit more about the effects of Pokémon GO on education but that’s mostly for another post, and much of it is implied in what I have written so far. There have been plenty of uses of AR in conventional education so far, and there will no doubt be thousands of ways that people use Pokémon GO in their teaching (some great adjacent possibles in locative, gamified learning), as well as ways to use the countless mutated purpose-built forms that will appear any moment now, and that will be fun, though not earth shattering. I have, for instance, been struggling to find useful ways to use geocaching in my teaching (of computing etc) for over a decade, but it was always too complex to manage, given that my students are mostly pretty sparsely spread across the globe: basically, I don’t have the resources to populate enough geocaches. The kind of mega-scale mapping that Niantic has successfully accomplished could now make this possible, if they open up the ecosystem. However, most uses of AR will, at first, simply extend the status quo, letting us do better what we have always done and that we only needed to do because of physics. The real disruption, the result of the fact we can overcome physics, will take a while longer, and will depend on the ubiquity of more integrated, seamlessly networked forms of AR. When the environment is smart, the kind of intelligence we need to make use of it is quite different from most of what our educational systems are geared up to provide. When connection between the virtual and physical is ubiquitous, fluid and high fidelity, we don’t need to limit ourselves to conventional boundaries of classes, courses, subjects and schools. We don’t need to learn today what we will only use in 20 years time. We can do it now. Networked computers made this possible. AR makes it inevitable. I will have more to say about this.
This is going to change things. Lots of things.
A lot of progress has been made in medicine in recent years through the application of cocktails of drugs. Those used to combat AIDS are perhaps the most well-known, but there are many other applications of the technique to everything from lung cancer to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The logic is simple. Different drugs attack different vulnerabilities in the pathogens etc they seek to kill. Though evolution means that some bacteria, viruses or cancers are likely to be adapted to escape one attack, the more different attacks you make, the less likely it will be that any will survive.
Unfortunately, combinatorial complexity means this is not a simply a question of throwing a bunch of the best drugs of each type together and gaining their benefits additively. I have recently been reading John H. Miller’s ‘A crude look at the whole: the science of complex systems in business, life and society‘ which is, so far, excellent, and that addresses this and many other problems in complexity science. Miller uses the nice analogy of fashion to help explain the problem: if you simply choose the most fashionable belt, the trendiest shoes, the latest greatest shirt, the snappiest hat, etc, the chances of walking out with the most fashionable outfit by combining them together are virtually zero. In fact, there’s a very strong chance that you will wind up looking pretty awful. It is not easily susceptible to reductive science because the variables all affect one another deeply. If your shirt doesn’t go with your shoes, it doesn’t matter how good either are separately. The same is true of drugs. You can’t simply pick those that are best on their own without understanding how they all work together. Not only may they not additively combine, they may often have highly negative effects, or may prevent one another being effective, or may behave differently in a different sequence, or in different relative concentrations. To make matters worse, side effects multiply as well as therapeutic benefits so, at the very least, you want to aim for the smallest number of compounds in the cocktail that you can get away with. Even were the effects of combining drugs positive, it would be premature to believe that it is the best possible solution unless you have actually tried them all. And therein lies the rub, because there are really a great many ways to combine them.
Miller and colleagues have been using the ideas behind simulated annealing to create faster, better ways to discover working cocktails of drugs. They started with 19 drugs which, a small bit of math shows, could be combined in 2 to the power of 19 different ways – about half a million possible combinations (not counting sequencing or relative strength issues). As only 20 such combinations could be tested each week, the chances of finding an effective, let alone the best combination, were slim within any reasonable timeframe. Simplifying a bit, rather than attempting to cover the entire range of possibilities, their approach finds a local optimum within one locale by picking a point and iterating variations from there until the best combination is found for that patch of the fitness landscape. It then checks another locale and repeats the process, and iterates until they have covered a large enough portion of the fitness landscape to be confident of having found at least a good solution: they have at least several peaks to compare. This also lets them follow up on hunches and to use educated guesses to speed up the search. It seems pretty effective, at least when compared with alternatives that attempt a theory-driven intentional design (too many non-independent variables), and is certainly vastly superior to methodically trying every alternative, inasmuch as it is actually possible to do this within acceptable timescales.
The central trick is to deliberately go downhill on the fitness landscape, rather than following an uphill route of continuous improvement all the time, which may simply get you to the top of an anthill rather than the peak of Everest in the fitness landscape. Miller very effectively shows that this is the fundamental error committed by followers of the Six-Sigma approach to management, an iterative method of process improvement originally invented to reduce errors in the manufacturing process: it may work well in a manufacturing context with a small number of variables to play with in a fixed and well-known landscape, but it is much worse than useless when applied in a creative industry like, say, education, because the chances that we are climbing a mountain and not an anthill are slim to negligible. In fact, the same is true even in manufacturing: if you are just making something inherently weak as good as it can be, it is still weak. There are lessons here for those that work hard to make our educational systems work better. For instance, attempts to make examination processes more reliable are doomed to fail because it’s exams that are the problem, not the processes used to run them. As I finish this while listening to a talk on learning analytics, I see dozens of such examples: most of the analytics tools described are designed to make the various parts of the educational machine work ‘ better’, ie. (for the most part) to help ensure that students’ behaviour complies with teachers’ intent. Of course, the only reason such compliance was ever needed was for efficient use of teaching resources, not because it is good for learning. Anthills.
