Can Apple Save Handwriting?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

apple on a chalkboardOver the past few days, two seemingly unrelated topics converged upon me and sparked some wishful thinking.

First, there’s a mounting roar of media buzz about Apple working to get a tablet PC to market by the Christmas shopping season.   It’s speculated that this book-sized, 3G-enabled, 10-inch touch screen tablet computer will have more in common with the Mac than iPod Touch or iPhone at the operating system level.

Apple’s new device is said to feature only an on-screen keyboard rather than a physical one, so it’s seems a given that this device will offer handwriting recognition, which is a mature user interface technology that’s been employed in Windows-based tablet PCs over the past few years.   Despite being a surprisingly accurate means of entering text, handwriting recognition really hasn’t found its way out of the niche market because tablet PCs have never been widely adopted.

The second topic, the death of cursive writing, has been talked about for the past few years, but has been getting lots more buzz in the blogs just recently.   Increasingly, the news media continues to forecast the demise of cursive writing, calling the once-essential skill now something as quaint as, well, using a telephone to actually speak to people.

I’ve long since been concerned that the loss of handwriting could mean a loss of cognitive opportunity for kids and I’m a big advocate of kids being exposed to analog technologies.   So, the ideas of Apple’s forthcoming device and handwriting recognition sort of snapped together like perfect puzzle pieces for me and I’ve become kind of excited considering the possibility...

Maybe Apple can save handwriting!

And why not?   Apple has certainly revitalized & catapulted other languishing technologies in its wake.   The iPod was by no means the first MP3 player.   The iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen PDA — it wasn’t even the first multi-touch device, although they spun that little-known user interface into mainstream gold overnight.   Album art has been around since the invention of the record, but Cover Flow made it cool again.   Yup, Apple has a distinguished history of reusing & breathing new life into overlooked or underestimated technologies.

So maybe Steve Jobs & Co. can take handwriting recognition out of its obscure little niche and elevate it to an attractive, mainstream user interface element too.   Perhaps Apple could reinvent cursive writing as a valued technology once again.

What do you think?   Is handwriting worth saving?   Will Apple’s release of a tablet with handwriting recognition have similar far-reaching ripples to bring handwriting back from the brink of extinction?

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Glad For Gladwell

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I’ve been a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan for years and had the distinct pleasure last Tuesday of getting to hear him in person for the first time, thanks to UTPB’s Shepperd Distinguished Lecturer Series (which was previously responsible for bringing the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev here to speak).

Gladwell has a real gift for unearthing, dissecting, & interpreting social concepts & emerging trends and making them digestible & entertaining for the common person.   I’m a bit amazed that we somehow lured an author & speaker of this magnitude to our little corner of Texas — much less that the lecture was free!

I had to coax Dede to attend, but she was pleasantly surprised to discover just how engaging & thought-provoking a speaker the author is.   His lecture centered around one of the topics, capitalization, that’s focused upon in his most recent book Outliers: The Story of Success.   Capitalization is the ability to take advantage of peoples’ untapped potential for achievement & success.   Gladwell examined several of the factors that limit success and discussed some solutions to overcome & eliminate those.   Afterward, he graciously autographed each his 3 books that I had with me, including the copy of "Outliers," which I’d just bought that evening.

Malcolm Gladwell   Autographed copy of "Outliers"
Click the above images for larger versions

Want to hear some of the author’s thoughts yourself?   Check out his Human Nature lecture where he explores why we often can’t trust people’s opinions, using examples of New Coke & Herman-Miller’s Aeron chair — neither of which performed in the marketplace even remotely similar to how research suggested they would.

I also recommend you check out my Jumbo Shrimp & SUV Safety post where I cite some of Gladwell’s points on consumers’ flawed rationale behind chosing SUVs for safety.

