photo credit: Bud the Teacher
I’m typically the guy who pays attention to the latest gadgets from a distance, reading up on them and learning about what they can or can’t do, but not striking on the first day of any new thing, for a number of reasons. For one, I’m cheap. I also don’t do well in lines or crowds. And buying most stuff on day one is buying into a public beta period, and often the better deal is a few weeks or months down the road as hardware is revised and software is tweaked.
But I had an extra few minutes on Saturday around noon, and I had a hunch about Apple’s iPad inventory. Namely, I figured they’d have plenty of devices to fiddle with at the Best Buy on my way home from the gym. So, with Ani and Teagan along for company, I wandered in to take a look at Apple’s iPad, released earlier that day.
I should interrupt my story here to tell you that, just prior to the visit to the store, I happened across this article on children and mobile devices for learning, so I’m certain that my brain was thinking about my children and learning when we made it into the store.
I spend lots of time thinking about how my kids and the kids in our schools will think, learn and live in a world that will be digitally quite different from the world I grew up in. And I find myself jumping back and forth from the positions of “It’s all the same – the stuff is different, but the world is the same place” and “Holy cow. There has never been a time or place like this one.”
And both are valid positions, but they coexist. I spend lots of time in the spaces between those two poles. I’m that guy who sees that there’s value in highly structured and sequenced learning as well as time for exploration and play without outwardly driven purpose. Most of the important things in life aren’t binary, they’re much more complex than that. And I digress. Still further.
The implications of the iPad have weighed heavily on my mind this week, as I’ve read pieces like Cory Doctorow’s:
Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.
Dale Dougherty’s piece on Hypercard and its influence on a generation of young hackers is a must-read on this. I got my start as a Hypercard programmer, and it was Hypercard’s gentle and intuitive introduction to the idea of remaking the world that made me consider a career in computers.
Plenty of other folks have, in the last few days, said some pretty interesting things about the iPad either being the end of the world as we know it or the beginning of a new revolution of creativity and interactivity – and I’m just a dad trying to figure out how I want to introduce my daughters to the world of possibility and wonder that awaits them. I want them to tinker, to play, to explore and to dream. I want them to grab hold of the stuff of the world and make new from raw ingredients.
I worry that such making will happen in a locked down world, the world that Howard Zittrain saw when he wrote The Future of the Internet, one where the generative devices that spawned the Internet become, like the iPad and the iPhone before it, locked down and controlled by the people who make them, not the people who own them.
And even as I say that the iPad is a locked down device, I know that there’s creative opportunity and potential from within constraints, and that what’s locked down may or may not be a problem so long as there’s still a space for open, so long as there’s a multi-platform world where the languages spoken by one ecosystem are understood by others. My iPhone is a powerful tool. I suspect the iPad is, too.
But again, I’m a dad who’s struggling to figure out how to bring his children into the world of information and digital stuff while keeping roots in the good stuff of language and learning and literacy that came before the digital.
When we entered the store and fidgeted in a short line to play with the demo iPads, the girls were not interested. In the line. The moment they could get to the iPad, then begun to touch and poke and pinch and explore. They were immersed in the content, in words and letter and pictures and touch this to do that. I was struck by how powerful the experience was for them, more so than a random kids-touch-the-buttons experience. They were trying, as they could, to make meaning. I got what reviewers meant when they said that using the iPad was like interacting directly with the content, and not with the device the content’s delivered through. And, again, I know that it was the article and the pressure and the fact that I was a little high on the Apple expectations myself.
But I bought one. Against all my typical instincts and dispositions. Right then and there. What better lab for their experimentation? What father wouldn’t do such a thing?
I came to my senses about ten minutes later, just before I had to try to explain to Ms. the Teacher just what it was that I did, and just why it was necessary. She’s my grounding influence oftentimes, and she reminded me of a few things. Namely, I’m cheap, my kids have access to lots of the analog and digital world already, and, well, it’s early yet. There’s more exploration for me to do before I’m sure this is a useful tool for my girls. The right tool. Or one of several, which is more likely. I returned the iPad, unopened, later that night.
If you’ve made it this far, then you might be hoping this is the paragraph where I have the epiphany, the jewel that makes this experience worthwhile. And I’m so sorry to let you down. I’m finding that, often, there are few certainties when it comes to what technology is the right technology for helping kids to learn, or societies to remain free, or work to get done, or whatever it is that you want to make the tool do.
But my kids and I are going to be exploring this world together in a way that is new for me. As Ani heads out to Kindergarten next school year, and as Teagan’s not far behind her, there’s lots of work for us to do as co-learners together. Gadgets and gizmos and questions and tinkering. There’s much to do.
And there’re plenty of voices in the wilderness calling out to us with suggestions about how to do this thing.
We’re listening. But I’m also remembering what Ani’s face looks like in that picture at the top of this post, her tongue set between her lips as she digs in, determined, to play, to explore, to make. That’s a learning face. That’s what we’re aiming for.
And the clock is ticking.