This way of thinking seems to me to have potentially interesting applications in educational research. We who work in the area are faced with an irreducibly large number of recombinable and mutually affective variables that make any ethical attempt to do experimental research on effectiveness (however we choose to measure that – so many anthills here) impossible. It doesn’t stop a lot of people doing it, and telling us about p-values that prove their point in more or less scupulous studies, but they are – not to put too fine a point on it – almost always completely pointless. At best, they might be telling us something useful about a single, non-replicable anthill, from which we might draw a lesson or two for our own context. But even a single omitted word in a lecture, a small change in inflection, let alone an impossibly vast range of design, contextual, historical and human factors, can have a substantial effect on learning outcomes and effectiveness for any given individual at any given time. We are always dealing with a lot more than 2 to the power of 19 possible mutually interacting combinations in real educational contexts. For even the simplest of research designs in a realistic educational context, the number of possible combinations of relevant variables is more likely closer to 2 to the power of 100 (in base 10 that’s 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376). To make matters worse, the effects we are looking for may sometimes not be apparent for decades (having recombined and interacted with countless others along the way) and, for anything beyond trivial reductive experiments that would tell us nothing really useful, could seldom be done at a rate of more than a handful per semester, let alone 20 per week. This is a very good reason to do a lot more qualitative research, seeking meanings, connections, values and stories rather than trying to prove our approaches using experimental results. Education is more comparable to psychology than medicine and suffers the same central problem, that the general does not transfer to the specific, as well as a whole bunch of related problems that Smedslund recently coherently summarized. The article is paywalled, but Smedlund’s abstract states his main points succinctly:
“The current empirical paradigm for psychological research is criticized because it ignores the irreversibility of psychological processes, the infinite number of influential factors, the pseudo-empirical nature of many hypotheses, and the methodological implications of social interactivity. An additional point is that the differences and correlations usually found are much too small to be useful in psychological practice and in daily life. Together, these criticisms imply that an objective, accumulative, empirical and theoretical science of psychology is an impossible project.”
You could simply substitute ‘education’ for ‘psychology’ in this, and it would read the same. But it gets worse, because education is as much about technology and design as it is about states of mind and behaviour, so it is orders of magnitude more complex than psychology. The potential for invention of new ways of teaching and new states of learning is essentially infinite. Reductive science thus has a very limited role in educational research, at least as it has hitherto been done.
But what if we took the lessons of simulated annealing to heart? I recently bookmarked an approach to more reliable research suggested by the Christensen Institute that might provide a relevant methodology. The idea behind this is (again, simplifying a bit) to do the experimental stuff, then to sweep the normal results to one side and concentrate on the outliers, performing iterations of conjectures and experiments on an ever more diverse and precise range of samples until a richer, fuller picture results. Although it would be painstaking and longwinded, it is a good idea. But one cycle of this is a bit like a single iteration of Miller’s simulated annealing approach, a means to reach the top of one peak in the fitness landscape, that may still be a low-lying peak. However if, having done that, we jumbled up the variables again and repeated it starting in a different place, we might stand a chance of climbing some higher anthills and, perhaps, over time we might even hit a mountain and begin to have something that looks like a true science of education, in which we might make some reasonable predictions that do not rely on vague generalizations. It would either take a terribly long time (which itself might preclude it because, by the time we had finished researching, the discipline will have moved somewhere else) or would hit some notable ethical boundaries (you can’t deliberately mis-teach someone), but it seems more plausible than most existing techniques, if a reductive science of education is what we seek.
To be frank, I am not convinced it is worth the trouble. It seems to me that education is far closer as a discipline to art and design than it is to psychology, let alone to physics. Sure, there is a lot of important and useful stuff to be learned about how we learn: no doubt about that at all, and a simulated annealing approach might speed up that kind of research. Painters need to know what paints do too. But from there to prescribing how we should therefore teach spans a big chasm that reductive science cannot, in principle or practice, cross. This doesn’t mean that we cannot know anything: it just means it’s a different kind of knowledge than reductive science can provide. We are dealing with emergent phenomena in complex systems that are ontologically and epistemologically different from the parts of which they consist. So, yes, knowledge of the parts is valuable, but we can no more predict how best to teach or learn from those parts than we can predict the shape and function of the heart from knowledge of cellular organelles in its constituent cells. But knowledge of the cocktails that result – that might be useful.
England is a weird, sad, angry little country, where there is now unequivocal evidence that over half the population – mainly the older ones – believe that experts know nothing, and that foreigners (as well as milllions of people born there with darker than average skins) are evil. England is a place filled with drunkenness and random violence, where it’s not safe to pass a crowd of teenagers – let alone a crowd of football supporters – on a street corner, where you cannot hang Xmas decorations outside for fear of losing them, where your class still defines you forever, where whinging is a way of life, where kindness is viewed with suspicion, where barbed wire fences protect schools from outsiders (or vice versa – hard to fathom), where fuckin‘ is a punctuation mark to underline what follows, not an independent word. It’s a nation filled with fierce and inhospitable people, as Horace once said, and it always has been. For all the people and places that I love and miss there, for all its very many good people and slowly vanishing places that are not at all like that, for all its dark and delicious humour, its eccentricity, its diversity, its cheeky irreverance, its feistiness, its relentless creativity, its excellent beer, its pork pies and its pickled onions, all of which I miss, that’s why I was glad to leave it.
It saddens and maddens me to see the country of my birth killing or, at least, seriously maiming itself in such a spectacularly and wilfully ignorant way, taking the United Kingdom, and possibly even the EU itself with it, as well as causing injury to much of the world, including Canada. England is a country-sized suicide bomber. Hopefully this mob insanity will eventually be a catalyst for positive change, if not in England or Wales then at least elsewhere. Until today I opposed Scottish independence, because nationalism is almost uniformly awful and the last thing we need in the world is more separatism, but it is far better to be part of something big and expansive like the EU than an unwilling partner in something small in soul and mind like the UK. Maybe Ireland will unify and come together in Europe. Perhaps Gibraltar too. Maybe Europe, largely freed of the burden of supporting and catering for the small-minded needs of my cantankerous homeland, will rise to new heights. I hope so, but it’s a crying shame that England won’t be a part of that.
