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Death of the Desktop and Gaming as We Know It

deathofthedesktopIn the past week, I’ve made two observations about how technology is going through an advancement surge. What I mean by that is that there are big changes happening, and it seems like it’s happening incredibly quickly–at least in my eyes.

The first occurrence was last week. My dad called  us because he knew my husband and I had something he didn’t have–more computer knowledge than him. I found it a little ironic, my dad was my first computer teacher in the early 80s when Apple II first came out. My dad, being an educator, was progressive enough to know that these were going to be the wave of the future, and in some respects, he was an e-teacher–an early computer teacher. But here was my first computer teacher asking for help. He admitted that he had let his skills lag, and he was now “a dinosaur”, and didn’t have a clue what he was doing anymore. His desktop had died, but he wanted to retain a lot of information that was still on his old hard drive. My husband declared the desktop was indeed dead,  and suggested that if my dad bought a new desktop, we could probably install the old hard drive as a secondary hard drive in the new computer, and that way he could still access the information.

I took my dad to the local Best Buy and Staples to do some comparison shopping. What struck us both is that there were next to no choices at either store for desktop models. Almost everything was either a laptop, a tablet, or one of those sleek all-in-one units. Considering that my dad wanted and needed one of those BIG desktops–not one of the compact ones, the choices were even more limited.

The irony was that once we brought the desktop back to my house to see if we could install the old hard drive into it, we discovered that it didn’t have a bay inside the casing to accomodate it, but it also essentially only had a motherboard, a power source, a fan, a Blu-ray disk drive, and the hard drive inside. That was it. It was a LOT of wasted space for something that was fairly powerful. The machine also came with the “blessed” Windows 8. I’ve had my hesitations about upgrading to it myself, but my dad had no choice, and the poor chap has been using only Windows XP and Windows 2000 up until now, so he was REALLY behind. Our solution to the hard drive issue was that my husband bought a contraption that you can enclose the old hard drive in a special case, and it turns it into a USB-connected external hard drive. So, that part of the problem is solved.

The Windows 8 solution is not. Dad is struggling to figure it all out, and is perplexed at how Windows 8 works in general. He’s not up to speed with the idea of using cloud-based apps for anything, or even using cloud-based storage.  Since my husband and I are still using Windows 7 (and we’re safe for now), we can’t advise him on how to use it, even though we can give him some advice on apps and cloud-based apps in general. What’s frustrating for my dad is that my mother is even less computer literate than him (she’s been condeming computers for thirty years now), so she’s REALLY thrown by how to use Windows 8. I sent Dad some online resources including an e-book on how to use Windows 8, and he bought another book, so hopefully he’ll be the expert soon enough.

The second indicator to me that things were changing technologically was the closing of our local GameStop store. Now, to be fair, I live in a very small town–one that’s small enough that I questioned why we even had a GameStop in our town to begin with. We liked that store better than the one at the local mall because we got more personalized service, and we liked the staff there. I was only surprised to see that it had disappeared almost overnight the other day when I passed by the shopping center where it was located. I’m sure the store didn’t get enough traffic to warrant it to stay open, so that wasn’t a surprise. I was just surprised that it was done without a lot of fanfare. Related to that, since the store wasn’t there, my son was itching to get a new game for his Nintendo 3DS, and we ended up looking online for choices. Granted, my son is fussy about what games he likes and doesn’t like, so choices seemed slim. But even from my own tastes, it seemed like there weren’t a lot of choices. Here was a portable gaming system that didn’t have many games, even though it’s the most current Nintendo portable gaming system on the market. That didn’t make sense to me. As I later found out, Nintendo is working more and more on putting out games that can be accessed through the 3DS’s wi-fi connection–in other words, accessed through cloud services, and saved on the device’s flash drive or on the SD card that you can install. THAT’S where all the new games were!

