The Consumption

Thoughts Education Technology

I keep telling people, parents and teachers, that the important thing is to make sure that kids get some experience of technology beyond mere consumption, and that preferably, they learn to create with it. I’m worried, though. Are we falling into another kind of consumption?

Are we being lured, slowly, into a world where consumption has merely been transplanted out of the realm of content, and into the delivery and the creation of that content?

Supposedly, the advantage to a device-centric classroom, and particularly a mobile-centric one, and the app-centric paradigm that follows, is that it enables students to be more in control of their own technology. It empowers them to use the technology for a myriad of things, many of which will be interactive, and some of which, (hopefully) will be creative. I can’t begin to tell you how much better this situation is than the one faced by previous generations of teachers – one in which technology often meant television (at least in the minds of the general public), and interaction often meant helping a teacher get the danged thing to work properly. We finally seem to have arrived at a place where a student being able to create more or less whatever they can think of on a single device is feasible, and that is a wonderful thing. Certainly, no-one I know would disagree that technology is at its best in education when it’s used to create rather than to consume. We’re in a better position, in regards to creation, than we have ever been.

Here’s the problem I have: I can’t shake the feeling that we are shifting our consumption from content to the processes and tools that allow us to create it. This is particularly pronounced where those tools involve using apps or services about which students (and often teachers) do not have a thorough understanding. Google Dive (by way of example) is a wonderful service, and is very empowering in what it allows to happen in classrooms, but is, ultimately, a black-box — a service to be consumed. It allows a great deal of time to be saved by virtue of having files and student work available everywhere, but robs students of the opportunity to learn for themselves, how this works on a technical level by moving files around on USB sticks and networks. They are left to consume a service where everything ‘just works’ ™ and they don’t need to learn such technical details.

There are ways around this kind of thing, of course. You could start students out by having them use USB sticks and network drives so they get the general idea, and then move to an easier to use service so that you can actually get some work done, but therein lies the problem: you want to get work done and, like every teacher everywhere, you have limited time, so you use the app instead, and you accept its paradigm. So do your students.

I’m not so worried about the file management issue, to be honest. I’m more concerned with the creative process and the way that can become appified. Have your students ever made artistic decisions based on which soundtracks or effects are provided for them in GarageBand? Do the storyboards they produce become constrained by the software they use to create them? Does the writing app they use influence the way they structure their narratives? Does the blogging software push them towards particular ways of sharing work? In an environment driven, increasingly by apps which are, by design if not by necessity, often quite simple and formulaic, I’m willing to bet the answer to those questions is all too often yes. In this way, we become consumers of the creative process rather than masters of it.

So what can we do about this? I’m not sure, entirely, but I suspect that a lot of the solution has to do with things to which I’m sure we all aspire, such as selecting the best software for the project and not the other way around. Do we achieve it as often as we might like?

I’m sure, at this point, that you might be thinking “What about Open Source?”. Well, to a certain extent, Free Software deals with this issue, but let’s look closely at what we mean here. Here’s the definition of Free Software from the Free Software Foundation:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).

By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Now, obviously, this doesn’t relate perfectly to education, and it’s not really meant to. Certainly, these freedoms are useful in that they allow us to create, improve and share software that we use in the classroom. They are not, however, going to help with this appification of the creative process, because they deal with, in essence, a licensing issue. Free Software might provide the mechanism for improving the software, but it’s not going to do the work for us. Further to the point, how often have you actually done that to a piece of software you use in the classroom — improved it? I know I haven’t, and I even have some of the skills. How many teachers do, and how many would have the time to improve software if they did? We are, ultimately, constrained by time and expertise, which means that we must work with the tools we have.

I’m not done thinking about this problem but I’m leaning towards this: Software developers and vendors all to often think in terms of solutions and workflows (we see it in marketing materials all the time) — they want to provide a tool (or an app) which makes your life easier by removing certain choices from your control in order to reduce repetitive work and allow you to produce something. When you embrace a particular vendor’s software, you are, ultimately consuming their content — their artistic choices and their way of thinking. As teachers, we often try to think in terms of problems. We actually want them. We design projects around them, and we love to engage students with every choice they might have in their creative work, not just some of them. We need to get better at communicating to the education software world that we don’t want 'solutions.'