I am proud, though, of my home city, Brighton, the place where English people who don’t want to live in England live. About 70% of Brightonians voted to stay in the EU. Today I am proudly Brightonian, proudly European, but ashamed to be English.
Damn it, I didn’t bring my big camera. The camera in my phone does not do this justice…
There is something genuinely awesome – in the original sense of the word – about being out on the water in a boat that is smaller than the creature swimming next to you. The humpback whale swam around us for about 40 minutes before moving on. Somewhere between 10 and 20 seals hung around nearby hoping for some left-overs, as did a small flock of seagulls. We tried to keep our distance (unlike a couple of boats) but the whale was quite happy to swim around us.
As I am preparing for a talk next week on the future of online learning and writing a bit in a paper about the same kind of thing, I am pleased to see another timely publication in a long line of excellent Pew reports on American life, this time focusing on lifelong learning, which is hugely relevant to what I will be speaking and writing about about. As I need to think a bit more on this topic anyway, this seems like a good opportunity for reflection.
Before moving on to my reflections, there are a few things that particularly stand out for me. For instance:
This makes me worry greatly about over a quarter of Americans that have done no such thing and that do not consider themselves to be lifelong learners. It is hard to understand how one could be human and not consider oneself a learner but the study’s design likely shaped the kind of answers it received. I will have more to say on that. It is also interesting that courses play such a small role. More on that later too.
I am fascinated by the motivations of the subjects of the study:
This accords better with my understanding of human beings. People love to learn, and learning has huge social value in both process and product. It is notable that far fewer of the study’s subjects have extrinsic than intrinsic motivation, and it appears that, for the vast majority, the extrinsic driver is at most a catalyst for them to do something that is intrinsically fulfilling. This is reinforced in the following graphs, that are a terrific confirmation of the predictions of self-determination theory (SDT):
As we already know from SDT, the value of learning is fundamentally about achieving competence as a good thing in itself, deeply social in purpose and value, and highly concerned with being in (or gaining) control: in brief, competence, relatedness and autonomy support. This is exactly what we see here. It is noteworthy that, though advancement in occupations matters to professional learners, there is no mention of money nor of qualifications in any of this. This accords with the fact that only 16% of those in the study took courses, given that courses tend to lead to formal or less formal credentials. It is very unfortunate that institutional learning has become so much concerned with courses and credentialing that all of these very good reasons for learning are incredibly crowded out. Much of the time, people in institutions learn in order to get the qualification, not for the pleasure that is so profoundly obvious in these findings. The luckiest ones get both. Most are not so lucky. More than a few get neither fulfillment nor credentials.
The survey finds very strong links between existing education, prosperity and culture, and lifelong learning. Furthermore, the digital divide is, at least by some measures, widening:
As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.
This is not too surprising – it’s pretty much there in the definition – but the Matthew Effect is in full swing here:
For personal learning, 87% of those with college degrees or more (throughout this report adults with college degrees or more refers to anyone who has at least a bachelor’s degree) have done such an activity in the past year, compared with 60% for among those with high school degrees or less. For professional learning, about three quarters (72%) of employed adults with at least college degrees have engaged in some sort of job-related training in the past year, while half (49%) of employed adults with high school degrees or less have done this.
Those that have learned to learn, and to see the value in it, learn more. They probably have more time and resources for it:
Among those with a smartphone and a home broadband connection (just over half the population), 82% have done some personal learning activity in the past year. For the remaining adults (those with just one of these connection devices or neither of them), 64% have done personal learning in the past year.
It is interesting that technology appears to have quite a large effect on learning. This is causal, not just a correlation. It’s not the tools, per se, but the adjacent possible that the tools bring. Basically, the tools can support learning or not but, if you don’t have the tools, the opportunity never arises. Those that claim technology has no effect on learning are simply wrong, but what is significant here is that it is not the teachers, but the learners, that make this so. There may be some very faint and equivocal glimmer of truth in the belief that technology does not normally do much to improve teaching, but it sure does a lot to improve learning.
Being America, a land of conspicuous inequality, the report shows that there are also strong divisions along ethnic lines, with African Americans and Hispanics considerably less likely to have engaged in personal learning, and somewhat less likely to have engaged in professional learning. The report is less clear whether this is a socio-economic issue or a more broadly cultural concern. I’m guessing a bit of both. When a social system separates particular groups, for whatever reason (and ethnicity is a deeply stupid reason), then patterns of behaviour are likely to cluster. As always, diversity (and the celebration of diversity) is much to be wished for here. We are wisest when we are exposed to and open to diverse views, values and opinions.
Finally, an opportunity for distance institutions like Athabasca University. Some of the notable preference for face to face learning (81% to 54%) is almost certainly down to lack of awareness of digital learning methods:
Noteworthy majorities of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” aware of these things:
It seems we have not been particularly smart about getting the message out! That’s a huge and untapped population of people who do not even know our methods of teaching exist, let alone of our own existence. At least some of those appear to be educated people with a thirst for knowledge.
