Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mobile: Shiny? Yes. Hyped? Yes. Fad? No.

About the image: Got your own SL meme? Thanks to Hamlet Au for alerting us to this hilarious meme. Have a crack at adding your own caption here.

Location: Before My Crystal Ball

The other day at VWER, a colleague who should know better claimed that tablet-based computing is a fad on campus, the newest and shiniest object for technologists and administrators. I disagree, even though I have long resisted using a tablet.

This summer, my work will focus increasingly on mobile. I'm not going completely back to Flatland. I'll be finishing some work on Usher, both at SL and Jokaydia Grid, given that I might run the simulation again in the Spring of 2013. Yet I'd be nuts to devote much time to these platforms, given the energy generated by the technology that students and colleagues are actually using already.

It's something of an apples-to-watermelon comparison, when looking at virtual worlds and mobile computing. That said, I remain convinced that SL in particular is a "legacy app" because of its limited return on investment. Readers of this blog may have to get used to a few new directions here, but I'll continue to cover my and colleagues work in virtual worlds.

As for this post? I don't think the SL evangelist is teaching on an actual campus today. Here's why.

Reason 1: Students have mobile hardware on them 24/7

When Second Life was being hyped in mainstream media, students were not carrying technology, by and large, that ran it well. As I noted as early as my first class with SL in the Spring of 2007, if an application did not run well on wireless and on a laptop free of an AC adapter, it might as well not exist for students.

In the five years since, that gap has widened as SL and the promise of public virtual worlds remain down in the Trough of Disillusionment. Gartner analysts predict 5-10 years for mainstream adoption.

Meanwhile, after diving in to the Trough in the 90s, e-readers began climbing out. Media tablets are past the Peak of Inflated Expectations, but they remain two to five years from mainstream adoption. Part of that involves standards. No one knows who will dominate the tablet wars that are surely erupt as Windows 8 devices roll out. I don't really care, as I'm still a novice even with my iPad 2. Microsoft has deep pockets and, despite my disdain for their OS before Windows 7, they can build great hardware; my MS two-button mouse is King Mouse, even when I compare it to the sleek Apple cordless I use at work.

Even as tablets begin to jockey for market share, the mobile experience has gone from students' ways of contacting each other socially to the default device for using the Internet. These devices are already "always on and always on you," to quote from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, a text I'm devouring on my iPad. One after another student tells me, in brief e-mails sent from iPhones, that their laptops are being reserved for times when they have to "type a paper." That means Word, and that means print.

I'll blog more about the reading experience on a tablet later.

Whoever gains (or in Apple's case, maintains) dominance and establishes the standard matters less to me than the fact that SL and OpenSim do not run well, if at all, on tablets.  Unity 3D does for iOS and Android. I cannot make content for that platform yet, and may never do so, but I'd like to try my hand at exploring others' work.

Concurrent to all this churn, we are  moving to tablets on our campuses for consuming media. If Moore's Law holds true, these devices will become better and better at creating content.

One does not wish to be on the wrong side of history, and I think SL evangelists are clearly on the wrong side, unless they are early in their careers and have a Plan B for research and teaching.

Reason 2: Mobile apps directly relate to classroom work

Save for simulations, as I've noted at length here, there are few compelling reasons to use a virtual world of any sort in the classroom. Many of us don't even need a "world" for a class: we need one or two sims and good content.

The bigger world of SL helps this teacher only insofar as it gets me together with colleagues to share ideas. For some social-sciences or writing courses, I could see the advantage of studying a lively online culture, though IRB reviews could be a nightmare for publication. For language classes, live contact with speakers of other languages would be good.

Otherwise, why DO we send students in-world?

For mobile technology, especially e-texts and note-taking apps, the advantage in a classroom setting, traditional, online, or hybrid, are immediate. Students need not lug heavy books to class, work, or bed. The devices link them directly to research sources. Virtual worlds, in comparison, are clumsy add-on apps that do not play with other applications well. Hence the notecards, LSL minefields, database failures, and other peculiarities that keep VWs from becoming mainstream in the near-term future.