And you’ll certainly want to watch the following TED talk where Malcolm talks about what spaghetti sauce can teach us about innovation:



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Generation Z - The Natives Are Restless

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I’m sure you’ve heard of the demographic groups "Generation X" and "Generation Y" — and there’s a good chance that you fall into one of those two — but did you know there’s also a category for our kids: "Generation Z."   While there’s some contention about the exact start & end years, this generation generally consists of children born after 1995 and will cut off at 2021.   (Some insist that this group begins in 2001 and accordingly, label it the "9-11 Generation.")

However you define it, today’s kids will be the most connected generation ever in terms of technology and on a worldwide scale.   They will have never known a world without the Internet, notebook PCs, digital cameras, iPods, DVDs, & cellular phones.   They will have never known life without MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and a vast sea of other social media stuff that many of us are only just now tentatively dipping a toe into.   Generation Z children are, in other words, digital natives.   Or to put it another way...

Your child is a digital native but you’ll forever be a digital immigrant.

I recently ran across those terms from Marc Prensky and the concept really stuck with me.   It’s been such a pervasive notion that it’s prompted lots of introspection & raised some very interesting questions.

I’m amazed by how appropriate the concept is, especially thinking in terms of literal immigrants who come to America, with the barriers for entry and the subsequent difficulties that they face once here.   As I’ve mulled this over, I keep remembering movies & TV shows where immigrants and/or their children were central to the stories.   Thinking the similarities between the concepts of national and digital immigrants, I’m forced to wonder:

  • Is my thick immigrant accent coming through when I rail against cell phone text messaging?   (A phone, after all, is for talking to someone else!)

  • Is refusing to add a DVD player in my car a bit like clinging to archaic Old World values that’re out of place in today’s society?

  • By not embracing MySpace, satellite radio, or streaming movies, am I like an aggravatingly stubborn immigrant who struggles with (or simply chooses to remain mostly ignorant of) English language?

  • Do my arguments that technology is making us impatient and short-sighted seem like quaint, cranky ramblings about how things were back in the "Old Country?"

What about you — what do you think of the concept of digital natives vs. immigrants?   Do you see how it applies to you?

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Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Monday, August 11, 2008

I’ll admit it — I’m a TED junky!   TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design.) is an annual interdisciplinary conference that brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers & doers and challenges them to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).   TED talks are presented in video format on and are almost always eye-opening — and very often downright mind-blowing!

My latest favorite TED talk features creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenging the way we’re educating our children and championing a radical rethink of our school systems.   He contends that students with restless minds & bodies are stigmatized & needlessly medicated — rather than cultivating individuals for their energy & unique types of intelligence, our schools straightjacket kids into educational paths that squash & squander their creativity & distinctive gifts.

Grab a cup of coffee, settle in for an entertaining few minutes, and open your mind:


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OLPC Teaches the Birds and the Bees

Monday, July 23, 2007

OLPC notebook PC being shown to childrenOh yeah.   The MIT wonks gushed over the educational potential of their One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, but somehow, I don'’t think this is quite the "educational opportunity" they had in mind...

Via Gecko & Fly, I read a Reuters news article reporting that a pilot group of Nigerian schoolchildren who received some of the first OLPC notebook PCs have been caught using them to explore pornographic sites on the Internet.

Well, sure enough, that is educational...

An OLPC representative pledged that the computers will now be fitted with content filters.   Of course, installing safeguards to ensure that these PCs cannot freely browse adult sites with explicit sexual materials is vital — and I’m baffled how this was overlooked to begin with.   But there are core-level, big-ticket issues that’re far beyond this embarrassing incident.   For me, there are two separate but equally important concerns:

First, should we really be in such a hurry to place computers in Third World childrens' hands when basic survival needs have not first been met?   While I appaud the good intentions & ideals behind this project — namely, to provide educational opportunities for children who’ve not had them before — I’m still convinced that the money would be better spent establishing self-sustaining agriculture, sewage & water systems, and/or disease prevention & cure rather than on PCs.   I’m not advocating quick-fix handouts - I’m talking about helping these people build infrastructures needed to become self-reliant.

