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Steve and Alex talk about the iPad, the tablet and how it might affect the future of learning.
Steve: Hi Alex.
Alex: Hi Steve.
Steve: How are you today?
Alex: I’m good.
Steve: Good. Well, you know what I would like to talk about today.
Alex: What’s that?
Steve: Well, you know if the year 2010 was the year of the iPad — to me, because I bought one — I think the year 2011 is going to be the year of the “electronic tablet”, because what I read is that there are just more and more manufacturers coming out with a similar type product.
Have you noticed that?
Alex: Oh, of course. They use the term “iPad Killer”, very often…
Alex: …which is the concept of another product trying to take the market share from the iPad…
Alex: …so that the iPad then become obsolete.
But, yeah, there are several other manufacturers that are coming out with almost identical devices that perform more or less the same tasks.
Steve: And I gather some of them are all trying to take, you know, their own sort of individual approach to it; some larger, some smaller, some with better, I don’t know, media.
I’m not into all of it.
Alex: Faster and faster.
Steve: Faster, whatever.
And, of course, when you get people like Samsung and Toshiba and Nokia and all these people, you get all their technical wiz kids and experts and stuff developing new and better ways of producing a tablet, I mean that’s going to bring us a lot of competition and should be very interesting.
Hopefully it brings the cost of the tablets down, eventually.
Do you think it will?
Alex: I definitely think it will.
I think…well, I’ll put it this way.
I think the cost of them might stay the same…
Alex: …over time, but the features will dramatically improve.
And I think that’s kind of been, at least for Apple, more or less the historical trend, where a laptop computer will cost the same amount, but it will receive more and more updates and upgrades and get better and better.
So you’re paying the same amount, but it’s for a much better product.
Steve: But, you know, the interesting thing in all of this is, of course, the rise of places like India and China.
It may be that in Europe or North America or Japan or Korea $500-$600 for some kind of hand-held device is okay.
Lots of people can afford to spend that kind of money, but I read that the Indians were intent on coming out with some kind of a tablet for around $45, you know?
And so if the Chinese and the Indians and looking at the enormous market potentially in those countries, if they develop products for their market we could be looking at… They might sacrifice, you know, some functionality, but if they could come up with tablets that do the job under $100 that’s going to be amazing.
Alex: Oh yeah.
I mean there’s a lot of talk about the $100 laptop and I think it was One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project as well…
Alex: …which was with the intent of providing laptop computers that, you know, work slower, but are a lot cheaper to manufacture in providing them to kids in Africa and different places in the world.
I mean what I see, too, because of my interest in education, I mean to me the electronic tablet is absolutely revolutionary, potentially revolutionary, because instead of kids having to buy expensive textbooks which they carry home in their heavy schoolbags or the teachers basically printing out these sheets that look so crummy, you know, that I see my grandchildren take home and they’re still just paper, you know?
It’s not that big an improvement over what happened 500 years ago; whereas, now the tablet can enable you to access content anywhere; multimedia content, connect with your friends, have a Skype conversation, video camera conversation.
I mean I think of it for language learning.
Basically, to my mind, if the place of learning has been the classroom, my personal view is the place of learning becomes wherever the learner is with the electronic tablet.
I think that goes off of the TED Talk by Sugata Mitra where he showed the computer that he had put in a slum in rural India and I guess the urban cities as well.
The kids would go there and pretty much teach themselves how to do it; learning without the aid of an instructor or a teacher or any sort of manual, but learning by doing.
I think it makes it even more accessible if there is in the near future some sort of product that’s manufactured by companies in India or in China for a fraction of the price.
Steve: Well, exactly.
And, of course, if I look at the cost of education which continues to increase every year five-10-15%, the costs just go up and the outcomes go down.
I was reading that in Canada we have fewer people graduating from high school than before.
Steve: It’s interesting. So, we are investing more and more money.
