Guide dogs and iPads

The Higher Education Academy’s annual conference was a great opportunity to meet other academics engaged in improving the teaching and learning going on in UK universities. I attended some really interesting presentations, one of which made me think about the nature of “progress”, and how we need to consider the down- as well as the up-sides of new technologies.

It was a presentation on catering for diversity in abilities, in particular about generating and delivering content in forms usable by everyone – so no fancy fonts, text as images, oddly coloured text, that sort of thing.

A questioner asked about possible pitfalls in assuming that one particular type of content was automatically more accessible than another. He cited the dropping of curbs to allow wheelchair users to cross the road more easily. Apparently, this causes problems for visually impaired people, since the curb was a useful marker for the boundary between road and pavement; what’s more, guide dogs are trained to stop at the curb – no curb is confusing.

At the same time, I noticed the chap next to me sporting a shiny new iPad. Every now and then, he would pick it up, start an app, use it for a couple of minutes, go back to the “home” screen, and put the iPad back on the table. Simple enough so far, but the odd thing was, whenever he put it down, he would turn it over, so the screen faced the table. Being a psychologist at heart, I started wondering about the cause of this behaviour.

My conclusion was that he was used to closing a laptop when he finished with it, and placing the iPad face down was the nearest equivalent. Of course, this  doesn’t save power, like closing a laptop, and the home page is hardly confidential data, but somehow he felt the need to turn the iPad over in order for it to support his perceived needs. I’m sure Apple considered (and rejected, for good reason) a big power button on the front, but probably didn’t anticipate users continually turning the device over.

These examples emphasise the need for careful  testing of new technologies with genuine users in real situations before promoting new technologies to the world. The HEA-funded SWIFT project for example, for which Beyond Distance is organising the research, is a major three year project to investigate the use of virtual worlds in the learning and teaching of practical laboratory skills. We are getting a good idea of what virtual worlds do well, but we need to find the hidden drawbacks before we can confidently promote virtual worlds as effective educational tools.

We need to consider the equivalent of white lines on dropped curb edges and big power buttons on the iPad. Only then can we be sure that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

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