Tie And Jeans

Apps vs Tools

Apps vs tools!

The 5th grader sighed with all the world weariness a 10yo girl can muster, “There should just be a button to make it look like a cookie.”

This is the App Mentality in a nutshell, and although it raises my hackles from time to time, it’s NOT WRONG. That girl had spent the better part of an hour following detailed and obtuse instructions from a tutorial, trying to inject the cookie photo from one layer into giant-sized text in another. It was repetitive and a bit tedious, and she was ready to shout Beteljuice! one last time and find an automated solution.

Since my school announced our 1:1 iPad program last spring, I’ve repeatedly stuck my foot in my mouth by playing the pedant when teachers or admin talk about Apps. “Can the Macbook use Apps?” That’s topshelf nerdbait. Do they mean can Macs run specific software written for iOS devices? Are they using Apps as a blanket term for software? It’s a sloppy term, but it’s a sloppy term with a pedigree. For over 20 years, Steve Jobs used Apps as a blanket term for “good software on my platform.”

My instinctive backlash has a similar history, full of well-intentioned cognoscenti who see the rise of single-purpose Apps, and iOS in general, as the primrose path towards the death of general purpose computing. The difference between iOS and Ubuntu is Cookie-text App vs. Photoshop writ large. One one side you have plain text configuration, strong encryption tools, compliers and the wide horizons of open innovation. On the other, you’ve got Angry Birds, fart buttons, and constant surveillance in the guise of convenience. From this view, iPad programs are just another example of institutional education stamping young kids into compliance and obedience. Is it any wonder why these threads get heated?

In the first few months of our 1:1 program, I started these sorts of fights every time someone said the word “App” in my presence. But after watching the students in action, I’ve found a new peace with and appreciation for the App Mentality in our classrooms.

Over the last decade, I’ve worked with dozens of teachers on various kinds of video projects, most of them using some version of iMovie along the way. As I’ve developed as an educator, I’ve always tried to move the tech-learnging to the periphery of the learning process. Working with the classroom teachers, we’ve used story board templates, bundles of source footage, pre-configured iMovie projects, and all manner of support tools to bring young kids quickly into the heart of the creative moment. In short, we built Apps that supported our objectives, but we did by slapping extra stuff around the core tech tools.

When Melissa told me about this Silent Movie App, my grognard response was completely dismissive. Something that forces black& white or sepia, puts in title cards and adds grain effects? Pssh. Any real tool could do all those things and more. But then I saw our fourth graders working with it and I realized what’s gained by giving up the and more. These students are now working with the same limited pallet, all facing the same small-scale creative decisions, with a minimum of adult intervention. That independence is far more valuable and developmentally appropriate than the illusory freedom of a feature-rich tool.

Apps should be like a well-crafted lesson or project, providing the user with enough freedom and choices to make something meaningfully personal within the established parameters.** They should introduce young kids to the potential of what they can accomplish with these devices. Over time, I’m confident that their imagination and passion will push them beyond the potential of single-function Apps, back to the open horizons of “real” tools.

**This view makes it clear that teachers and educators needs to take up the challenge of App creation, and quickly, before we realize the the critics’ dark future of retail education at $2.99 a pop.


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2 thoughts on “Apps vs Tools

  1. I struggle with this every day. When we talked about iPads a while back, someone turned to me and said, “And you can make apps on it.” And I said, “Actually, you can’t. I need a ‘real’ computer for that.” On the other hand, I do often simplify. I teach 6th graders HTML & CSS but then they use Google Sites to build their actual web sites.

  2. tieandjeans on said:

    I’m trying to remove the implicit sneer from my use of the phrase “real computer.” What I’ve seen accomplished with the iPad this year makes it clear that there will be LOTS of tools on that device, living alongside the apps. Garageband and the new Photoshop are clearly in a different category than my daughter’s favorite handbell app, and I don’t think I’m being too optimistic in anticipating more powerful and richer tools across many disciplines in the next year to 18 months.

    That said, the lack of a Hypercard-esque tool that creates interactive content for the device ON the device still frustrates me. I’d love to see our school push deeper into creating small but meaningful apps for the iPad, on the same scale that we take successful lessons from one classroom and make them available for all teachers of the same course/grade. But I still see a gigantic disconnect between ed/admin perception of “easy” and the actual work and skill required for designing and coding. Expecting teachers to pick up Objective C is a non-starter, hiring iOS developers is prohibitively expensive, and there’s no cultural precedent for independent schools staffing a coder as part of their IT/Curriculum team.

    This summer, our tech staff is teaming with a few departments to translate their existing corpus of notes, reference, practice and review materials into interactive iBook format. Rather than just wait for commercial textbooks to saturate that market, maybe we can use this brief moment as a small step towards the content-generating classroom.

    I’m ready to give up HTML and CSS in favor of Markdown for all web-writing tasks for elementary and lower-middle grades. While I really enjoy the Hackasaurus tools and curriculum from Mozilla, I think there’s a distinct skill of how to write FOR the web that gets confused with how to build/hack the web.

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