A lot of the inequalities demonstrated in the Pew report are deeply worrying and endemic. It seems to me that, as well as trying to address that imbalance directly, we in education should give a bit more thought to how we might embed productive learning more deeply into all our interactions, rather than just concentrating on making courses and tutorials in educational systems. While some of this embedding can be addressed with deliberate intent – popular channels, celebrity scientists and artists, accessible and appealing museums and galleries, subsidies for Internet access, libraries, etc – a lot of this is about system design. It’s about building tools and environments where critical and reflective engagement is part of the fabric of the system.
With that in mind, I think it is important to note a strong methodological bias in these findings. Significantly, they rely on self-reporting of deliberate learning activities that are largely defined by the researchers. There’s a strong bias towards things like courses, tutorials, guides, workshops, conferences and clubs that are explicitly designed to support learning. It is worth observing that most learning is not designed and not intentional (including in formal education). Almost every act of communication involves at least a hint of learning and, especially for interactive media such as Internet or Mobile technologies, the percentage of time spent learning in the process is normally significant. Almost all reading, watching and dialogue involves learning. We might not recognize it as such, but every time we learn of Bieber’s latest exploits, or Trump’s latest vileness, or our friend’s new puppy, we are deeply engaged in acts of learning. It is not just (and rarely most importantly) about the content of what is learned, but the ways of being that such learning engenders. Our values, beliefs and attitudes are deeply dependent on our interactions with others, mediated or not, and what we perceive of the world around us (especially the people and their creations within it). What we choose to observe or communicate changes us. Often, we engage critically with what we read or watch or talk about. Even simple learning from observation is not just about copying but about interpreting and constructing. Internet technologies, in particular, have massively increased the quantity and breadth of such observation and communication. Most of what we know is not learned deliberately but emerges through our interactions with other people and the world around us. Most of what even traditional teachers teach is not the content of what they teach but the ways of being and thinking that go along with it.
To suggest or imply, therefore, that lack of deliberate learning through conventional channels means that no learning is happening is deeply mistaken, and somewhat dangerous, because it ignores all but the visible tip of the iceberg. By far the biggest opportunities for education lie not in the stuff that we educators currently do for a job, but in embedding learning in the everyday; in designing pedagogies that are not pedagogies; in creating architectures where learning can thrive rather than in deliberately leading people in directions we think they should go. It is possibly sad but definitely true that the Kardashians are far better teachers with far greater reach than most professional teachers, apart from (maybe) celebrities like David Attenborough, Randall Munroe, David Suzuki or Neil Degrasse Tyson. What the Kardashians teach might seem to have little value and, arguably, might have negative value, but it should not be discounted as irrelevant learning. Nor, for that matter, should what we learn (directly and indirectly) from politicians, musicians and sports stars. The shapers of our emerging global society are many and varied, and I would be hesitant to suggest, snobbishly, that the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills that professional teachers try to support should have a monopoly over the emotional, social, value-forming ways of thinking that other contributors to society provide in greater measure.
Personally, I think the things we try to formally teach (not so much the content as the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills) matter a great deal. Taught well, they directly and demonstrably lead to better, healthier, richer, more creative, more caring, more productive societies, where people can look more critically on the likes of Trump and the Kardashians, with greater perspicacity, with greater creativity, and with more kindness to and understanding of those that think differently. But they also lead to a lot of things that are not so healthy, especially in their institutionalized control-freakery and cataleptic attitudes to change. Educational institutions have done and continue to do a lot of good but, if we really want to bring about a better, more educated world, there is a very good chance that they are no longer the ideal platform for it, and definitely far from the only one.
In my talk next week I will be exploring the ways that physical boundaries, notably of time and place, have deeply influenced how we go about the process of education. Almost all of our pedagogies are predicated on the assumption that a number of people need to gather in a particular place at a particular time, with associated structures, rules and processes to support that. Teachers are a scarce resource, classrooms are rival goods, and schedules matter. So we invented classes, courses, timetables, and methods of managing them. This in turn inevitably demands that people learn things they don’t need to learn, that they may be unable or unwilling to learn, at times that may not suit them, under conditions that greatly restrict their autonomy. All in all, despite good support for relatedness, this is terrible for motivation, and it crowds out almost all the great benefits that are reported on in the Pew study. One-to-one learning works much better because it largely avoids those constraints but is, for all but a few, economically unviable. Voluntary attendance to learning activities when needed (much of what is reported on in the study) is also good, but not well catered for in our educational systems that need to adopt tight schedules and lack much flexibility. Thus, much of our pedagogical practice and almost all of our educational system is designed to overcome or reduce the demotivating side-effects of simple physics. All too often, and all too often institutionalized, the solution is to fall back on primitive behaviourist models of motivation that do a great deal more harm than good. Such physics seldom if ever applies online, where boundaries are inherently fuzzy, metaphorical, fluid and malleable. However, most of us still adopt substantially the same pedagogies and we pointlessly (or worse) attempt to fit our teaching into systems that were designed for and with different boundaries. We even build tools like learning management systems that embody them, saving them from exinction and perhaps even magnifying them (it’s often easier to see what is going on in a live classroom than within the confines of an LMS). And, having done so, we cement the demotivational effects by controlling learners through grades and certificates, rewarding and punishing with Skinnerian efficiency. It’s no surprise that, when you take such things away, MOOC completion rates, though improving thanks mainly to better self-selection and increasing use of real reward and punishment through more recognized credentials (often becoming significantly less open in the process), average no more than 15%
Though online boundaries are different, there are lessons to be drawn from the built environment. I am incredibly lucky to live in Vancouver, where public art, information and hey-wow architecture and design is everywhere to be seen. It is hard to look anywhere without being informed, delighted or provoked in useful ways, from the shapes of leaves immortalized on the sidewalks to street art and poetry on the walls. Our cognition is fundamentally distributed, and the richness of the spaces around us, virtual or physical, contributes considerably to how and what we know, as well as our values and behaviours. Even simple separation of space can make a huge difference. It took a while after coming here to realize what was the main difference between schools here and in the UK: fences. In the UK, a school is normally enclosed by tall fences that both keep people out and keep children in. Around the school along the sea wall from me there are no such barriers, and children play at break-time in the parks and playgrounds outside. It’s still very safe – many eyes see to that, as well as a culture of trust – but it makes all the difference in the world to the meaning of the space, especially to the children but also to the community around them. Such little things make big differences. Part of the value of that is, again, diversity: being exposed to different stimuli and people is always a good thing, and another of Vancouver’s immense strengths. The area around the school is a wonderful mix of expensive luxury waterfront property and cheap but attractive and well cared-for community housing: unless you happen to know that red roofs signify community housing, you would be very unlikely to spot the difference. Messing with boundaries and celebrating diversity is, of course, a big part of the thinking behind the Landing. It’s a space where boundaries are deliberately softened, where learning can be visible and shared, but which is still safe and where everyone is accountable. Simply opening up the space is enough to bring about greater and different learning, and a different attitude towards it.
