A Bicycle for the Mind

I’ve been doing some work recently with a school that’s using iPads with their kids, and was asked to give a talk on the topic “The place of iPads in teaching and learning”. This post is just a bit of thinking out loud about that question.

Let me start by saying that I think the iPad is an amazing piece of technology. I dispute the common claim about iPads just being “consumption devices”. That’s a load of nonsense. Used wisely, iPads open up incredible opportunities for creativity. This point was driven home during my recent 365 project, The Daily Create, where I made a creative “thing” every day during 2014. Although this project wasn’t specifically based on using an iPad, the truth is that at least 80% of what I came up with over the course of the year was made on an iPad. Whether it was photo editing, making graphics, editing movies, composing music, building animations and 3D objects, or even just writing, the iPad was a perfectly credible tool for creation. And of course the actual management of the Daily Create project via a blog was mostly also all done on the iPad. So I know that the iPad can help people do amazing things.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s not also a great consumption device. For reading eBooks, watching videos, listening to podcasts or music, browsing the web, playing games and so on, the iPad is a convenient, intuitive easy-to-use device that, for the most part, “just works”.

So yes, I like the iPad. But just because you can do certain things on a device does not necessarily mean it’s the best device to be doing them on. So the iPad, as a tool, needs to be kept in that perspective. While it’s capable of most things, it’s great at some and not so good at others.

For example, I’m typing this post on a Chromebook. Why not an iPad? Well, as much as I like iPads, I prefer the writing and editing experience on a device with a real keyboard. I like the extra screen area, the ergonomics of sitting it comfortably on my lap, and having a physical non-modal keyboard.  Could I type a piece of writing like this on an iPad? Sure I could (and have), but if given a choice I prefer to pick the tool that works best for me for that given task.

This is one of the reasons my school has gone down the path of having a combination of both iPads and Chromebooks. There are times when one is simply a better option than the other. They both have such unique strengths, and to exclusively choose one over the other tends to just highlights the weaknesses of each. That said, if you only have a choice of one or the other, either will be perfectly fine.

So back to the original question… “what is the place of iPads in teaching and learning?” It’s a loaded question really, because it begs the bigger question, “what is the place of technology in general in teaching and learning”. And to take it a step further, I think you should probably be asking the much bigger question “what is the point of teaching and learning anyway?” Thinking about the place that a particular technology might have in the teaching and learning process first requires you to think about what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

Figuring out the place of iPads in teaching and learning should be pretty obvious once you know what you want teaching and learning to look like to start with. If you’re clear on the big idea of why, then seeing how is easy. You simply ask yourself whether this technology is helping you get closer to your goal or not. If it is, it has a place. It it doesn’t, then maybe not.

The school that asked me this question seems to have a pretty clear educational direction for what they are trying to achieve, and how they believe the teaching and learning process should look.

For a start, they want their learning to be transdisciplinary. The transdisciplinary model for teaching and learning is highly inquiry based and values collaboration, teamwork, curiosity and interconnectedness. It’s more than just thinking about a topic from different perspectives (that’s multidisciplinary) or by thinking about a topic by combining different subjects together like maths and science (that’s interdisciplinary). The idea of making the learning transdisciplinary involves bringing together multiple subject areas in such a way that the learning transcends the curriculum and becomes more than just the sum of its parts. If you’re a PYP school this should all sound quite familiar as it forms the foundation of that program. By taking a transdisciplinary approach the aim is to bring a more authentic, open-ended, personalised, contextual learning experience to each student.

Threaded through this core model for learning is a highly inquiry-based approach, a strong belief in differentiation according to student needs, flexible learning paths, and a fundamental goal for students to build their own learning through a Constructivist approach.

Would an iPad help support that kind of learning? Yeah, I think it would.

Steve Jobs once described computers as a “bicycle for the mind”, a metaphor borrowed from a study on locomotive efficiency in animals. Apparently for humans, walking is incredibly inefficient. Other animals can travel much further with far less energy. Steve observed how humbling it was for humans to be placed so far down the efficiency scale compared to other animals. However, he observed, if you allow a human to use a bicycle they become the animal with the most efficient form of locomotion of all. The larger point is that the right tool can make a big difference to what we are capable of.