As I thought about my dad’s predicament in catching up to the 21st century and my son’s need for more games, it occured to me that more and more access to media of any kind is becoming dependent on mobile services and cloud services.  Really–think about it. As I was finding out from my dad, he could only install or update his Microsoft Office if he subscribed to Office 365–the cloud service. Microsoft has adopted cloud services to deliver its services, as has Adobe. Subscription services are pretty much the main way–and soon the only way–one can get access to this software and applications. It’s rare that anyone gets DVDs to install software anymore–it’s downloaded off the Web now. The same thing was happening with my son. He had better access to games for his device through Nintendo’s cloud services than if he paid for a micro-disk.

These are only two of several observations I’ve made lately that we’re going through a technology surge of sorts that are making what we’ve known and loved for years are quickly becoming obsolete.  Tablets, smartphones, and laptops are pretty much the standard now, pushing mobile to the forefront even more. Touch technology is becoming more prolific, even for the all-in-one desktop computers that are out there, putting it on the same level as its mobile counterparts.  Even the gaming world is getting the clue, with more games downloaded to smartphones and other mobile devices rather than buying the software.  Who buys DVDs or Blu-ray disks anymore when we can download movies and other videos from Netflix or iTunes?

Cloud-based and flash-memory based technology seem to be taking over! Soon enough, DVDs, CDs, and SD cards are going to obsolete like the 5 1/2 inch floppy disks, VHS tapes, tape reels or punch cards! Seriously–think about it–in a year or two (okay, maybe a little more than that), all those things might be GONE.

It’s great that technology is advancing in leaps and bounds like it is. No one is more excited about these advances than I am, in most cases. But I wish I could keep up sometimes! It makes me feel bad for my dear dad, who is getting left in the dust by these advances.  I’m sure he’s not the only one.

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Digital Tablets for Kids–Child’s Play, or should we take it seriously?

Just within the last month or so, I’ve been made aware of two tablet computers made for especially kids–and ones that weren’t something like a glorified LeapFrog or VTech toy. There is a place for LeapFrog and VTech-type tablets for the preschool/early elementary school set, but the ones I list below were recent ones that I became aware of targeting the grammar school demographic.

The first one I saw was the Tabeo tablet. I read about it in the following CNET article:

Toys ‘R’ Us unwraps $150 Tabeo tablet for Kids

The Tabeo, according to the article, is an Android-based tablet that includes drop-safe bumpers, wi-fi, and parental controls, and will only be available through this toy selling-enterprise.

The other kids’ tablet that I came across (and I don’t remember how–perhaps watching TV with TechCommGeekSon?) is called the Meep Tablet, which is being released by Oregon Scientific.

You can find the product website here:

Meep Tablet

It, too, is a tablet that runs on an Android OS, has drop-safe bumpers, wi-fi, and parental controls, and it appears that it is sold only through Oregon Scientific.

What would be appealing about these tablets, which are targeted for the ages 6 and up crowd? Part of the appeal would be the price– about $150 for either tablet. Yes, the parental controls and such are nice features–no denying that, but what else? Neither item has much memory, and if kids are going to use these tablets for games, then they need a lot more memory than what a first generation iPhone had. While memory cards can be added, why go to those lengths? Why not just put decent memory chips in the devices in the first place?

Being that I’m an m-learning TechCommGeekMom, I also tried to think about how such devices would be good at a school setting. Could they be used in a school setting? I suppose they could be on some level, and it’d be a decent investment for a school at just $150 a pop. Schools could control the content, using the parental controls. The bumpers used to protect the devices would allow for some longevity for the devices as well. The devices still have video and web cameras, and are still wi-fi enabled. Since they run on a version of Android, they could download Android apps.

But is buying either of these devices worthwhile? Since only the Meep in available now, and the Tabeo is coming out in a few weeks, we’ll have to see what the big reviews say. I wouldn’t mind reviewing them myself if I could get a hold of each of these, so in the meantime, I can only go by what each manufacturer has promoted.

But in thinking about the age group of “6 and up”, and thinking about my own son and how I would want to invest money in a tablet for him (if he wasn’t usually borrowing my iPad), why would I bother to get a kiddie version that’s barely expandable or that could be updated with later software, and had more memory?