Openness alone is not enough, though. Far too many public forums and comment areas (e.g. most newspaper sites) that are quite open are filled with vitriol, inanity and stupidity. Sure, a lot of learning happens, but mostly not in a productive or useful way, at least from my biased perspective and that of a lot of people that are turned off by it. I am guessing that this might well be what would happen if fences around UK schools were torn down without considering the surrounding community and environment. Community makes a huge difference: though I am sure they have to indulge in a bit of judicious pruning and moderation, when I read blogs by people like, say, Stephen Downes, George Siemens , Terry Anderson, or David Wiley, I see almost nothing but intelligent dialogue from those that comment, because those with an interest in the area have shared concerns and contested but concordant values. Well, perhaps the dialogue is not always intelligent, but at least it is always a learning dialogue. The downside of that is, of course, a relative lack of diversity in the communities that read their work.
So, environment matters too, and often helps to shape the community. For instance, I am still much smitten, after nearly two decades, by the model of SlashDot, which shapes learning dialogues through a combination of smart algorithms and, most importantly, the actions and interactions of people using the system. The best of these dialogues is more than a match for any textbook or classroom, and the worst are not too bad: anything else evolves away. The algorithms are complex and it takes skill to get the most out of them, so it is way too geeky to be of general use, but it shows the general methods and principles that might underlie a system that makes knowledge grow and learning happen simply by shaping the space of interaction, giving individuals the tools to filter and form the space, and providing a space to gather. Less sophisticated/effective but more generally usable tools of this nature include Reddit and StackExchange, which combine ratings and karma information to allow the community to shape what the community sees. While both are flawed and neither is infallible, the combination of human organization and machine filtering generally makes both quite useful for a wide range of topics. I am also much encouraged by how Wikipedia has evolved: its more deliberate structuring and guidance of the flow means it involves higher maintenance than more obviously collectively guided tools but it is incredibly successful at supporting and spreading useful knowledge (including about the Kardashians). The approach of each of these systems to diversity is a little like that of the Vancouver City planners: to design for it. There are places where communities meet and interact but there is also parcellation, with signals of their boundaries but no significant barriers, that supports the growth of a supportive culture (at least in places – there are, of course, some areas that thrive on dischord), and that makes trust visible.
There are potential opportunities for analytics tools, collaborative filters, and similar forms of data-driven algorithmic approaches here too. Such methods come with enormous risks, mostly due to the insatiable desire of programmers to control what other people do: to erect new boundaries. Even when done with good intentions, they can have harmful effects. Almost the last thing we need in such spaces is filter bubbles and echo chambers, but such approaches can embed and reinforce patterns and attitudes simply by doing their job, building boundaries that are all the more dangerous because they are invisible and unmentioned. The absolute last thing we need is machines to make decisions for us based on what a programmer has decided is best for us or, just as bad, using criteria over which we have no say. There are huge risks of designing new boundaries that are just as controlling and just as demotivating as the ones they replace. I don’t resent Amazon’s recommendations of what I might like to read next at all, for example, especially when it tells me why it is making those recommendations, because it does nothing to enforce those recommendations and learns when I disagree. I do resent Netflix limiting what it shows me that I might want to watch, though: this reduces my autonomy. I greatly dislike learning analytics tools that tell me how well I am meeting someone else’s goals, but I approve of those that help me to define and reach my own. I am happy for Google Search to suggest relevant sites I might want to visit, as long as it continues to show me those it is less impressed with, but I am deeply unhappy that Facebook shows me a tiny percentage of posts I might like to see. I love that clicking a word or phrase in an e-book will give me a definition and a link to Wikipedia or Google Search. I hate that clicking a help link will tell me what someone else thinks I need to know (especially when the nugget I need is hidden in a lengthy video that gives me no clues about where to find it). What all of this boils down to is support for the fundamental drivers found in the Pew report: autonomy, relatedness and competence. Take away any one of those, and you take away the love of learning. But, with care, scrutability, and attention to supporting human needs, such systems can be expansive and liberating.
For now, most of the new systems we use to replace the formal process of teaching show promise but most have numerous weaknesses, most of which formal teaching overcomes: concerns about reliability, trust, safety, efficiency, and the effects of deliberate malice are well founded, and there are big issues of control and autonomy to overcome. But it seems to me that, as we start to dismantle the boundaries of traditional educational practice, the opportunities to extend and improve learning through reinvention of our learning spaces online are (virtually!) limitless, while we reached a state of near stasis in physically located learning many hundreds of years ago. Sure, there have been incremental improvements here and there but they have been uneven at best, and it is possible to see examples of great pedagogies being used thousands of years ago that are barely, if at all, improved today. It’s all down to physics.
