A brief history of mobile devices


Reading elsewhere in A History of the World in 100 Objects I came across this quote from a letter by Geoffrey Chaucer to his 10-year-old son, Lewis.

I have seen that there will be some instructions that will not in all things deliver their intended results; and some of them be too hard for thy tender age of ten years to understand.

Chaucer senior was talking about the user manual for the astrolabe that he’d bought for his son. This is an astrolabe:

It can be used to tell positions of stars and planets, your latitude, and is an inclinometer. And probably a few other things too. The parallels with smartphones is obvious. A new device, that fits in the pocket, and does an amazing amount of things. And so complicated it takes a ten-year-old to understand it. The parallels with the hand axe are apparent too. Again hand-sized (pocket-sized except it was probably invented before the pocket) with a wide variety of applications.

The fascination with technology is an in-built human experience. Anyone who claims that technology is dehumanising hasn’t really been paying attention to how we evolved. Sure it changes us, but that’s a fundamental part of the human experience. And yet frequently in education I’ve come across resistance, not because it’s difficult or time-consuming (though it can be that) but because people have said they have an ideological opposition to it. Which is perhaps overstating their case. It’s more accurate to say they didn’t like it.

But look at that. Imagine you’re in 1391 – how cool would it be to own one of those? Scratch that, it’s still cool in 2016. Alone that shouldn’t be the basis of educational experience (the “cult of the shiny”) but it has to count for something.

That’s one reason why mobile devices are so loved. They are cool, and they’re always to hand, and they have a multitude of uses. Torch, satnav, book, music player, games console, text messager, internet browser, clock, stopwatch, timezone converter, camera, (still and movie), calculator, TV. About the only thing I don’t use mine for is as a phone. I wouldn’t say it was a fixed part of me (I’m always putting mine down somewhere and forgetting it). But it is an extension of my means to interact with the world. That’s my one quibble with the book. The 100th object is a credit card, supposedly being the device that sums up our time in the way that the astrolabe summed up the 14th century. I think even back in 2010 when the book came out, the smartphone was evidently the defining device of our time. And now of course it’s making the credit card obsolete.

Douglas Adams described technology as a tool that doesn’t work yet. Marshall McLuhan described a tool that becomes an extension of us as a prosthesis. So gradually there’s an evolutionary process of our devices, from technology, to tool, to prosthesis. We appropriate the technology into our sense of our own selves, so that as a prosthesis it’s part of our proprioceptive system. Once the device becomes an extension of our bodies we don’t want to be separated from it, but it becomes an ideal medium for learning, because while operating it we don’t think about how to operate it, any more than we think about how to pick things up with our hands. It’s truly an invisible technology.

This is why designers change an interface at their peril. Often people will respond to the howls of protest with derision, as if it’s just a knee-jerk antipathy to change. Sure change is the only constant, but the impediment to that sense of a device as prosthesis is real. Once you’re slowed down by having to think where everything is on the device, it starts getting in the way again, like having to relearn how to walk if you’ve had your left and right feet swapped. When it seems like the upgrade has just been for the sake of it (or worse, because they’ve come up with a more intrusive way to sell you stuff – take note Twitter and Skype) then people are right to be pissed off.

It’s also why mobile learning is so effective. Yes it frees people from being tied to one spot for their learning. I can now read anywhere I’ve got a few minutes, because I’ll have my phone on me whereas I rarely would have a book on me, as they don’t fit in my pocket. Anywhere can then become a learning space (more interstitial spaces). But it’s also because mobile devices aren’t a technology, they’re not even a tool, they’re part of us. We therefore feel connected to them in a way we’re not connected to other things, and whatever takes place with them or through them makes the activities feel more personal, and more engaging and, arguably, a more fully-realised experience, because the experience isn’t just on a screen, it’s physically engaged with. Part of The Body Electric.