My first thoughts turn to the idea of the rumored iPad mini. Oh, if that was out there (and I had the cash), I’d buy that in an instant for my son. Why? Well, first of all, it’s no secret that I LOVE my iPad. I love the variety of apps available–both educational and for games for him. Since he has to use my iTunes account to download apps (and I don’t give him my password), I can supervise what  goes on the device and what doesn’t. That seems like parental control to me. I would be able to use the “Find iPhone” app to track him as well, as needed. It also would much more internal memory, I should think, than what the Meep or Tabeo is offering. Even if it only had a 8GB or 16 GB memory, that’s better than the base memory offering of Meep or Tabeo. Additionally, there are already school programs out there using iPads, so adapting to iPad minis would be an easy transition for many schools, and be easy for kids to use due to its smaller size for smaller hands.

This leads my thought stream into thinking about Nexus 7 tablets, Nook HD tablets, Samsung Galaxy or Kindle Fire HD tablets. Why not get those for a child? They are smaller Android-based tablets as well, right?  Well, the prices tags are a little higher, that’s for sure. In most situations, however, several of these tablets are not THAT much more money, and yet there would be more flexibility in these devices.  I was just even reading a rumor that Microsoft’s Surface tablet may come in a variety that’s in the $200 range. Talk about flexibility compared to some other tablets, even if it’s still more of a PC than a tablet! Why wouldn’t a parent invest in that type of tablet instead, knowing that there are more apps, more downloadable programs, and more memory with these machines?

Business Insider recently posted this article comparing tablets, and it’s worth a read:

The Only 7 Tablets Worth Buying Right Now

Of course, my money is on the hopefully impending iPad mini. But even if that never comes to fruition, these other tablets provide some good bang for your bucks.  I think cheap childproofing bumpers and kid-friendly can be found on eBay and other retailers, if that’s a concern. But I see these other mainstream tablets being a better investment, as they can grow and upgrade with your child better than one “made for children”.

My child is part of the demographic that the child tablets are targeting. He’s now 11, and is a very different child than when he was 7, 8 or 9 years old. His tastes and needs have changed in just a few short years. Heck, he’s even upgraded his Nintendo DS two times in the last three years, because he wanted better memory and flexibility with the DS apps offered, as well as more powerful hardware. He might not put it in those terms, but even he knows the game. (No pun intended there!)  Looking at tablets for growing kids should be looked at the same way–a tablet, for the investment, should be able to grow with the child, and a regular tablet would better suit those needs. With a regular tablet, not only would there be personal flexibility with games and apps, but more opportunities to use it for educational purposes–for homework, classwork, etc.

And that’s TechCommGeekMom’s take on that. If some manufacturer wants to send me one to be put through the TechCommGeekSon wringer, or if someone has had a different experience with a made-for-kids tablet, let me know. I’d be glad to share your experiences in a post here.

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Why Mobile, Gamification and Special Needs Are Made for Each Other

As the school year has started for some and will start during the following few weeks ahead, my thoughts start thinking about conventional learning and how educational technology has changed so rapidly, especially in the last few years.

Now, before I continue, I just want to preface this by saying that much of what I will be writing below isn’t based on any scientific study, but rather it’s based on my own experiences and knowledge.

I recently saw this article, and even retweeted it:

Autistic Student Feels Reinspired by Online Learning

I was so glad to see an article like this. We are constantly shown articles or videos about students who are much lower functioning than this kid, who are breaking through the communication wall through various apps on iPad. But I find that higher functioning autistic kids have a much harder time as the gap is much narrower, so it’s hard to define where the fine line between effective communication and ineffective communication is.  As a result, these kids fall through the cracks of the system. Seeing that the young man in this article found a solution through online studies is fantastic, and I can relate to it a lot.