Being given an opportunity to learn on your own terms, in ways that make sense to you, about things that interest you the most, forms the foundation of great learning. But without an effective tool to help, you’ll be like a human without a bicycle. You’ll probably get there, but it will take so much more work than it should.

So all of that pondering just leads me to my main idea, that giving a student an iPad (or any other piece of technology that helps them think more efficiently) can be a powerful thing. I think we intuitively know that, but it sometimes helps to step back and think about why we know it. And I think the “bicycle for the mind” idea is a pretty decent metaphor for why technology in the classroom can help support the kind of learning that we want. It can helps reduce the friction in curiosity, wonder, creativity and inquiry, and makes that process more efficient.

On the most basic level, having a device in the hands of a student that places them one click away of the sum of all human knowledge is in itself a pretty amazing advantage. (and one that no generation before them has ever had, by the way). We talk a lot about these devices helping students “connect, collaborate and communicate” so the simple idea of just being able to “look stuff up on the Internet” may not sound very impressive. But even though this might not be the wow factor that makes these devices “revolutionary and magical”, it’s still a pretty useful thing! To be able to look up a word, find a definition, peruse a map, verify a fact, ask a question or see a picture of something – instantly – is amazing. Don’t underestimate the power of that!

If you’re running a classroom based on an inquiry model, the iPad truly can act as that “bicycle for the mind” machine that helps a curious kid instantly connect to any fact or statistic they need to keep inquiring. iPads are transdisciplinary in the sense that they don’t silo information into arbitrary subjects. A query is a query. Curiosity does not have to limit itself to whether something is “science” or “maths” or “art”. Picking up an iPad and asking “OK Google, what type of lettuce is used in a Caesar salad?” and finding out that it is Romaine lettuce, and then wondering why it was named Caesar salad, or where it was invented, or whether it’s less fattening than a regular salad, or how you make a crouton, or the million and one other questions that might spring to mind as your questions cascade from one to the next… that’s just one small reason why technology makes sense in an inquiry based classroom.

Of course it’s much more than that though. You can wonder something, learn about it, and respond to it by making something with that information. It can be the tool by which a student can respond to their own curiosity. An iPad is amazing because it is a not one thing. It’s a notebook, a camera, a recording studio, a stopwatch, an atlas, a sketchbook, an editing suite, a music synthesizer, an artroom. It lets you compose, create and explore ideas. It’s screen instantly changes to become whatever tool you need it to be. There is really nothing else like it in that respect.

Using an iPad you can publish a short story, compose a soundtrack or produce a film clip. You can build a 3D model of a house, record a timelapse of a science experiment, or add augmented reality to a poster. There are literally millions of apps in the App Store so whatever you might want to do, you can almost guarantee “there’s an app for that”.

Finally the iPad is an incredible tool for communicating and collaborating, from having access to email, to messaging, to videoconferencing, to cloud computing. The world truly can be your oyster. You can collaborate with amazing cloud-based tools that let students form crosscultural, transdisciplinary teams to work on projects that are authentic, meaningful and real.

Of course, in reality none of this is terribly new. In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a paper titled “20 Things to do with a Computer” in which their key assertion was that computers are capable of doing so much more if we allow them to be used creatively, and that the real reason to introduce computers into schools is to empower students. If a computer (or an iPad) is not being used to give agency to student learning then we have missed the whole point of having them.

Introducing computers (or iPads) into classrooms is not about better forms of testing students or NAPLAN preparation or math drills. It’s not about data management, not about saving money, not about impressing parents and not about keeping up with the school down the road. It’s about giving students agency and independence to take control of their own learning. And with that simple goal usually comes a whole lot of change. Sometimes quite painful change, but change that has to happen.

Adding technology to a classroom without reimagining how that classroom works, and rethinking what your students can do because of that technology, is a waste of time and money. Providing technology to students gives them an opportunity to do not just the same old things they’ve always done, except now with a shiny new tool… No. we now have an incredible opportunity to do entirely new things that were never possible before, using an amazing array of digital tools designed to create, and reinventing the way the way we think about teaching and learning.

Giving students iPads and not making fundamental shifts in how we teach and learn would be like giving them that bicycle for their minds, but then expecting them to push it and walk along beside it.If they are to get the true potential from that bicycle you need to let them get on it, get the wind in their face and ride the damn thing.

