The Illusion of Unity

I hate it clicking a link in one app on my iPhone opens a new app, and then getting back to the first app requires returning to the home screen and re-launching the first app.  OK, at some level this is a #firstworldproblems whine, but before I started using an Android device, I assumed this detail was a casualty of app-centered OS’s in general.

That was before I met Android’s system-wide Back button.

Android’s Back button (the left-pointing arrow on all screens, not any specific back button in a browser app), does one thing, but it does it in a way that helps the entire device feel more unified in a way iOS seems to completely misunderstand.

Take my earlier annoyance:  in Android, when you click on a link in one app that causes another app to open, you can use the Back button to simply go back to the previous app, as if they’re both, you know, part of the same operating system.

To me, this makes an Android device feel much more unified (even if this is more illusory than real).  Being able to move back through previous apps as you would through links in a browser adds a stronger sense of unity to user interface.

Now I know some android users don’t like the way this feature decides when to take you back to the previous app as opposed to taking you back to a previous moment within the current app.  And I would agree that this feature can be un-intuitive at times and as a consequence frustrating in a different way.

But I’m just pointing out here in a small way what folks like Lawrence Lessig and Ian Bogost have argued in much greater detail elsewhere, that choices you make in the coding of a system, tool, or device has rhetorical (and therefore cultural) significance to users that is non-trivial.  What you allow users to do, and how you allow them (or don’t) to do it, makes a big difference to how they understand what role the tool will play in their lives.  Apple usually does this incredibly well, but in the case of the illusion of unity throughout the OS, Android currently has them beat.

DML2012’s Twitter Backchannel and Ad Hoc Solidarity

This past weekend, I attended the Digital Media and Learning 2012 Conference.  I attended some exciting panels (especially those on App Inventor and MinecraftEdu), was stirred by some passionate rhetoric (especially John Seely Brown’s keynote, several ignite talks, and Chad Sansing’s provocative post-conference blog post), and tried as always to keep my head above water in the sea of Twitter backchannel that has become a hallmark of an engaging conference community.

One comment in that backchannel in particular was puzzling to me in its ubiquity, but in reflecting on it more, I think it speaks to several themes of the conference and its attendees.  On the second day of the conference, Friday, 2 March, @sjunkins wrote:

I have yet to have a student tell me they can’t use technology in class because they haven’t had any PD on it… #dml2012 #ice12

That comment gathered steam in the backchannel until at a certain point late on Saturday and into the morning on Sunday, retweets of it by other attendees* constituted the bulk of my #dml2012 search feed (Twitter only indicates it was retweeted “50+ Times”).  In some hours, there were four or five times as many RT’s of this comment as all other comments combined.

I didn’t really fully understand the comment itself for a while: I didn’t know what “PD” was in the context of the tweet.  It took a later response by another attendee to help me realize it refers to “Professional Development.”  This disparity, between all the other attendees apprehending, appreciating, and sharing the comment, and my own temporary puzzlement, tells me a lot about the context of DML itself.

Throughout the conference, the majority of voices I heard there were oriented toward teaching and learning, especially toward thinking about ways to employ digital networked tools and practices to help achieve a better experience for students, which is something I’ve been thinking more and more about of late, and is really the subject of my sabbatical work.  So it was an excellent gathering to have been a part of.

However, those same voices were not oriented toward higher ed where I teach, but rather toward K-12 (and especially 2-8).  My mother works in that community, and from her I know that “Professional Development” is often understood in terms of specific programs, workshops, and in-service activities more-or-less required by administrators as a means to ensure some commonality among staff.  As the wave of RT’s continued through the conference, it occurred to me that many (or perhaps most) of those sitting next to me in the DML sessions came to the conference with a somewhat different perspective than my own.

In Higher Ed, even the most locked down and rigid program or department leaves at least some room for individual faculty to make decisions about how to run their own classes.  By contrast, these attendees needed to know that other K-12 teachers and staff were finding the same strange and frustrating responses on the part of their administrations back home to the notion that something needs to change if our children are really going to learn.  These attendees saw “PD” as a slog, a way to rigidify learning so teachers move in lockstep, when such control is precisely what is not needed.

Connecting this to the suggestion implicit in the tweet that technology in the classroom may have the liberating potential to dissolve some of that rigidity if only we can understand its power more clearly, I realized why the tweet galvanized the backchannel so thoroughly.  Through it, and a few others that similarly distilled the concerns of many attendees, a temporary, ad hoc solidarity arose among those whom had experienced similar struggles.  It didn’t have the scope of a #greenrevolution, but the coalescing of this ad hoc community was equally clear.  It may have caused me to feel more of an outsider at DML than I otherwise might have, but it also gave deeper insight into the day to day and week to week struggles my colleagues in K-12 education struggle with and hope to overcome.

*was @sjunkins even at DML, or was he at ICE?

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