Image by {Flixelpix} David (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Image by {Flixelpix} David (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I had a moment of ed tech irony today when attending a presentation on the College of Education and Mobile Technology given by Jon Landis an Apple executive for higher education. While taking notes on the presenter’s discussion of technological changes in education, I felt slightly self-conscious of my pen and pad as I listened to him bemoaning the obsolescence of traditional note-taking skills. Old-fashioned though they may be, the handwritten notes in question will be guiding me through the following summary of Jon Landis’ presentation.

Whether you believe note-taking is outdated or not (I obviously disagree), these days there is a lot of talk about fundamental shifts in education thanks to the exponential growth in technology. People in the field of education love to discuss what new tools are the next big thing and what traditional academic models are archaic and unnecessary relics of the past. In his presentation, Jon Landis identified an educational shift that is occurring right NOW.

The shift occurring in late-2013 has less to do with the amount of information available and more to do with how we access it. We are at a unique crossroads in history when experts have predicted that more digital information is being accessed on mobile device apps than on traditional desktops and laptops. This significant point means that an abundance of information is now available to most internet users on-demand, instantly, and in our pockets.

Forecasts for mobile and desktop Internet, original data from Morgan Stanley report on mobile Internet. Image by Manipande (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Forecasts for mobile and desktop Internet, original data from Morgan Stanley report on mobile Internet. Image by Manipande (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ever since the rise of Xerox machines and widespread word processors in the 1970s, technology in education has been mainly about making existing practices more efficient. Instead of handwriting papers, students began to use word processing programs. Rather than use carbon paper, teachers began using photocopiers to distribute copies of the same document to their class. As great as these technologies were at the time, the basic tasks that they helped perform remained the same; they just got accomplished more quickly. Now with the shift towards ubiquitous mobile internet, the technology has the potential to do more than make us more efficient. From Jon Landis’ perspective, educators cannot underestimate the implications of this subtle revolution.

There is a difference between technology that creates efficiency and technology that transforms. Jon Landis would argue that a ten page research paper assignment that asks for a synthesis of the ideas of a few sources is an outdated and ineffective assignment. Efficiency technologies have made it too easy to download that type of paper from the internet, take a few sources from Wikipedia, change some words around, and turn it in; little advanced cognition is required. Far from advocating a return to the days of physical books and card catalogues, Landis suggests a move to new kinds of assignments that tap into transformative educational technologies. Why are we still asking students questions to which the answers are already known? Why not ask them questions to which not even the professor knows the answer? With the right questions and the right tools, students may produce some surprising answers.

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) model of evaluating technology in the classroom is an easily intelligible means of assessing if you are using technology for mere efficiency or if you are using it to transform learning. Puentedura’s model has four levels of technology usage:

  • In Level 1: Substitution, technology acts as a direct tool substitute with no functional change in the task.
    • i.e. – Students complete a reading assignment by reading a PDF uploaded to Blackboard instead of reading a print journal article.
    • In Level 2: Augmentation, technology acts a direct tool substitute with a functional improvement.
      • i.e. – Instead of highlighting important terms, students can input the text of an article into a word cloud app to visualize which words and themes are most prevalent in the reading.

Levels one and two of the SAMR model can be characterized as using technology for enhancement in which new tech tools mainly serve as substitutes for previously used technologies with little to no functional change in the actual task required of learners. However, in levels three and four technological enhancement gives way to technological transformation.

  • In Level 3: Modification, technology allows for significant task re-design.
    • i.e. – Instead of reading text, students can access an interactive e-book that uses multimedia, hyperlinks, and collaborative tools that expand the meaning of the text beyond its original dimensions.
    • In Level 4: Redefinition, technology allows for the creation of new tasks that were previously inconceivable.
      • i.e. – Students use multimedia tools to create their own meaning out of assigned texts, then share their work with learners around the world, and engage in dialogue about different cultural perspectives on the same topic.