Second, as I’ve wondered before, do computers magically equate to better learning (or life) for children?   As a parent-to-be, I’m nervous about how computer-use skills are being made a priority for very young kids.   Are we wise to so casually rush to acclimate children - impoverished or otherwise - to the digital world?   And in doing so, are we robbing them of real world learning opportunities?

What’s your take on the OLPC project?

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Low-Tech Learning Leaps Ahead

Friday, May 11, 2007

Baby & notebook PCOn The Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin recently noted an article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops from The New York Times.   Although she cited this as a prime example of how technology cannot create change if culture remains unchanged, but there’s also an underlying theme that echoes one of my chief arguments against MIT’s OLPC project.   The article observes that many schools that had launched programs to provide laptop computers are now reconsidering because they seem to have no impact on student achievement.

Author Winnie Hu referenced studies showing no real difference on state test scores in schools with laptops - although some data suggest better math class performance from high-achieving students with laptops than those without.

Diehard proponents insist these programs are failing simply because teachers haven’t been trained to integrate the use of this technology into their classes.   But when 6 of one of the study’s control group schools (ones whose students didn’t have laptops) were offered computers this year, they opted not to accept them.

As I’ve commented before, I worry about making computer-use skills a priority for kids.   Could computers, in fact, be a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?   Are we naive to assume that technology will magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children?   Does this concern anyone else?   Post a comment!

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OLPC Sparks a Debate

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Reader response to a Nov. 30th article on the New York Times site reflects some of the raging debate being stirred up by MIT's OLPC project that I blogged about last week.

Some responses have been glowing, even naively positive, calling the distribution of these $150 notebook computers to 3rd world children a pivotal accomplishment in human history, on par with Gutenberg's movable type that made possible the mass-production of books. Enthusiastic believers are quick to suggest that ready access to the Internet will introduce and bring acceptance to concepts of racial & gender equality, tolerance, and nonviolence in developing nations.

But some comments were more rational, with common-sense concerns about doling out computers in third-world nations where — at least in the western mindset — it seems people have more immediate needs, like clean water, food, medical supplies, and basic educational opportunities. And even more felt OLPC to be a technological solution to a social problem. For example:
"Is there some vast, unrestricted pool of [financial] resources dedicated to educational enterprises in developing countries? No, the $100 laptop idea is a notion that is attracting attention — and investment — where little had existed before. In fact, rather than take (arguably imaginary) funds away from teacher training and curriculum development, this project, naive or not, offers great potential to draw supplementary funding to such endeavors. At the very least, it's laying the groundwork for a cooperative effort to produce palpable results in the education of the world's children."

"Governments should spend the little amounts they have for education on bulking up their respective teaching communities. If these laptops only last five years but teachers can teach for 20, 30 or 40 more years, what has the most benefit to any society as a whole?"
But most of the comments seemed in sync with my biggest concern — do computers in the classroom pay off for any child, third-world or otherwise:
"The track record to date [in the U.S.] is dismal, where 95% of K-12 classrooms have Internet connections, and the average ratio of students to computers is better than 4:1. Why would technology be any more effective in the developing world? Note, by the way, that in previous generations movies, radio, & television all were touted as educational panaceas."

"Good teachers first, computers second. Information accumulated in the absence of a conceptual foundation is confusing, not elucidating. If laptops were the key to 'learning how to learn' for the average student, America’s students would stand apart as the best & brightest in the Western world. [Yet] the data suggest otherwise. Educators have been seduced by technology [and corporate] marketing."

"The U.S. is awash in computers, but it hasn’t done anything much to improve learning or knowledge. If anything, it has made things worse. Test scores are falling. Our youth can't do math, but can play games & surf the net just fine. Computers have proven to be a false panacea."

