Apple generally makes news by publishing new apps, not by unpublishing them. But last week, it made some educators upset when it removed an app, Scratch Viewer, from the iTunes App Store.
Scratch Viewer was designed to let educators and others review a child’s work that was created on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch using the Scratch programming language, which has become popular in many schools.
The Scratch language was created by the M.I.T. Media Lab, and developed with grant support from the National Science Foundation and others. It is available free as a download. The language embodies the work of Seymour Papert and Alan Kay, and using it with children is a way to give them an authentic, non-watered down programming experience. As of Tuesday, the Scratch site contains nearly 1 million (987,877) projects uploaded for public viewing.
Scratch’s popularity in schools may be why viewing these works on a portable device like an iPad may also be popular, and why Scratch Viewer ($3.99) might have a market. The app’s author, John McIntosh of Smalltalk Consulting Ltd. is a Canadian programmer who has no formal affiliation with the M.I.T. lab. In addition, M.I.T. gets no compensation from the sales of the app.
I’ve always maintained that mobile learning (mLearning) should have the goal of being completely platform agnostic for many reasons. However, in order to prepare for the time when development of mobile applications across platforms is easier, or when HTML5 is more prominent and fully developed, it is critical for institutions to begin experimenting with specific platforms. To do so requires some serious thought as to what steps institutions can and should take in regard to which platform to being working with.
While Apple has created a fantastic consumer experience for individual uses and for media consumption with iTunes, the App Store and the iPhone and iPad, it is my opinion that the closed nature of this ecosystem, as well as the draconian hold that Apple maintains over its devices (even when “owned” by the consumers themselves) is inherently bad for education. At any given time, Apple can determine that an application you are using for critical course work, or otherwise, is unsuitable according to their standards and regulations, and as a result it will be simply removed, as evidenced above.
This is extremely problematic for the development and implementation of innovative and valuable mlearning opportunities and initiatives using the iPhone OS. I understand that this can be negotiated and rectified, but the problem still exists, and can strike at any time. Much of higher education teaching and learning research these days shows that students are most interested and involved in the curricula that allow them to create, to collaborate and to contribute their own viewpoints perspectives and creativity into their courses. mLearning provides a unique opportunity for higher education to bridge a gap that currently exists between the consumption and creation of course content. The possibility of mobile is not the replication of tasks and activities that can be done on laptops, in labs or on desktops, but rather the ability to apply course concepts and activities to the students’ real lives, where they can create, observe and interact with the concepts and share this with their classmates and faculty members. If education is to help foster the development of creative and critical thinking, high-level-problem solving and freedom of thought and speech, then building mLearning efforts on the iPhone and iPad platforms is short-sighted, restrictive and contrary to the goals of education.
While it may be attention grabbing and trendy to launch academic initiatives using the iPhone or iPad, there are serious considerations that will have implications on the long term viability of relying on a closed system to determine if the applications you want to use, or the functionality you are relying on etc etc are deemed appropriate by Apple. While the ease of use of Apple product make them appealing to the masses, most mobile operating systems are moving toward a much easier user interface, and already include much if not all of the functionality the iPhone 4 OS will be launching for the first time. Finally, while the integration with iTunes provides a fantastic user experience, every mobile OS has it’s own application repository now, and they will only continue to get better.
The point of this is simple. Higher education in particular needs to be careful about which path they choose when considering mLearning initiatives. Open is always better than closed in teaching and learning, and while the masses are elbowing each other out of the way to become the first to use iPhones and iPads, think carefully about what the real academic goals are before investing a significant amount of money into an effort that will leave you completely reliant on the whims of Cupertino.
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