Meanwhile, students working with a colleague in Physics are walking around campus at night and pointing their iPads at the heavens. On their screens, Sky Safari. It is intuitive and easy and can be done on the prowl with our campus wireless. Don't try that with a virtual world.

Reason 3: "Fast, Easy Fun"...We got it wrong before

We will all have characters in MOOs. We will all study literary hypertext. We will all have avatars in immersive 3D virtual worlds.

We'll all pilot flying cars on our commutes, too.

None of these technologies were easy for mainstream users. Some were fast, and to me all of them could be fun.

Remember Linden Lab's marketing push a while back, given Philip Rosedale's pitch that SL should be "Fast, Easy, Fun"? Hamlet Au nailed the challenges Linden Lab faced then. I would claim, based on my experience in OpenSim, that the challenges are even higher for mainstream faculty.

Not so for tablets and smart phones. They are fast and easy. Changing apps is a lot easier for a noob like me than was changing my outfit in SL.

And used judiciously, they are fun.  Too many users are addicted to them, but that's beyond a faculty member's control.

Mobile devices as "Flavor of the Month"? Hardly. More like "future main course."


Cecil Hirvi said...

An interesting and compelling case Prof.

My only reservations is that your argument for mobile would seem to apply to education in general. Certainly all fields of study have different needs and the various technologies out there may work for some and not for others.

I've cautioned (to another teacher) that over-reliance on technology for teaching purposes may leave students ill-prepared for those times when the electro-magnetic systems fail due to some unforseen catastrophe. There was nothing more chilling than watching young Japanese kids walking around like zombies amid the tsunami ruins holding their useless mobiles that could neither light a fire nor bandage an arm.

In the past, you've made posts about a potential post-apocalyptic world where networks were unavailable and wonder how you resolve the two.

Despite your deep analysis for the merits of mobile, I can't help feeling that we are all willingly entering this new Daedalus Labyrinth, oblivious to the great potential that one could get lost forever in it.

I respectfully look forward to your insights on the mobile work you are exploring and thank you for forcing me to think about it more deeply as well.



Iggy O said...

Cecil, I agree. Many folks I know--and not just students--become lobotomized without their phones or Facebook Wall.

For that reason, critical-thinking skills need teaching as well as experiential work without networked tech. I loved teaching kids to do framing for Habitat without nail guns. The framing hammer is a great teacher of focus, balance, and pain :)

I'm adept at both networked and traditional learning, but I fear I'm the last of a generation who can do that.

antonia-tiger said...

You mentioned MOOs. I remember seeing some of the claims being made in the mid-Nineties. And those memories prompt an obvious question: what did MOOs give to users that they couldn't find with IRC?

So what is there that virtual worlds can do today that makes them stand out. And what's the IRC-equivalent?

I can think of a few things that could be done with the tech. You could walk around a European castle without having to go to Europe. It can be hard making the leap from a scaled drawing to reality, but is the virtual world the only way of making the leap?

There are replica Roman forts, and people trying to plausibly show how Roman soldiers trained and fought. You can build those forts in a virtual world, but you can't get the people by that method. A virtual world could be one tool, but would it be better than a well-made video?

Iggy O said...

"A virtual world could be one tool, but would it be better than a well-made video?"

Antonia, you miss a MAJOR point. You only consume media with a video, but with interactive media you can create new content and change the story line of a simulation.

Virtual worlds have that killer app of user-generated content, something that (give this builder's skills) Unity 3D or mere chat programs lack.

Chat and video can spur collaboration do not permit immersive collaboration inside a simulation: interactive narratives such as what we have accomplished with the virtual House of Usher.

This is the unique strength of virtual worlds: interactive simulations designed by educators and students.

Moreover, IRC does not let you build content. Even in our MOO I made textually dense coffee shop with chatter bots, themed to be a Beatnik hangout from the early 1950s. We put it, MOOndog's Coffee Shanty, in the midst of a virtual San Francisco.

Students could make videos or chat up each other. But they are not virtual worlds with several folks interacting in real time.