"To believe 'learning how to learn' is more valuable than traditional memorization and testing flies in the face of plunging U.S. science & math scores. [And] reports of poor preparation for many recent graduates entering the workplace further fuels the debate."

"Laptops for students means a loss of eye-contact. How is [the teacher] supposed to know if they're listening or playing Tetris?"
And of course, there were some bluntly anti-OLPC opinions:
"[$100 notebooks] will make a tremendous difference... assuming they're edible."

"While beautiful in theory, this sounds a lot like giving out free ATM cards to Katrina victims."

"To give [third-world children] laptops would be like giving flashlights to blind pupils led by blind teachers."

"This seems like a good idea but might be analogous to giving everyone in the third-world a car but no money to buy gas. Eventually the computers will break and networks will fail — where's the budget to support, replace, & maintain the computers?"

"This is simply the next link in a long chain of the abuse of the less sophisticated by the more technologically elite — to turn them into consumers of our own culture."
So, what's your take on this?

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OLPC Now a Reality

Monday, November 27, 2006

There’s been lots of buzz in the past months about MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.   According to a WorldChanging article posted Saturday, the OLPC is now a reality — the first 1,000 units rolled off the assembly line in Shanghai and headed for Argentina & Brazil last week.

On one level, a self-powering, portable, kid-friendly computer — and for under $150, no less — is very appealing.   And sure, the idea of giving children in underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, Nigeria, Libya, & Thailand the opportunity to connect to the sum of human knowledge on the Internet seems a noble notion.   But Randy over at wisely posed a question that’s been weighing on my mind too...   Do Starving Children Really Need a $100 Laptop?

Are notebook PCs really the key to a better life (or even better learning) for children?   Countless genuises — people whose ideas changed the world — existed long before the advent of semiconductors, so it hardly seems likely that the lack of a computer will truly hamper any child’s learning ability or intellectual potential.

I’m baffled why more people can’t see that funding books, teachers, & schools is more appropriate than placing gadgets in the hands of impoverished children.   John Wood, founder of Room to Read, sensibly notes that a $2000 library can serve 400 children, costing just $5 per child.   A $10,000 school can serve 400-500 children, or under $25 each.

As I’ve wondered before, maybe we need to seriously consider the wisdom of introducing computers into kids’ lives at too early an age.   Does technology magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children — or could it actually become a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?

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How Much Tech For Tots?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Image of baby using a computerThis week’s edition of Deb Shinder’s WXPnews featured an editorial that centered around Jodi Upton’s short essay Handwriting on The Wall for Cursive.   It seems the growing trend is for elementary schools to stop teaching cursive writing as a mandatory part of their curriculum and, like Deb, I’m both surprised and saddened by this.

Unquestionably, I believe there’s no price you can place on the value of teaching children handwriting.   But there’s an underlying issue at stake that’s even bigger than that.   It’s the ever-increasing emphasis on making computer-use skills a priority at such an early age that truly disturbs me. That kids now start using computers in kindergarten is just a bit stunning.   Seems to me that kids need time to just be kids.   They need to learn how to interact with the world around them and develop social skills.   Since I don’t yet have a parent’s perspective, maybe I’m off the mark, but isn’t it more important that kids learn to doodle with crayons or play ball before they learn Powerpoint, video games and/or instant messaging?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a bona fide techno-junkie and I love my PC, iPod, DVR, & other electronic goodies.   And I’m certainly in favor of teaching keyboarding skills in school — nearly every day, I see firsthand how not being able to type well hinders people in the workplace.   But I’m tentative about introducing computers into kids’ lives at too early an age.   The next generation will be enslaved by technology to a degree that we may not even be able to fully forsee.   Computers will undoubtedly dominate nearly every facet of their lives.   So, maybe we need to make sure kids have ample opportunities to learn how to exist & succeed in the real world before thrusting them headlong into the inescapable cyber-world.

What do you think?   Post a comment!

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