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Skeuomorphs and Teaching

Back in early 2010 (wow, three years ago already), I was giving a plenary talk at a conference for Virginia K-12 teachers at a teaching and technology conference.  There were about 400 people in the audience, and the basic gist of my talk was that technology continues to change every facet of life, and of course education should be no different.  And in particular, technology allows/encourages us to use specific conceptual metaphors to understand information.  Obviously, technology is not pedagogy, but at the same time technology-mediated pedagogies can be very powerful.  At one point, I showed a clip from a much longer interview with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Gates says something about how finally–finally!–we are at the point where technology can really do something for education.  After much optimism and many false starts, technology is now really a central part of new, emerging, powerful and effective pedagogies, and we have an “ecosystem” that supports this kind of work.

In the talk, I set up a great analogy between educational innovation, and the innovations of Apple’s iBooks platform (which had just been released when I gave this talk).  The idea was that Apple was about to do for books what it did for music:  radically change the way we conceive of the book, engage with the book, and think about the printed page.  So I went through a very over-hyped introduction (see Slide 14 of the talk), and the showed a picture of the Apple iBooks icon…which looks exactly like a bookshelf. In the talk, I made a sort of exasperated and exaggerated gasp of chagrin that Apple, for all its amazing innovation and sleek design thinking, couldn’t come up with something better than a bookshelf.  You can even see the grain of the wood.  Incidentally, if you are curious about the future of the book, my colleague Michael Suarez is as smart as anybody in thinking about this.

Alas, this bookshelf serves a purpose: it is a (digital) skeuomorph.  I was way ahead of the curve by talking about this in 2010.  Since then, and in particular the latter part of 2012, skeuomorphic design has been much talked about in design circles.  Why use skeuomorphs?  The main reason is familiarity.  When introducing new ideas or new technologies, we often need to anchor our understanding in comfortable conceptual metaphors;  this is why we use terms like computer “desktop”, or Microsoft Word “document”, or web “page”.  These things are not literally desktops or documents or pages, but that terminology immediately lets us know what functions those things serve.

Skeuomorphs serve a particular purpose that can be fruitfully considered in the diffusion of innovations framework championed by Rogers.  In brief, the diffusion of innovations notion of technology or idea adoption within a community depends upon five basic issues:

  • relative advantage:  compared to existing solutions, what relative advantage does this innovation provide?
  • compatibility:  how consistent is this innovation with the cultural norms and values existing in the community?
  • complexity:  what is the perceived difficulty in adopting and using the innovation?
  • trialability:  how easy is it for people to try out and experiment with this innovation?
  • observability:  how readily visible is the impact of this innovation?

Skeuomorphs, then, speak to compatibility, complexity, and trialability.  The iBooks icon clearly signals to prospective users that: (i) the “books” contained within are exactly consistent with your understanding of what books are (high compatibility), (ii) if you know how to use a bookshelf, then you know how to use iBooks (low complexity), and (iii) using these books is as easy as walking over to a bookshelf, selecting a book, and starting to read (high trialability).

How does all this relate to education?  We have learned through our HigherEd 2.0 project (the hard way, sometimes), that early adopters (say, the faculty deploying the innovations) have a larger appetite for technology innovations that non-early-adopters (say, students in the class).  We simply cannot make too large a leap at a time with educational innovations, especially when technology is involved.  With students, I believe the key is relative advantage and observability–students need to see clear and immediate evidence that the innovation supports their learning better than their previous approaches and strategies (relative advantage) and translates into higher achievement (i.e., higher grades) in the class (observability).  Instructors simply cannot go too far of the regular track here.  Instructors must build skeuomorphs into their teaching.  How do you do that?

  • use thoughtful pedagogy: integrate the educational innovation into the class in a direct and well-explained way
  • make it easy for students to do:  this relates to compatibility, complexity, and trialability and respects how students live and learn
  • model innovation usage: show students how to integrate innovative practices into their workflow by doing the same in class (and telling students what you are doing while you are doing it)
  • explain the scholarly basis behind the innovation:  this is in my mind the most important;  explaining to students what you are doing and why you are doing it (i.e., explaining your ideas about the relative advantage for them) goes a long way toward easing students’ concerns about adopting new approaches

Perhaps this is an emerging skeuomorphic pedagogy, necessitated by the rapid evolution of technology, but inhibited by the general, rather inertia-laden approaches to teaching in higher education.  Early adopters and educational innovators will do well to consider skeuomorphic cues in their teaching so that their innovations can be greeted acceptingly by students and colleagues alike.

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