Featured image “Speedy Bike” by Till Krech via Flickr. CC BY.

iPads, Games and BYOD

After a successful iPad trial at school last year, the teachers all agreed it was working really well.  So this year we asked our year 5 and 6 students to bring an iPad to school and I’ve been working with the teachers and students in those classes to help ensure we get the most from this arrangement. I think it’s been working really well; the kids have been incredibly responsible and have been producing some really interesting work with them.

I had an email from a Year 5 parent a few weeks ago asking some questions about the iPad program, in particular about required apps, the rules and expectations for their use, the use of games (including one called Goldrush that she was concerned about), impacts on socialisation, responsibilities for backing up data, etc. In particular, this parent had a few concerns about using the iPad for playing games versus using it a a learning tool. I wrote a fairly long and detailed email in reply, and I’m republishing it here (anonymised of course) because I thought the general gist of my reply might be of some value to others. Your thoughts are welcomed in the comments.

The guts of the email went like this…

One of the key aspects of the students using iPads as BYO devices is that it provides (by design) an environment and opportunities for them to become managers of their own technological world. It also means that parents have a significant say in what they want to allow or not allow on their child’s iPads. Most of what we covered at the parent information night back in Term 1, prior to the students being allowed to bring in their iPads, was focused on reinforcing this idea that in a BYOD environment the final say on what is appropriate is up to individual parents. As I tell the kids all the time, “I don’t live in your house, so I don’t make the rules for what you do there. Your parents do”.

We initially asked the students to have only a fairly small set of designated core productivity apps installed on their iPads – a web browser, word processor, presentation tool, PDF/eBook reader, video and audio editing tools, etc. We have intentionally not made long lists of “required apps” because the nature of operating a BYOD program is such that students should be allowed to choose the tools (in the form of apps) that work best for them. For example, in a recent task, students had an option to produce a set of presentation slides (what in a non-iPad world you’d just refer to as a “PowerPoint”) The task was structured in such a way that students could respond to this task using a variety of presentation-style apps, including Keynote, MoveNote, PopBoardz, Haiku Deck, SlideIdea, Flowboard, and others. Part of the learning we want to occur is that students are given opportunities to make good decisions about which technology tools they wish to use, and allow them to identify, find and manage those apps. In finding new apps they also develop the very important skill of learning how to use a piece of software that they have never seen before. What this amounts to is a way of helping students “learn how to learn”, which is possibly the most important skill they can take away from the whole experience of school.

Regarding games, it’s sometimes not easy to know what exactly constitutes a “game”. For example, Scratch, Minecraft, even Mathletics, could all be considered to be “game-like” but are incredibly valuable learning environments that we actively promote and support. For example, a game like The Room requires a high level of problem solving and lateral thinking skills. Games like Threes! or 2048 involves the use of logic, problem solving and maths. Musyc is a music composition tool that looks very much like a game. There is an app called DragonBox in which the rules are based on the principles of algebra, essentially teaching students to understand algebra through playing the game. I haven’t played Goldrush myself, but I just had a quick look at it in the App Store and it looks like it has quite a few valuable learning aspects to it, including engineering concepts and bridge construction skills (something the students will do much more of in Year 6 next year) and it looks like it needs a lot of thinking, problem solving and logic to play well.

While it’s probably true that some games don’t offer enough learning for the amount of time put into them, I would be vary wary of having a simplistic “games = bad” approach, or to think that games (or game-like environments) cannot help students learn valuable skills. Much of the research around gaming suggests quite the opposite, and that the engagement factor present in most games, as well as the logic and problem solving skills usually required, are in fact exactly the kinds of things we need to be developing in our students.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that students should spend all their time playing games. However, the evidence suggests that there is much to be gained by allowing students to spend SOME time with games, particularly games that support worthwhile learning objectives.