I wouldn’t know a Kardashian if one kicked me in the face and, until just now, I had little idea about what they were apart from being a family that is known across the Internet for nothing more substantial than their own celebrity. For quite a long time I actually thought the headlines and post titles about them were about a fictitious race from Star Trek. What’s quite interesting about that is that I had learned what little I knew on the subject without, until just now, any intention of doing so. I found out a bit more just now by way of fact checking, through Wikipedia, but it seems that what I already knew was pretty much accurate. Education happens whether we seek it or not. It would be good if that education were more valuable more of the time.
Today brings another bit of bad news for a distance education institution, with TELUQ’s future looking uncertain, though it is good to see that its importance and contribution is also recognized, and it is a long way from dead yet. Though rumours of Athabasca University’s own demise resulting mainly from our acting president’s message that has widely been construed as a suicide note to the world are greatly exaggerated, and repudiated by the acting president himself, similar issues are reflected here and in the Open University, UK, that has lost a quarter of its students over the past five years. I have heard informal whispers from Europe that the OUNl is in similarly dire straits, though have no references to support that and it might just be hearsay – I’d welcome any news on that.
We are all institutions that were established within a very few years of one another (AU and OU-UK within months of each other) at a time that there were no viable higher education alternatives for students without formal qualifications, who were stuck in a location without a university, who were in full-time employment, or for whatever reason could not or would not attend a physical institution.
Moving on 40-50 years, times have changed dramatically but, fundamentally, we have not. Sure, we have mostly dropped the archaic technologies that we used when we were founded, but paper course packs and associated processes and pedagogies lurk deep within our organizational DNA even if the objects themselves are mostly a memory. Sure, we have, collectively, been leaders and prime movers in establishing the research, the pedagogies and the technologies of distance education that are now widespread in most physical universities, but it is notable that most of our innovative practices have been taken up more widely elsewhere than in our own institutions. And there are lots of alternatives elsewhere nowadays, from MOOCs to the massive growth of distance courses on face-to-face campuses, and much else besides.
Competition is only one of many reasons for the peril distance institutions are now in. It is odd, at first glance, that we have reached this point because we were first past the post for decades and, thanks to our relative independence of physical infrastructure and our research leadership, should have been more agile in adapting to what, from the early 90s, has clearly been a rapidly changing educational and technological landscape to which we should have been perfectly adapted. But there are some critical structural flaws in our design that have held us back. All of the open universities of this era originally adopted an industrial design model, based heavily on the work of people like Otto Peters and Charles Wedermeyer, who talked of independent learning but actually meant anything but when it came to teaching. This was essential in pre-Internet times, because communication was too slow and cumbersome to do anything else, both pedagogically and in business processes. But it had systemic consequences.
We have been and to a large extent remain driven by process in all that we do. We were designed primarily as machines for higher education, not as communities of scholars. Just as we structured our teaching, so we structured our organizations and, as transactional distance theory suggests, the result was less dialogue, especially in places like AU that had a distributed workforce. We have inherited a culture of process and structure, and consequent sluggish change. This has been improving in places thanks to things like the Landing at AU and similar initiatives elsewhere, but not fast enough and, certainly at AU and I gather also in our sister institutions, there have been steps backwards as well as forwards. At AU we have, of late, made some very poor ICT choices and retrograde organizational restructuring that actually increases, rather than reduces the amount of structure and process, and that reduces the potential for the spread of knowledge and dialogue. Meanwhile, thanks to our traditional course model, with its lack of feedback loops, we have till now mainly designed our teaching around quality assurance, not quality control: courses can take years to prepare and tend to be pretty well written but, for the majority, their success is measured by meaningless proxies that tell us little or nothing about their true impact and effectiveness. Though there are plenty of exceptions, too few courses use pedagogies, processes and other technologies that allow us to know our students and gain deep understanding of their concerns and interests.
Given the imminent peril that open and distance universities appear to be finding themselves in, the solution is not to tweak what we have or to seek even more efficiencies in processes that are no longer relevant. Now is the time for a little bit of reinvention: not much. All of what is needed already exists in pockets. We have learned a lot – far more than our physical counterparts – about the challenges of distance learning and many of us have discovered ways of doing it that work. And, for all the path dependencies that claw at us, we do have innate organizational agility, so change is not impossible. More to the point, it is worth doing: distance education has innate advantages that physically co-present education (there must be a better term!) cannot hope to match.
At least part of the solution lies firstly in capitalizing on and enhancing the natural benefits that distance learning brings, notably in terms of freedom. Secondly, it lies in reducing as many of its disadvantages as we can.
Distance learning is all about freedom, but we have inherited two things from our physical forebears that unnecessarily constrain that: fixed-length courses, and accreditation umbilically linked to teaching. We need to rid ourselves of fixed-length courses, and disaggregate learning from assessment, so that learners can choose to work on things that really matter to them and gain accreditation for what they know rather than what we choose to teach. Right now, a course is like one of those cable TV packages that contains one or two channels you actually want and a whole load that you do not. The tightly bound assessments force students to bow to our needs, not theirs, which is awful for motivation and retention. This means that those with prior knowledge are bored, those who find it difficult are over-pressured, and the point of learning becomes not skill acquisition but credit acquisition. This in turn reinforces an unhealthy power relationship that only ever had any point in the first place because of the constraints of teaching in physical classrooms, and that is ultimately demotivating (extrinsically motivating) for all concerned.