I am sure that I’ve mentioned many times before that my son is autistic, but much like the young man in this article, he is very high functioning autistic. My son is so high functioning that the actual autism diagnosis eluded us until he was 9 years old, and that was after already going through several other diagnoses and still feeling that something wasn’t quite fitting right.  Through my son, while I have not gotten an official diagnosis, I’m pretty convinced that I am an Asperger’s Syndrome person myself; I have displayed so many of the same symptoms as my son, but I did not have the speech problems he had when he was younger (he’s fully language fluent now, due to early intervention and persistence). Even as a mother, I marvel at the various apps that are out there that could have helped my son when he was small, and I wish that we had access to it back when he was small.

My son is a smart boy. However, if something doesn’t interest him or doesn’t serve any meaningful purpose to him, then he’s unwilling to do the necessary schoolwork. As he’s gotten older, this has been problematic. He’s also a kid, and when it comes to mathematics, he doesn’t get the rote information down right away (like understanding his multiplication tables). But, show him how to do a mathematical function, and he can pick it up fairly quickly. He’s not always interested in reading, but he was reading when he was about 3, and when he reads something that interests him, he practically has the resource information memorized. He takes in videos like nobody’s business. Ask him anything about Super Sentai (the original Japanese Power Rangers), Kamen Rider, Power Rangers, Beyblades, Bakugan or Pokemon, and he can tell you everything about them.  He also has a fascination with the sciences, especially physics, so when the Higgs Boson was recently proven, I asked him if he had heard about it, and he said, “Yeah, what about it?” and he explained what it was, and didn’t know that it had actually be proven.  Keep in mind, the kid is only 11.

Yet, he struggles with school. It’s hard for him to focus, and sometimes he’s still processing things in his head when he’s paying attention in class. He can’t take notes to save his life, but he can learn from them.  School is a difficult chore for him, and it takes some creativity to engage him to learn. He’s definitely capable of learning, but he can’t always learn by conventional means. He has a very difficult time with writing skills as well, which has been a struggle since he was small.

I can relate to my son on so many levels academically. I think this is why I end up being the one to do homework with him most of the time–I know how to “translate” things in a way that he can understand. I also had that same combination of hyper-focus on some topics, and total distraction on other topics, and had a hard time with school as well, even though I did well for the most part. If I had half the tools and support he has now when I was a kid, I would’ve been valedictorian of my class, I bet, but instead, I had to fight my way through much of school to get decent grades.

So, when I read the article above, I could relate to it so much because of my son, but also because of my own online experiences getting my Master’s degree from NJIT. My degree was 100% online, and despite what anyone would think, it was a very social event, yet I could pace myself the way I wanted (well, within reason–I still had deadlines for assignments and such).  I want to say that the success in earning my degree and getting a straight “A” average was due to hard work and the quality of the program–which it was, but it was more. It was the delivery system. I’m very convinced that if I had done this coursework solely in a classroom environment, while I might have done well, I don’t think I would have done THIS well.  Being able to set up my own schoolwork routine, read at my own pace, respond to forum threads and work on assignments at my own pace were a huge part of it. I’ve found for years that social media and just being connected to the Internet is not only addictive for me, but essential for me. It’s how I’m able to socialize more effectively and learn more effectively as well.  For all those naysayers that say there’s no such thing as “learning styles,” I say, “Poppycock!” I am a living example of someone who needs to be taught more on a visual level than an audiological level; I have sensory issues but am simultaneously a sensory learner.  My son is the same way.

So what does this have to do with mobile learning and gamification? EVERYTHING! There seem to be more and more studies that “typical” learners learn as much or more with mobile options and gamification methods. Imagine what it can do for special needs learning! My son is a big of a gamer, and I know at his age I love the earliest electronic and digital games myself.  Even now, I’d much rather play an online game to learn than read my dry textbook. The trick for high-functioning special needs people like my son and I is that we–as I mentioned before–fall between the cracks; we don’t need things dumbed down for us, but we do need a different method to get the same information into our skulls, and everything is either over simplified and babyish (like some of the math games that he can play to get those multiplication facts into his head), or there isn’t something that is sophisticated enough that can achieve the same thing.

