Archive for March, 2010

The iPad as teacher

March 4, 2010

By now, most everyone has an opinion on the iPad: it’s a new computing paradigm, it’s a waste of money, etc. A few days after the announcement, I finally realized that this isn’t a device for the computer literate, it’s a device for those people who aren’t comfortable with computers or don’t want to learn how to use and maintain them. I’ve often written that the real computer of the future should function like a screwdriver: easy to understand, easy to use, no troubleshooting, and you only have to learn how to use it once.

The iPad might be the embodiment of that philosophy. Not only is pointing intuitive, but the iPad could actually help people learn. I assume it will start simply, and then get more complex as time goes on, perhaps going as far as agency.

Imagine opening an Algebra textbook. After the interactive theory, a student begins the exercises, but becomes stuck at simplifying an equation. The iPad software could wait for a minute or two, and then suggest a solution, going slowly, and going into more detail as the iPad and the student together simplify the equation step by step. If this happens with enough students, the iPad notifies the publisher that the thoery may be too difficult to understand based on the number of students having difficulty, and the textbook could be revised, with the updates pushed to the iPad.

Once developers learn how to help people understand and learn, it might be possible to break much more complex subjects into discrete elements. Imagine teaching Java programming interactively. We’ve all seen exams which test adaptively, but the iPad could instruct adaptively, quickly surmising a given student’s skill level and adapting the coursework accordingly. No more classrooms, no more teaching to the average student. Students could progress at their own rate, with the iPad gauging what they’ve mastered and what to teach next.

At that point, I think we’ve reached agency. If a computer has mastered a subject well enough to teach it adaptively, the computer could perform all sorts of functions, and be better at them, than humans. For example, let’s say you want a custom-designed customer management system. You don’t hire developers, rather you and the iPad spend hours together building the system yourselves. The iPad starts broadly, asking the user to select from several elements the system might possess. From there, the iPad and the user design the interface, with the iPad making suggestions, and the user accepting, rejecting, or modifying them as necessary. In this way, the iPad assists the novice user in the design of the system they need, but the iPad handles all the background programming and development. Now we’ve reached the point where the computer is the agent, not just a tool.

This might seem like science fiction, but I don’t think we’re that far away.