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Learning: There’s an App for that!

Elsewhere I have put forward the idea that the future of learning in conjunction with online tools may well be dominated by the use of many small and some larger modular applications (Apps) that are combined and recombined depending on needs and contexts and that this evolution is best understood by considering the combination of Apps in conjunction with the development of practices (ways of working). I (mis-)used the convenient term: Personal Learning Environment (PLE), to signify such a personal combining and recombining of Apps and practices. In this article we’ll look at the highly successful Apple App Store from this perspective and see if that gives new ideas for the future. Then I’ll describe my practice related to references to books and articles as an illustration of the idea of combining Apps.

An App Store

What does the App Store do? It provides easy-to-use tools to create suitable small applications as well as a vehicle on which to use those Apps in the form of a smart phone (iPhone), an MP3 reader (iPod or iPod Touch) or a touch-screen handheld (iPad). It vets the applications submitted to make sure that they are not malicious, faulty and inappropriate (whether you like the criteria or not). It makes a large quantity of small applications easily available for sale or for free to a great many people on a platform (iTunes) that takes care of direct and almost instantaneous distribution to customers and that provides information about the Apps to promote tools and help customers choose. This includes ratings and recommendations by other users. It also suggests Apps bought by people who bought the same Apps as you. The size of the audience, the ease of use of the platform and the promise of returns on investment even for small players due to the economic model chosen are strong incentives for developers to invest in the platform.

If I mention all these things, it is because any platform aimed at supplying Apps tailored for learning purposes to be successful (i.e. for Apps to be widely used and yet not empty backers’ pockets in making and providing them) would also have to satisfy such criteria. The dominant tendency in education is to build its own system. This has partly to do with the way formal education often sets up a fence around itself, seeing learning as an activity separate from other activities. The notion of life-long learning challenges such fences as so much learning goes on in the wild where it isn’t even recognised as being learning. In addition, education is generally associated with a considerable measure of control over content and also methods pleading for the in-house solution as it allows increased control. What impact do such in-house, one-size-fits-all, obligatory solutions have on the attractiveness and appropriateness in the eyes of the users themselves and on their motivation and their capacity to learn for themselves? How could a state devised system with limited resources possibly compete with a platform that also offers within the same framework the latest music that young people buy, the podcasts on subjects that directly concern them, the films and TV programmes that interest them, the books and magazines they want to read and even the educational podcasts full of useful information (iTunesU)?

In Aikido, adepts learn not to go against the force of a stronger opponent but rather to use that strength and élan to reach their own ends. Here one wonders if educational institutions would not be better off reconsidering what learning is. Is it really encouraged by making yet another text book with its canned information and its pre-determined learning path? Why not tear down some of the fences that surround education and cease to consider learning as an activity carried out apart and instead, amongst other things, provided suitable Apps on existing platforms like the App Store. Such a strategy would need to go hand in hand with helping students devise ways of combining the use of different apps so as to share knowledge, to explore new avenues and to carry out projects.

Although the perceived loss of control on the part of educational authorities, the discomfort of letting down some of the barriers around education and the necessary painful shift in professional identity of those appointed to help learners are likely to be powerful barriers to adopting more modular solutions, in the long run it is a question of the survival of educational institutions: if more and more learning is out there in the wild and is seen as more and more pertinent, more motivating and more effective, the massive funding currently invested in educational institutions will be increasingly called into question. It’s not just the media, television, the cinema and the music industry that are being challenged by the social use of the Internet. Confronted with these threats, will educational institutions be able to resist the temptation to further accentuate the distinction they make between institutional learning and all other activities, building even stronger fences around their world, in an attempt to stave off change by insisting that what others do elsewhere cannot possibly be considered as 'true' learning?

