I Don’t Trust This Article – And Here’s Why

On Friday, a colleague pointed out a new article on Mashable that is titled “Why Tablet Publishing Is Poised To Revolutionize Higher Education.” I don’t trust the claims made in this article. I’m going to explain why I don’t trust the claims, not to convince you that my opinion is correct but to give you an understanding of how I evaluate claims like the ones made in the article. I’ll lay out my thoughts in chronological order.

  1. The article is published at Mashable. I removed Mashable from my RSS reader over a year ago because I got tired of their poorly-written articles that make ridiculously overwrought and unprovable claims. This certainly isn’t enough for me to condemn this particular article but it certainly makes me cautious right from the beginning.
  2. The title makes a very bold claim. Many people have attempted to “revolutionize” education; few have succeeded. And even fewer have been able to explicitly predict revolutions before they occur or even recognize them as they are occurring. The author has a helluva case to make and he better bring remarkable evidence to support his claim(s).
  3. After reading the title, a quick glance through the article indicates that it’s a utopian piece largely based on the idea of technological determinism. In other words, it’s not only wildly optimistic but it also relies on the idea that we can predict and control how people use technologies by the way in which those technologies are designed. Both of these ideas – utopia and technological determinism – have a bit of history in the field of social informatics. The history is mostly negative; these ideas simply don’t work most of the time. So my skepticism continues to increase.
  4. The author of the article is an executive at Adobe. In fact, he’s the “director of worldwide education.” That doesn’t mean that his opinions are necessarily biased but it’s another reason for me to be skeptical.
  5. The article claims that “[There are] better study habits and performance with tablets.” Only one study is cited to support these sweeping claims: a Pearson Foundation “Survey on Student and Tablets.” For example, the author states that “86% of college students who own a tablet say the device helps them study more efficiently, and 76% report that tablets help them perform better in their classes” and a few other claims. Even if this study were flawless, the author needs a whole lot more evidence to support such a broad claim.
    1. To their credit, Pearson offers to share methodological details about and data from their survey if you just ask them; I haven’t asked so I don’t have any more detail than what is provided in that 2-page overview. But we do know that the survey was conducted online. Given that about 20% of people in the U.S. do not have access to the Internet (Dept of Education estimates 18.6% and the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates 21%), it seems unlikely that an online survey can produce data that is representative of the entire population. It seems particularly problematic to omit non-Internet users when asking about technology since the results will almost certainly be skewed.
    2. Even if we accept that the Pearson numbers are accurate or in the right ballpark, I’m still not sure if they’re very informative. I guess it’s interesting that many young people think that tablets will help them study more efficiently and that they will replace textbooks in the next five years. I just don’t think that we can use these data to make any predictions.
    3. Let’s ignore the validity issues for some of Pearson’s data (e.g. people are notoriously bad at distinguishing between “what I like” and “what is most efficient/effective) so we can move on.
  6. The authors correctly assert that digital textbooks can include more features than printed textbooks, including “video, audio, animation, interactive simulations and even 360-degree rotations and panoramas.” However, the author does not say how we’ll produce all of that additional material. I don’t expect the author to solve every challenge associated with his predicted revolution but it would be nice to at least acknowledge them instead of glossing them over or ignoring them entirely.
  7. In the next section of the article, the author claims that “interactive learning leads to better retention.” The only evidence cited is this news article about a study of elementary and high school students using 3D technology in science and math classes. Of course, since I’m an academic snob I think it would be much better to cite a primary source, preferably one that has been peer-reviewed, than to rely on a popular press article. Once again, even if we accept that this study is perfect it’s not even close to being enough to support such a broad claim.
  8. Next, the author claims that digital publishing can help us better “[understand] learning effectiveness” using “integrated analytical tools.” I have no issue with this claim as a broad theoretical claim. But it seems to completely bypass the fact that U.S. higher education is in complete disarray in terms of even settling on broad learning objectives much less specific objectives and associated assessment tools or indicators. (Look into the “tuning project,” especially the “Tuning USA” project, to get an accurate view of these issues.)
  9. The next claim the author makes is that “digital publishing makes knowledge more accessible.”
    1. The author must be using “accessible” in a different way than I commonly use it because it’s hard to take that claim seriously given the (a) lingering digital divide, participation gap, and similar inequities in the U.S. and (b) the immense resistance many digital publishers have exhibited to making their content accessible to the visually impaired.
    2. Once again, the author focuses solely on a possibility offered by the technology without giving any thought to the cultures in which the technology is embedded. He writes that “digital publishing allows professors or subject matter experts to self-publish their own educational materials or research findings and distribute the information on tablet devices” without offering even the barest hint about how this will occur without adjusting or overturning the systems that would need to support this. In other words, why would faculty do this? What is the incentive?
    3. Similarly, the author claims that “by harnessing interactive technologies, educators can explain even the most complex scholarly or scientific concepts in compelling and intelligible ways.” Once again, I accept this broad claim (ignoring the “even most complex” qualifier because it’s just silly) in theory but balk at it in practice. It takes complex skills to create effective interactive content, skills that are different from those possessed and valued by faculty in many disciplines.
  10. At this point I’m just tired of reading these grand claims supported by flimsy or no evidence…

I’m not a Debbie Downer or a Luddite. I agree with the broad proposition that digital publishing has potential to make a huge impact on U.S. higher education. And I agree that tablets are super cool and very useful in some circumstances; I purchased an ASUS Transformer a few months ago to replace an ailing netbook and I’m very happy with my purchase! Fundamentally, I distrust the claims made in this article because the author fails to support them. Even when the author provides cherry-picked examples and studies, they are often of poor quality and always insufficient to support those claims. This is quite disappointing since the author could have easily drawn upon the large and rapidly-growing body of evidence in this area. I expect very little from an article published by Mashable and this article delivered.

