I meet more and more folks in education that are contemplating swapping out laptops with complete operating systems like Linux, Max OSX, or Windows in favor of tablets (or most recently the advent of Chromebooks).
I get it. They’re cheaper than market alternatives and are extremely portable.
I own an iPad. I use it to lean back and to read, or maybe interact a bit with people I know online.
But I never use it to create.
This week I’ve been rolling up my sleeves and learning Ruby on Rails, met with challenges and frustrations of configuring my system to push commits of source code to GitHub and production deployments to Heroku (a neat site that hosts sites for testing purposes).
It’s been a mess. But in three days I’ve learned more about a new topic that I can apply to the creation of new things than I have by consuming on my iPad.
I’ve been able to think in broader terms, hatching two collaborative projects with student fellows that further tend to the mission of what we do around here, and what we hope to accomplish for the St. Louis region writ large.
The problem is that tablets strike us with awe by their magic, seven sensors that can help track our every movement, providing us with detailed data about our daily lives. This is cool, but creates an illusionary distance between us and the technology that drives these experiences. Furthermore, we’re tied to proprietary systems that no doubt provide elegance to our user experience, but leave much to be desired with regards to how things work. This is undoubtably better for the market in general, but for many of us (and more importantly, those younger than us who don’t quite know they are like “us” yet), it poses problems.
Instead, with the greater freedom that complete operating systems provide, we can more fully understand the underlying architectures that drive the future. We can tinker with sensors ourselves with arduinos. We can create dynamic webpages with ruby on rails. We can even take our computers apart (gasp!) and understand their inner-workings, hacking ourselves to more complete understandings of how computer hardware can be improved.
I’m in favor of more complete systems because, while not being sufficient conditions for creating the next generations of inventors, engineers, and makers, it certainly is necessary to do so.
I’m saddened to see the limits of these devices for creative applications, especially based on my experience with the popup makerspace. Only two teachers brought laptops. And only those two teachers were able to install the Arduino IDE and the Ruby IRB directly on their own machines, creating a barrier between them using their own device and having to borrow one of ours. One of the students tried to install the ide on his chromebook he brought from home (another version of this “magical vs. hackable” story), but was distressed to find out he couldn’t. “This is my only computer,” he said. “What if I want to continue Arduino on my own?” I wanted to give him a Linux laptop, like the ones we’ve given our student fellows at the Disruption Department, but I decided to let him go down that road on his own. A Chromebook for $249 is an interesting proposition for schools and individuals alike, but I’ll take a 4-year-old donated laptop with Xubuntu any day, and watch as people explore. That’s what tinkering is all about.
Gregory Hill liked taking things apart, playing video games, memorizing sports statistics, and eating a lot as a kid. He studied Latin American Popular Culture History at the University of Kansas from 2004-2008. From there, he began teaching Spanish in a North City St. Louis K-8 school and pursuing a Masters Degree in Foreign Language instruction for the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He finished his thesis on the role video games play in 2nd language acquisition in 2010.
As an adult, he’s interested in a much more humanistic approach to integrating pedagogy and cutting-edge technology, providing connections for people to make things, making school more like real life, and eating a lot. He is the co-founder and project lead of the St. Louis makerspace The Disruption Department, and you can find him on Twitter @mrsenorhill and on his personal blog at Medium.