Mobile learning in hospitals

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The children there still receive an education, and so it’s a site of James Brindley school (it has 14 sites around Birmingham). They asked me to come in to get them started on evaluating the impact that iPads have had on their teaching there. I think there’s an amazing amount of things that can be done with tablets (i’m agnostic about specific devices, though I’m director of research for the iPad Academy UK I actually own a Transformer Prime) and this was an opportunity to see some of the real advances that can be done with them.

There are three main modes they teach in. There’s a primary classroom and a secondary one, for children who are well and mobile enough to leave their wards, each ward has a separate room for teaching in too, and then a lot is done at the bedside. They have children from around Europe visiting, so language can be a barrier, but there’s google translate just a tap away. They do a lot of maths and art education too, so it’s less of a problem in those subjects. The devices integrate directly with the other work they do, so in animation they draw out the storyboards on paper, then use the storyboards to create animations using an animation app. The primary children showed me a video they’d made (the ipad integrates seamlessly with the reflectors and smart boards, no annoying plugging in data projectors – which never seem to reach and need rebooting a couple of times to get them to recognise each other). In the heart surgery ward the teacher showed me the maths apps she uses, meteor maths is a popular one (you have to tap on the two numbers that make the solution before the meteors bump into each other). She had to first of all persuade the boy she was teaching that he didn’t have to be scared because I’m not that sort of a doctor. She says she has to be careful with that one because it can raise the heart rates of the children too much. In the cystic fibrosis ward there was a little girl who at first could only use her head, she now has the use of her arms too, but she was able to interact with it using a stylus in her mouth, and the one thing she wanted when she left was one of her own. Neurology also finds them useful, since even if the children can’t hold a pen, they can trace letters with their fingers. It’s also useful because they can record children’s progress, sometimes which can be only small increments, but by seeing work, or videoing reactions when for example, patterns are touched on their hands, these can form a record over months, all integrated into one place. Everyone was doing Easter-themed work, one girl in an isolation ward was making little chicks, and I could see the work because it had been photographed, printed out and stuck in her workbook (another example of it integrating seamlessly with the usual practice). another advantage: it takes hours to clean up a PC enough to take it into an isolation ward, books can never be made clean enough, but a wipe down with an antiseptic wipe and a tablet is ready to go. The downside is on the neurological ward, the in-built magnets (which are only there to hold covers in place) interfere with the shunts if they’re fitted, so they can’t be used. Another girl (I think on the nephrology ward, but it was towards the end and I was feeling slightly swamped by then) I spoke to said the best thing about it was the games, but these were actually games she was learning with according to the teacher.

This was the theme all the way through: the children took to it because it was interactive, and the apps were often so game-like they weren’t aware that they were learning. with it being tactile and visual, there was a pick-me-up-ness (which is a real phrase, I know i just googled it) to it that generated engagement. This development in practice has only taken a few months. This has applied to the teachers too, in the staff room they are drawn to each other’s practice through the sounds and visuals of the ipads they’re playing with and although they’ve always shared their practice, they said that this has increased with introducing the ipads.

the aspect of mobile devices I’m particularly interested in is the way that the use of them becomes embodied (of course I am, it’s in the title of the blog). I think the reason why mobile devices are a step-change in our relationship with technology is the greater and faster degree to which they become extensions of ourselves. They easily make the jump from tool to prosthesis because they’re tactile, they’re flexible, we carry them close to us constantly, and well of course because they’re mobile. The depth of this is indicated by the relative comfort we have with letting someone else use our desktop PCs (no problem) our laptops (slightly uneasy) and our tablets/phones (feels very much like an invasion of our space). The ipads were kept in amongst the toys, books and so on, in plastic crates and in bags. They were just another part of the kit, albeit the one piece that brought all the other bits together.

Anyway, at the moment I’m looking for funding to expand the degree to which the evaluation can take place. There is definitely a lot of awesome practice going on that more people need to hear about. It’s also a very moving environment to be in. The children there were going through stuff that’s worse than anything I’ve gone through, and yet all were smiling (even the boy with in the heart ward once he realised I was a Ph and not an M). It’s very difficult to find the words without lapsing into cliche or sentimentality, but if you think you’re having a crap time, it really is the best place to force you to get a grip.