In the event that instructors need new technology tools to assist them in reaching higher levels of the SAMR model, Jon Landis recommended some iPad and iPhone apps that they may find useful. Here are a few mentioned at the session:

  • Notability is a note-taking app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch that costs $2.99. Notability claims to transform your work processes by allowing you to sketch ideas, annotate documents, sign contracts, complete worksheets, keep a journal, jot travel notes, teach a class, make a presentation, etc. It also saves your work to the cloud so that you can access it across multiple devices.
  • Explain Everything is another $2.99 app for the iPad that is primarily an interactive whiteboard tool. Users can screencast, annotate, animate, narrate, import, and export a variety of file types to many different platforms directly from your iPad. The transformative aspect of this app resides in its all-in-one nature. You can create and deliver your presentation slides, embed media, and record audio and video and export to other places, all without ever picking up another device.
  • eClicker is an app for iPad and iPhone that costs $14.99 for presenter version and is free for the client version. The app is like the i>Clicker audience response system except it uses the phones, tablets, and laptops already in the audience rather than requiring the presenter to buy expensive clicker hardware. Users create a variety of question types like multiple choice, true/false, and agree/disagree, and then the questions are sent to the audiences’ devices (who have the client version of eClicker) without the need for any other hardware. Presenters can then get instant reports on each poll, and export the results for tracking or display them to the audience. (If you are looking for a free alternative audience polling app, Socrative is another iPad and iPhone app that works similarly to eClicker)
  • XanEdu is a service that provides educators with a platform for creating custom course packs, textbooks, lab manuals, and other materials online by aggregating publisher-neutral content from multiple sources. Students can then download the free XanEdu iPad app and access the custom course materials online or offline with the added abilities of notetaking, easy navigation, search, and other familiar features now expected from today’s eBook apps. XanEdu does not list any pricing on its website, but advertises that on average XanEdu course materials cost less than half the retail price of a textbook.
  • iBooks Author is a free software from Apple that allows the easy creation of iBook textbooks and any other digital publications you may imagine. There are easy templates and page layouts that can be modified by dragging and dropping text and images. There are also a variety of widgets that can do photo galleries, movies, slideshows, 3D models, etc. The catch is that any digital materials created with iBook Author must be distributed through Apple’s iBookstore or iTunes U and read on iPads. iBooks Author also allows books to exported to PDF but that format would largely removes the interactive capabilities of the iPad.

While I don’t see myself making too many radical changes in my note-taking habits in the near future, the ideas and apps discussed by Jon Landis provide some perspective. In the technological climate today, educators can no longer assume that students will respond to the teaching methods and technologies of previous eras. Rather than fret over this generational shift, we are presented with a great opportunity to tap into unexplored possibilities of pairing the human mind with instant, mobile access to immense information and previously unimaginable software capabilities. Although it is difficult to predict how educational technology will evolve in the next few years, it is quite possible and exciting to imagine the consequences of these inevitable changes.

2 replies on “Educational Technology Reaches a Point of Redefinition”

  1. Really really interesting: the taking notes issue is of immediate interest…..many students today do not really know how to take notes from an oral presentation or how to annotate a text. Some kids…especially guys…just don’t take notes. Some learned in h.s. note taking isn’t cool. For those students who do take notes, they do have them on paper in a physical notebook when they need to refer to them for a quiz or exam. They can stop after class and ask for clarification. Will they access their notes if taken electronically and stored on the cloud? How will they organize them? will they jumble up all their courses’ notes or keep separate courses in folders? They may need a whole new skill set to do this.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kay. When I was teaching high school, I saw a lot of the symptoms of the problem you describe. Many students just assumed they could look up the information somewhere after class if they needed to, so they didn’t bother to write much down during class. I think today’s educators are forced to strike a balance between taking class time away from their content to teach study skills we once took for granted or to become comfortable with the notion that teacher now function more as a guide to direct students to information (whether online, in an LMS, or elsewhere) rather than deliver direct content isolated to their classroom.

    Regardless of the delivery method of content that instructors choose to employ, the larger point remains that there are now technologies with the potential to transform learning activities in ways never thought of just a generation ago. While it is appropriate and to use technology to substitute or augment traditional practices like delivering notes through media-enhanced PowerPoint rather than writing on a blackboard, I think it is more productive to start with the goal implementing transformational technologies and then address the specific skill sets that follow in course.

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