Skip to content

Usable Knowledge

Decrease text size Increase text size
Chris Dede

Photo by Janet Smith


Home > Learning and Development > Handheld computing > Video Text

Video: Handheld computing
HGSE Professor Chris Dede

In the next couple decades, there's going to be three different ways that we interact with information technology that are going to complement one another. One of those is the familiar interface of the world to the desktop, where you sit at some device and you bring distant archives and distant experts to you.

The second is the "Alice In Wonderland" interface, where you go through the monitor window and your Avatar, the virtual representation of yourself in a digital context, interacts with other people's Avatars, with computer-based agents, and with digital contexts. We also do work in that area, but we're not going to talk about that today.

And the third interface is the one that we are going to discuss, ubiquitous computing in which you carry the virtual world with you through the real world as you walk around and interact with things as a supplement to what's happening in the real world. We believe that this interface has tremendous promise and want to share some early research and ideas about that.

So why should we care about it in terms of education? These interfaces exemplify something called distributed cognition. And the idea is that a fairly simply object can take over part of the thinking when you're involved in a task. Because what computers do well and what people do well are two different kinds of things.

Let me just illustrate that with a couple simple examples. When I was in school, I hated graphing. And I was in school so long ago that we had to do all of our graphs by hand. Now, I can assure you, there were a few more boring things in the world than plotting out the axes and marking them off and point by point plotting in the data. By the time I was done, I could have cared less about what the graph was representing. I was bored.

Now, should students today still have to do a graph or two so that it's not magic? Absolutely. Should they ever again in their lives have to do a graph? No. You cannot find a workplace today, even in a developing country where people do graphs by hand because we have powertools, that in a distributed cognition sense, take over the low-end parts of doing a graph so that people can do what the information technology cannot do well – the creative interpretation of what the graph means.

So the idea that distributed cognition is central to learning is very important, because to the extent that tools have taken over a lot of skills that used to relate strongly to education and to employment but now are obsolete because something else is doing that kind of work, we need to ask ourselves very carefully where distributed cognition is going, how we can take advantage of it in learning, and what it means for 21st Century work.

I want to talk about work and augmented reality through a collaborator of ours, Dr. Eric Klopfer, who is head of the teacher education program at MIT. And this is his work and that of his colleagues, that I'm going to be describing. What you see is a handheld whose power and cost is similar to ours, but it's augmented by a GPS device, a global positioning satellite device, so that this computer is location aware. It knows where it is in the world.

And where it is at the moment is on the MIT campus. Because what Eric and his colleagues have done is to create a simulation that enables people to wander through a physical setting, the MIT campus, but interact with a virtual situation.

And in this case, the virtual situation is called environmental detectives. So there's been a virtual chemical spill on the MIT campus. In a pretty short amount of time, a team of people have to work together to determine what's been spilled, where has it been spilled from, how is the spill spreading, and what should the president of MIT do about it. And this is, in fact, an authentic problem, because this kind of thing does tend to happen at the MIT campus as well as other places. So it's not a hypothetical problem.

And it gets into a lot of science. So whether or not you picture yourself in the future as going into a job that would involve dealing with chemical spills, the whole inquiry process that underlies understanding this gets into a lot of the national science standards, both in content in terms and process.


Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College