This is ridiculous when we do not have such constraints – lack of need for teacher control (unless students want it, of course – but that’s the point, students can choose) is one of the key ways that distance learning is inherently better than classroom learning. Classroom teachers need control. Indeed, it is almost impossible to do it effectively without it, notwithstanding a lot of tricks and techniques that can somewhat limit the damage for those that hate sticks and carrots. At the very least they need to get people in one place at one time, and organize behaviour once everyone is there. We do not.
We need better tailored learning, and to support many different ways of doing it. Smaller chunks would help a lot – the equivalent of unbundling channels on a cable TV package – but, really, courses should be no bigger or smaller than they need to be for the purpose. Only rarely is that 15 weeks/100 hours, or whatever standard size universities choose to use. We do it for reasons that are solely related to organizational convenience and that emerged only because of the need to schedule students, teachers, and classrooms in physical spaces. Some students may need no tuition at all – all adult learners come with some knowledge, and some bring a lot. Some may need more than we currently give. We need to recognize and accommodate all that diversity. One of the most effective ways to handle our accreditation role under such circumstances is to have separate assessment of learning, unrelated to the course in any direct way. Our challenge and PLAR processes at AU are almost ready for that already, so it’s not an impossible shift. The other effective way to handle accreditation when we no longer control the inputs and outputs is to negotiate learning outcomes with the students through personalized learning contracts. There are plenty of models for such competency-based, andragogic ways of doing things: we would not be the first, by any means, and already run quite a few courses and processes that allow for it.
The second part of the solution lies in reducing or even removing the relative disadvantages of distance education. The largest of these by far is social isolation and its side-effects, notably on motivation. We need to build a richer, more connected community, to employ pedagogies that take advantage of the fact that we actually have about 40,000 students passing through every year at AU (OU-UK has many more, despite its losses), and to better support our teachers and researchers in engaging with one another and/or learning from one another. In too many of our courses and programs, students may never even be aware of others, let alone benefit from learning with them. This does not imply that we should always force our students to collaborate (or force them to do anything) and it certainly doesn’t mean we should do truly stupid things like give marks for discussion contributions, but it does mean creating ubiquitous opportunities to engage, and making others (and their learning) more visible in the process. This matters as much to staff as it does to students. The Landing is a partial technological solution (or support for a solution) to that problem but it does not go nearly far enough and is not deeply embedded as it should be. Such opportunities to engage and to be aware of others should be everywhere in our virtual space, not on a separate site that only about a quarter of staff and students visit. And, of course, it only really makes sense if we adapt the ways we support learning to match, not just in our deliberate teaching but in our attitudes to sharing, engaging and connecting.
There are lots of other things that could be done – whole books can be and have been written about that – but these three simple changes would be sufficient, I think, to bring about profound positive change throughout the entire system:
Physical universities would equally benefit from all of these but, apart from in their social affordances (that are certainly great, if sometimes under-utilized), have far less innate ability to support them. I think that means that distance universities still have a place at the vanguard of change.
It has long annoyed me that distance education is seen by many as a poor cousin to face-to-face learning. In some cases and in some ways, sure, physical co-presence gives an edge. But, in others, especially in terms of freedom – pedagogical and personal freedom, not just in terms of space, pace and place – distance education can be notably superior. To achieve its potential, it just needs to throw off the final shackles it inherited from its ancestor.
The week before last was a bit of a gold-star week for me. Firstly, I received Athabasca University’s Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence. Secondly, Jisc named me one of the 50 top social media influencers in UK higher education (I was eligible because, though I don’t live in the UK any more, I still maintain strong informal and formal ties). It’s always nice to have one’s ego stroked, and mine was purring like a satisfied kitten for some time: the accompanying photo of one of my kittens gives a rough rendition of my state of mind. Also, I am very thankful to those that nominated and supported me: thank you all! None-the-less, I have somewhat mixed feelings about both of these. Partly, it’s just because of embarrassment and a general sense of lack of worthiness. I know from intimate personal experience that I am at the very least as awful as I am great. Equally, I am acutely aware that there are very many people who do things far better than me in many significant ways in both areas, and who did not receive an award for it. But there’s more to my discomfort than that. In this post I am mostly going to focus on the teaching award, but some of these issues relate to being on the list of UK social media influencers too.
The teaching award bothers me, mainly, because no teacher is or should be a stand-alone prima donna or primo uomo, least of all in a highly distributed teaching environment like that at Athabasca. At AU, and to an only slightly lesser extent elsewhere, teaching is always the work of a team, always the result of a much larger community than just that team, and never, ever, the sole domain of one individual. Students (especially), administrators, technicians, learning designers, editors, graphic artists, fellow academics, tutors, textbook authors, Wikipedia editors, Facebook friends and the collectively generated processes and culture that make the university what it is, are at the very least as significant as any one person. To give one person an award for what we all do together therefore just doesn’t make much sense. It’s particularly ironic that I should get a teaching award in the light of a great deal of my work, which for more than 15 years has been about just that – how crowds and systems teach. The individual we label as a ‘teacher’ is just a part of a much larger teaching gestalt and need not be its star. It is true that the charismatic inspirers and/or visible innovators and/or empathetic carers do tend to be the teachers we most remember and are the ones that we tend to nominate for awards. But they also tend to be, for much the same reasons, the worst teachers for some people: love ’em or hate ’em, there’s not much in between. Truly great teachers, including all those that make up the gestalt, often disappear into the background. My friend and mentor Richard Mitchell wanted a t-shirt slogan for education conferences that summed it up nicely: ‘shut up and let them learn’ (I don’t know if he ever had it made). The point is that it should never be about teachers teaching: it’s always about learners learning, and there are many ways to support that, most of the best of which are driven by the learners, not the teachers. Teachers that do that well are not always the ones that get the awards.