Note that the App Store model does not (yet) allow for combinations of Apps to work together. On the contrary, Apps are designed not to work together. Instead they do have direct access to material on the Web so you can consult RSS feeds, see films or TV, listen to music and podcasts, consult databases and explore information about your choices and actions on other platforms. You can also intervene elsewhere through an SMS, an email, a post to a platform like Facebook or LInkedin or the upload of material likes videos or photos. In the Apple model an App cannot yet access a number of other services available on the device. The new system (iPhoneOS4) changes this situation. I mention this here as it is interesting in the perspective of how a platform or a device can offer the services that learners need in a context in which mobile usage is increasingly ubiquitous. In a recent Morgan Stanley report quoted by Mashable, mobile use of the web will surpass desktop use in 2015. The strategy of Apple with its new iPhone OS, as mentioned by Appleinsider, involves providing access to a number of services in the background. These include background audio, Voice over IP, background location and notifications. According to Apple this choice is based on a study of the way people currently use Apps. In the following example, we will see whether or not such an interim solution is going to be sufficient.

Working with books and articles: an example

Working wiht books

What follows is a brief description of my current personal practice which involves:

  • Regrouping data about books, articles and webpages I have read,

  • Telling others that I have read them,

  • Highlighting text,

  • Making comments on texts,

  • Annotating both books or texts,

  • Discussing those texts and ideas with others.

I do not claim my pratice to be exemplary. There may well be other better solutions. What I am trying to do here is simply to map out a practice, taking mine as an example. I read many books and a lot of articles. It is important for me to share knowledge online about what I read with selected people and to discuss what others and I myself have to say about these readings. My main platform for sharing is Facebook although I have shared using groups on DIIGO but none of them are currently active. Such groups, unless associated with a specific task elsewhere, tend to be too isolated for people to spend much effort there even if they are prepared to actively post to DIIGO. I do not post recommendations on either Amazon or iTunes, not out of any opposition to doing so, it’s just not a thing I do. Maybe it is too impersonal. I used to use Zotero to collect information about books and articles but found it cumbersome because of the level of detail it went into and because it was not sufficiently open to the online world. Apart from the fact that Zotero doesn't work with Word for Mac. I ended up removing the weighty pluggin from Firefox. I buy many books on Amazon and some audio-books from iTunes. I will certainly buy ebooks from Apple’s iBook Store when it comes to Switzerland. Here’s hoping we will have a wide selection of English and French books too and not just German ones.

In terms of my current practices, several things could be improved by the addition of new Apps and developing related practices:

  1. There is no satisfactory way to collect and add bibliographic references to both offline and online documents.

  2. I would like to have access to information about all the books I’ve bought whether it be from Amazon or other suppliers so that I can either recommend or comment on them on Facebook or elsewhere both online and offline. The current Books App on Facebook while easy to use is only for use within Facebook and doesn’t have access to information about which books I’ve bought unless I add them myself. The App creator doesn’t yet seem to have found a satisfactory economic model to sustain and further develop the service. Maybe the addition of the future iAds platform will help.

  3. I would like to be able to identify people who have read similar books to mine and be able to discuss those books with them. Theoretically the Facebook Books App should allow that but too few people use it. Facebook is maybe not the right place to discuss books and texts. I know there are specific forums for such activities but I don’t want to invest in too many platforms simultaneously. There is no reason why Facebook couldn’t become a suitable place for more detailed exchange on written material for those who wish to. Such exchange is a form of ‘learning’ and making it possible on Facebook would be one way of facilitating learning.

  4. DIIGO allows me to annotate online texts and then share those annotations with others (with a wider audience or within specific groups) but I would also like to annotate books and share those annotations in active communities like Facebook. I hope this will be possible with the iBooks App in the iPhone OS.

When we wrote about concatenations of Apps working together our approach was conceptual. We did not take into account concrete examples. It may well be that the successive use of different applications does not require direct communication between the Apps as we had imagined. In the first of the requirements listed above, for example, it is clear that much depends on the granularity of the App. Several functions would be necessary. They include: gathering data from existing sources online including authentification; formatting that information that it corresponds to the use we have for it whether it be a bibliography for an article or a single reference when making comments online; publishing formatted information to existing sites or to an offline document; … Either there is just one App that does all this or a couple of vertical Apps, one for online publishing, for example, and a second for offline use but both fetching data from similar sources.
The second requirement raises additional questions about privacy and possible abuse of personal information. Being able to use information about one’s own purchases on Amazon or elsewhere might cause concern for some people. As the information about my purchases is as much my property as that of the online shop where I buy things, I would like to be able to make better use of it.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: April 16th, 2010 - Last up-dated: April 17th, 2010