I mentioned in some discussion, I think, about the book The Rational Optimist where Matt Ridley points out that the cost of just about every product we consume – agricultural products, consumer products, industrial products – all these costs have gone way down, like a fraction of where they were and, of course, the speed of travel and we’re feeding twice as many people.
Everything has improved except education, which costs more and more with poorer and poorer outcomes or at least no significant improvement in outcomes.
Steve: Furthermore, the education, which is the largest item in the budget of many countries, is still targeted primarily at that under-20 age group between elementary, high school and university.
So they’re not even taking that public education budget and spending it on the whole population, but we know that we continue to learn throughout our lives.
Steve: So I think that the electronic tablet has tremendous potential.
Alex: I think it really opens up the doors for a lot of people to pursue things that previously weren’t accessible, I mean for a working professional.
Alex: Like I worked in construction and I saw a lot of guys who were working construction doing these really terrible blue-collar jobs and they were stuck in it.
You know they’d been there for 10-15-20 years.
Some of them are 40 or 50 years old even and they simply don’t have the option to go back to school.
It’s simply too expensive for them.
They may have families to support and stuff and so with this it allows them, as they’re perhaps continuing to do their job…they don’t have to take two years off to pursue something different.
Steve: Yeah, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that someone in construction is unhappy with their job.
I know of people who are in construction who are quite happy.
Alex: Having been there, there’s a fraction of them that actually enjoy it.
Steve: You don’t think carpenters enjoy being carpenters?
Alex: A lot of them don’t, actually.
Alex: I think it’s fun initially.
Alex: But it’s one of those jobs where if you’re not passionate about it, it becomes tedious and it feels like you’re not using your potential.
The reason a lot of people do construction is because it pays well and the reason it pays well is because it has a very high turnover rate.
People get hired and fired like on the spot.
People cycle through really quickly, but it’s very difficult work.
Steve: I mean I was involved in building for a few years building homes and I must say that the moral of the people I worked with was quite high.
Obviously a laborer has a less interesting job, but I thought the carpenters had great pride in their work and enjoyed doing what they were doing.
Alex: I think it’s a…
Steve: I think the opportunity for someone at age 40 to, you know, retrain to become, what, a stockbroker?
I mean, you know, he’s committed.
I don’t see it so much there, I think, certainly, insofar as trades and I think trades are very important.
You know not everybody can have a university degree nor need to have one, but education just in terms of self-fulfillment, in terms of, I don’t know, learning languages.
There are so many more things that you can do with the technology like the iPad; whereas, if the model is that you have to go to a classroom to learn that’s going to eliminate a lot of people right there.
Alex: Yeah and it also increases the cost.
I know that there are a lot of like adult programs at universities here, whether it’s night classes and stuff like that, but the costs are really quite significant.
You know for a course that’s maybe two months long once a week it’s $200-$300-$400 even, which if you’re on a budget is a significant amount of money.
Steve: Yeah and some are a lot more than that too, depending to what extent it’s subsidized by the government.
Steve: So it’s not just the cost that the student pays it’s the cost that the system pays.
I mean I was reading in Canada, certainly the amount of money we spend per university student is more than twice what we spend on an elementary or a high school student.
So there’s a lot of money spent on those people.
Steve: And, as I’ve said many times, since the vast majority are in the humanities, it’s only like 12-15% who are in the hard subjects, you know, Engineering, Science and stuff, the rest of them are studying gender studies or whatever, History, Philosophy, those are subjects that could be just as easily studied on your own; just as easily studied on your own.
Now, you can argue that it’s more fun to go to university and that might be true, but the state is paying for it.
Steve: So the state is paying for you to have fun.
Well, if you’re really interested in the subject the state should maybe pay for you to have a tablet, an electronic tablet and go and learn.
Steve: Join a group of people who have similar interests, meet.
You know there are so many other ways of organizing that.
So I believe that the electronic tablet should be a very subversive element to our established education bureaucracy.