I envy my son, because e-learning is SO much more than it was when I was growing up. Heck, just having Internet access and email and social media is much more than what I had  when I went to school. Getting my Master’s degree was the first time I could use such resources, and given the right tools as these digital ones, I could fly (metaphorically speaking). I want to see my son fly as well, as I know he’s capable of it. I try to find lots of physics game apps for him on my iPad, which he zooms through with ease. I need to find some age appropriate math apps, writing apps, and other apps that can help him learn without him realizing he’s learning, or at least make it more enjoyable. I want him to feel successful in whatever he ends up doing, and I want him to feel that learning is a lifelong endeavor, and that he is capable of finding the resources he needs to accomplish what he wants. We are still figuring this out, but like I said, the world is his oyster, and he needs to learn how to access it all, and I think he’s already on his way since he found the Super Sentai on his own (and yes, he watches these Japanese Power Rangers episodes on YouTube, in Japanese, sometimes subtitled, sometimes not, but he doesn’t care–he picks up what all of it’s about anyway).

Being that my son is a big gamer, he enjoys and adapts to games well.  He was fortunate, this summer, that his summer school math teacher picked up on the idea of gamification, as every day my son and the other kids in his class would play a card/board game that would teach math skills. He enjoyed it very much, and there was a social skills aspect to it as well, which helped. Granted, it was not a video game or digital online game, but the principle is still the same–it was a game, and he was learning the skills he needed to learn.  So many online games can teach without one realizing it, and making learning so much more accessible.  Even the popular Angry Birds game–one of my son’s favorites–is actually a fantastic game that teaches physics and problem solving skills. I don’t say no to him playing Angry Birds on my iPad or iPhone.  He’s learning, at least, and developing skills that may help in the future as some sort of engineer.  Even as an adult, I can say that I would enjoy something more interactive online than something static or something that’s essentially a page-turner.

This is where mobile comes in. We all know the benefits of m-learning functionality, such as providing just essential information, having web capabilities to interact not only with others, but use tools like social media and researching on the web, and sharing resources is a big deal. Even the nature of m-learning is beneficial, because good m-learning design breaks things up in to small pieces than if it was done as a regular desktop course or classroom lesson. With m-learning, a child can record the class while attempting to take notes, and listen to it later while doing homework, rewinding parts of the lecture while rewriting or filling in missing information in notes.

I know for me, it was a big deal to be able to manipulate my studies to make them mobile. I would use the Microsoft OneNote app on my iPad to do initial drafts of homework assignments during my lunch hour, and then sync up my notes so that I could pull them onto my laptop later to clean them up more on my laptop at home. I could watch video or listen to a podcast on my iPad or iPhone, stop it and restart a section if I didn’t quite catch it–or even just stop so I could catch up writing notes first, then continue. You can’t do that so easily in a classroom. I could pace myself much better, and as a result, my retention was better because I could review details as needed.

This is really important for Aspies as they want to take in everything, and very often it hard to keep up because we are still deciphering and translating information given in our heads while the information keeps feeding. Sometimes our brains can’t process quite as quickly, so by the time we have a piece of information processed and we are ready for the next bit, instead of one new piece of information, then next five have happened. Keeping up and forcing oneself to keep up with the pace can be mentally grueling and exhausting. It’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity to understand the information, but rather that our internal processors are different. It’s like having last year’s processing chip in your computer instead of the latest and greatest. It’s not that the chip can’t handle it at all, but rather at a different pace. If you can gamify the information, then the information is learned on a subconscious level, and just like any video game, new skills are attained little by little as you proceed higher and higher in a game. It’s really THAT simple.

So, for you instructional designers, educational technologists and technical communicators that don’t think that gamification or m-learning makes that much of a difference–IT DOES. Believe me! Keep m-learning and gamification in mind. It not only lends itself well to typical learners, but can go miles farther for those with special needs.