I was a bit disconcerted to learn on the day of the award ceremony that my faculty has been competitively pushing its staff for these awards over a period of years so, for some, this was less about celebrating excellence than winning. I don’t think academia needs to be nor should it be gamified: it has far more than enough of that already. If these contests were simple games with clear rules that made winning and losing unequivocal and fair, I would be fine with it. But, outside such a clearly game-like context, competition is not good for motivation – whether you are a winner or a loser – and it is often destructive to communities. Like performance-related pay and grades (deeply flawed ideas), it can all too easily make the award into the goal, which takes away the love of the activity itself as well as shaping how we perform it. This can very easily turn into a bit of behaviourist nonsense that can drive action in the short term but weaken interest in the long term. It is fundamentally unfair, too, which can cause unnecessary tension and divisions in a community that, by its nature, needs to work together to a common goal that everyone plays an important part in reaching. Giving an award is also an expression of power: a bit of behavioural shaping done to us, not with us, the use of award committees and panels notwithstanding. At the AU awards ceremony our leaders told us how proud they were of us. They meant this very kindly, and were simply following a traditional pattern and doing the right thing for the ritual purposes of the event, but it’s not a good idea. Sure, feel pride to be part of a great learning community, show interest in what we do, care about what we do together. Yes, by all means, celebrate the good things we have done, all of us, but not that we, as individuals, are therefore good. That’s too much like patting a dog on the head for behaving the way we want him to behave.
What really made my ego purr was not the award itself but reading the generous things kind colleagues and students wrote about me in support of the nomination. Those brought tears to my eyes, and that’s what I am really grateful for. So, rather than giving one person an award, which seems a bit arbitrary and divisive, I think it would make far more sense that we should all regularly nominate at least one other person for acclaim, but that we should scrap giving an actual award or, if we must, should give it to everyone or a large group. The really valuable part, from a personal perspective, is not the award as such but the kindness and affirmation from friends, students and colleagues. It’s also really nice to give such acclaim. Everyone’s a winner.
For all my misgivings, I think that awards do have real value, especially to those that are not in the competition themselves. Awards are good ways to make concrete the values that we (or, at least, the givers of the awards) deem to be significant. By giving an award for teaching, AU is signalling the importance of teaching to its employees and to the rest of the world, and that’s a message worth sending. Similarly for Jisc, its influential position means that it got a lot of attention for not just the contest but, more significantly, the criteria for success in that contest. That is really valuable. Social media activities are seldom given much weight when deciding on promotions or research excellence in academia, but they should be. By far the most significant measure of success in academia is whether our work increases the knowledge in the world, whether through research or teaching or dialogue, and social media are a great means of doing that. The most popular of my papers and books have been read by a few thousand people, and most have been read by far fewer than that. My biggest keynotes have addressed less than a thousand people, and some conference papers have reached no more than a few dozen readers and attendees. Some of my blog posts and shared bookmarks have had tens of thousands of readers, and most are read by thousands. There are different measures of quality for such things, for sure: most of my posts are far more like presentations intended to spark ideas than rigorous papers and books and I doubt that any have ever been cited in academic literature. But, though not rivaling peer-reviewed papers, that is still useful, I think, for exactly the reasons it is useful to attend conference presentations and, in the same way, each one is an opportunity to interact directly. Blog posts themselves may not always have much academic clout compared with peer reviewed papers but, sometimes, the dialogue that develops around them can become an incredibly significant artefact in itself, much like the glosses on mediaeval manuscripts, entering depths that can put most peer review to shame. Perhaps the Jisc list will catalyze further social media activity among those who feel that their time is better spent publishing work in journals with high impact factors and low readership. Perhaps it will encourage those outsiders to investigate what those of us who care about such things are sharing. Perhaps it will act as a pre-filter to help them to find stuff worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire innovative uses of the tools and spread good practices. Perhaps it is a good thing to simply assert that there is a community that we are part of. Awards can be catalysts for change, builders of community, and organizers of values. That’s good.
There is, too, some value in recognizing the value of people and what they do for whatever reason. I find it odd that, as well as awards for specific activities, AU gives long service awards. That rather implies that staying here might have been an achievement in itself, which further implies that it might have been a chore to stick it out for so long. That’s not a good message – I’m here because I want to be here, not because I feel I must – and it is made worse by adding a reward for it. To be fair it is, quite literally, a token reward, of a few dollars to spend in the AU store and a pin. But, as carrots go, that’s likely worse than no carrot at all: it sends both a message that it is an extrinsic reward – akin to a payment – and that we are not worth very much. I reckon a bit of applause and a hand-shake is more than enough acknowledgement without muddying the waters with cold hard cash. As a ritual, though, celebrating the simple fact of our continuing community is very worthwhile. Not only is it an opportunity to meet and eat with colleagues in person – a rare thing at AU – it’s an affirmation of the value of the community itself. We need such rituals and celebrations of togetherness.
And that is, I think, the most profound value of awards in general. They are, arguably, counter-productive as ways to drive good practice or encourage better behaviour in those that compete for them. But the ceremonies associated with them and the shared values that they represent bind all of us. They symbolize what we endeavour to be, they signal the values that we cherish, they exclude those outside the community and thus contribute to the community’s internal cohesion, albeit at a potential cost of competition. On balance, for all the complexities and risks, that’s not a bad thing.