Why Accessibility Matters

As educators, we know that we have an ethical obligation to make our technical services and media accessible to all of our students, potential students, and community members. There’s a great business case to be made for most accessibility initiatives and technologies, including the many gains in usability and productivity for all of our users. Further, most or all of us have a legal obligation to make our materials accessible.

But here are some other reasons to not only make your systems and services accessible but also get you excited about technology and its ability to connect people.

  1. Videos, particularly video blogs, made by deaf persons. I’ve mentioned this a few times already but it’s such a fascinating application of technology that I can’t help trotting out this example once again. Just check this stuff out – how can you not get excited about it?! Not only are these technologies allowing deaf persons to easily communicate with one another in their natural language but they can also allow those who do not know sign language to have a peek into their life and culture.
  2. Video and text as a bridge between those who speak and think very differently. Andy Carvin at PBS’s learning.now recently wrote about Amanda, a severely autistic person who best communicates with us via her blog, Second Life, and video. Please, go read Andy’s post and watch the video to which he links. It’s amazing and shocking. It’s the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night questioning things you thought were pretty well-understood and fundamental in your world view. I’m incredibly ashamed to admit that Amanda’s right when she says that I would dismiss her as a non-person unless she were able to communicate using those tools. It’s incredible that these technologies allow her to communicate with us and express herself in a language that I can understand and we’re all richer for being able to cross this bridge.

Do you think this was what anyone envisioned when the Web, webcams, YouTube, or any of the other technologies were created? Probably not. But if the technologies were not accessible and on some level open (cue “Net Neutrality” sermon), these incredible connections and communications would not be able to take place. We can’t envision what people will do with our systems and services. So let’s not lock them up lest we shut out those who desire and need our services.

An Audio Interview With a Deaf Person?

Am I the only one who noticed that the Chronicle posted an audio interview with Robert R. Davila, interim president of Gallaudet University?  What’s the catch?  He doesn’t speak! Gallaudet primarily educates those who are deaf or hard of hearing; Davila is a deaf person who signs and his “voice” in this interview is actually that of an interpreter.  I’m sure the many deaf and hard of hearing students and alumni at Gallaudet appreciate the Chronicle posting the written transcript but wouldn’t a video of Davila signing have been much better (and much cooler)?  The interview even specifically mentions and links to the video blog that Gallaudet produces to communicate with students and alumni.

What a curious mixture of unintentional comedy, insensitivity, and a missed opportunity!

Website Accessibility

I’m sure that most student affairs professionals and indeed most Americans have some passing familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Together with other related state and federal laws, particularly Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these are the laws that require things like sloped roadside curbs, doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs, and elevators and ramps.

Fewer people, including many who work with computers and create webpages, are aware of the laws and legal rulings that govern web accessibility. Foremost among them are Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law is essentially a codification of the World Wide Web Consortium‘s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Although this law only applies to federal agencies, many states have passed similar or identical laws. Further, there is a small but growing body of case law that indicates that these laws may be applicable even to private corporations’ websites.

I write this post for two reasons. First, I am alarmed by my own experiences with webpage development and application procurement in higher education in that accessibility. Despite being a legal mandate for many institutions and a moral mandate for all institutions, accessibility is not even on the radar screen. It’s not a low priority – it’s not a priority at all. I understand that some of the issues may appear complicated but for us to make no effort whatsoever is shameless and unethical. I place some of the blame on the vendors who continue to ignore the issue (the major projects in which I’ve helped purchase, configure, and maintain web-based systems left us with no accessibility options unless we developed the systems ourselves; we lacked the resources to develop the systems in-house). That, of course, is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario because the vendors are naturally unwilling to expend resources on a “feature” that their clients obviously don’t care about. In my mind, educators’ lack of concern for online accessibility is an ethical and moral disconnect and I remain disappointed that many of those who are very quick to recognize physical issues that will affect disabled persons are so ignorant of or unwilling to address online issues. I’m not asking for everyone to become WAI experts but it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be aware of the issues and seek the advice and input of experts.

The second reason I raise this issue is as an opportunity to share a fascinating link. As discussed above, we have collectively done a very poor job of serving handicapped populations. However, let’s not ever underestimate the ability of people to overcome difficulties or their ability to repurpose tools to serve their own needs. The link above discusses the phenomenon of deaf persons using web cameras to communicate with one another using sign language. Not only does audio present an obvious difficulty for deaf persons but written content also presents difficulties; written English is a phonic language that depends on understanding how the words are pronounced aloud. In any case, it’s incredibly awesome to see deaf and hard-of-hearing persons using these technologies in ways that most of us have never considered. They’re using the Internet to do what so many of us use it to do: communicate with one another.  They’re doing it on their own in their own language and that’s incredibly empowering.