Steve: However, I don’t think it will achieve that because the education bureaucracy is so strongly entrenched and they will somehow try to prevent that from happening because it’s in their interest to maintain the model of people coming to the classroom which is their bread and butter, so…
But it’s too bad, because we have seen in all other fields how modern development, modern inventions and so forth have led to these phenomenal increases in productivity, in reduction of the cost of products, the tremendous range of products.
But, yeah, I hope the tablet has that effect.
Well, I mean, to put of a bit of a different spin on it, I think technology does help the teachers as well.
I know some teachers that I’ve had where they’d take advantage of this technology to help provide more relevant information to the students and also provide it in a way that they receive it better.
I think it’s going to be difficult for something like the electronic tablet to really break down the walls of structured education, but at the same time there are teachers out there who are willing to take that risk and try these things out.
There are countless stories of one teacher in one school with one class of kids who tries something different and has amazing results, you know?
Steve: Oh yeah and I know there are teachers.
In fact, I have met teachers.
I met a Chinese teacher, teacher of Chinese, a lady in her 50s who was using the iPod Touch, had developed programs to help her kids learn characters and was making excellent use of that technology, but the fundamental problem is that the teacher says, okay, my responsibility is to teach the kids that are in my class or the students in my class in university.
So if I am so efficient that they only need one-tenth of my time then I’m basically, you know, getting rid of my job; whereas, if it were somehow structured that my potential market is everybody that can access the Internet not just the people who paid to come to this school.
Steve: I’m a good teacher.
I know I’m a good teacher.
I’m not talking about me, Steve.
I’m saying here’s this teacher that says I’m a good teacher and I know that with the use of this technology one-tenth of the input of my time can generate like 10 times the amount of learning if I use this technology.
Steve: But as long as my market base – customer base – is fixed, all I’m doing is reducing my work, so that’s not so good.
Steve: So there needs to be some kind of an image of the market that enables a teacher to say my market is the world.
Now, how can I use this platform to get my ideas and my better ways of teaching out to not only the people who sit in my classroom but to everybody?
Steve: Right now the marketplace for any education technology is the school system or the university.
It seems to be more those people who have a vested interest in the present structure.
Steve: What has to happen is the teacher has to become an entrepreneur.
The teacher as a promoter, as an entrepreneur, promoting, learning, promoting an interest in his subject and promoting and showing people how to learn using the technology, but then the market has to be everybody regardless of their age, regardless of where they are.
Steve: There’s no reason why someone who teaches at UBC should be limited to the people who manage to get on a bus or drive or bicycle to UBC here in Vancouver.
There’s no reason why someone in Mongolia shouldn’t be taking advantage or, conversely, someone in Vancouver who likes the professor in Mongolia should be studying with him or her as their professor.
So that to me would be potentially ideal, but you have to break down so many walls for that to happen.
Alex: Yeah. It sounds good.
Steve: Anyway, we’ll see.
Alex: It would be cool.
Steve: But I think there will be an explosion of these tablets.
When they first came out people where say well, what are they good for, you know?
It’s neither a phone nor a computer.
Steve: All of this skepticism.
In fact, it’s continuing to pick up steam.
Alex: It is, yeah.
Alex: I just read recently that Apple has actually ordered an increase on the production of iPads, the new iPad 2, which has not yet been announced, but a lot of people are anticipating that.
It will be interesting to see where it goes in the next few months and in the next few years.
Steve: It’s really fascinating.
Steve: Well, I guess that was our main subject.
We had a whole bunch of other things we could talk about, but we decided to focus in on that, so 2011, the year of the tablet.
I wonder how many of our listeners have an electronic tablet.
Alex: It would be interesting to hear.
Steve: Yeah, let us know.
Or, if you want us to talk about something else please let us know.
By the way, I had a Skype message from someone in Brazil who said something to the effect of, you know, when are we going to have another podcast and Alex rocks or something like that. He’s a fan.
Alex: Oh, thank you.
Steve: He’s a fan. There you go.
Alex: Good to hear.
Steve: Thank you for listening.
Alex: Thanks for listening everyone, take care.