I think we could have a whole other discussion about what exactly we mean by the term “game”, what a “game” looks like, and what might constitute using the iPad as “a learning tool”. I suspect the distinction may not be as clear cut as it might first appear. And because every family will have different perspectives on this distinction, this needs to be a conversation that takes place between parents and their child. If you’re unsure about an app, be it a game or anything else, by all means sit down with your child and talk with them about it, ask what they likes about it, what they learns from it, and get them to show you how they use it. As I pointed out at the parent evening, the ultimate decision about iPad use, about what apps are appropriate, about where and how the iPad gets used at home, rests with parents. I repeatedly said to all parents “It’s your house, your child, your iPad, your rules”.

As far as use at school goes, the iPads have been very successful so far in extending learning opportunities. Certainly, in the work I’ve been doing with the students they have shown some amazing learning with these tools. A large part of that has come about because we have not mandated specific apps or uses of the devices, and instead are allowing each student to use the devices in ways that best support their own learning, using apps that work best for them. I recently had one of the iPad classes do an “App Slam” where they each had 2 minutes to stand up in front of the class and present an app, a tool, a website, etc, that they found useful or fun. It was amazing to see not only the confidence and fluency with which they used this technology, but also the ease with which they shared it with the class. And interestingly, out of the 16+ apps on show, I’d only heard of two of them before. The point is that with the hundreds of thousands of apps in the Apps Store, the students are taking the lead here and discovering useful tools that we teachers may not.

Some of the innovation, independence and creativity we have seen so far has been astounding, and has taken the learning into places that simply could not be achieved without these tools. The goal with using technology in education is not simply to use technology to reproduce things we COULD already do without it, but to find entirely new ways to do things that we COULD NOT do with out it. So while using the iPads to take notes, read books and look things up online are all worthwhile and valid uses, the really powerful learning will come from getting the students to interact with data, ideas and skills that could not be previously done without them. And even after just a term and a half of having the devices we are starting to see many instances of this happening.

The teachers of year 5 and 6 are very aware of the students using their iPads in appropriate and socially responsible ways. Their use is managed in class and any student who gets off-task is very quickly brought back to the task at hand. I am told that the students do get some free time with the iPads, but only on Thursdays, only at lunchtimes and only in the library, so that seems like a fair deal to me.

Regarding data monitoring, when the students are at school they are connected to our school wifi so they are subject to all the usual filters and blocks that apply to Internet access on our network. However, we don’t (and really don’t want to) restrict students from downloading new apps, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Regarding backup, we use Google Apps for Education as our core platform here school so any documents that the students store in that service are securely backed up in the Google cloud. If they put their work into Google Drive (as most of them do) it will be safe. Other file types (such as photographs, iWork files, etc, may be managed by Apple’s iCloud service if the student enables it. Aside from that we do recommend that all students back up their iPads to iTunes on a home computer regularly. Because it is a BYO device, the responsibility for doing this lies with the student (and their parents if needed) Again, our students are growing up in a world where the process of managing data is increasingly important and will usually not be done for them. It’s important they start learning to do this now.

Slam That!

I had the chance to take one of our Year 6 classes this morning while their teacher was away. This class is part of our BYOD iPad program where every student brings their own iPad.  Borrowing the Slam idea from the Google Summits, I got them to do an App Slam. Every student was given an opportunity to voluntarily participate, and they had 2 minutes to share an app, game, tool, tip, etc with the rest of the class. I said it could be anything at all, just something that they enjoyed using and would like to share with the class.

I was amazed at just how eager they were to do this, and they were figuratively falling over themselves to add their name to the list of presenters. As they each did their slam (which of course they had to end by shouting the word Slam!) I added their name and the thing they demoed to a Google Form. After the last student presented I simply published the form, gave them the short URL to access it and let them vote for their 5 favourite slams.

It was a lot of fun and a great way to let them share what they are learning with their iPads.

appslam2

I particularly liked the fact that, of all the apps and games and things they shared, I was only previously aware of two of them. Part of the magic of having a BYOD approach to our use of iPads is that the kids are discovering apps and things that I would probably not. It’s pretty clear that the students feel far more in control of their own learning when they are the owners of the technology.

I also found it interesting that, when we allowed our kids to bring their own choice of iPad, they brought in a diverse range of iPad configurations. Some were using older iPad 2s and 3s, some had newer iPad Airs, some chose to use iPad minis. Everyone seemed to have a different kind of case, with lots of different styles and colours and types. Some had chosen to use bluetooth keyboards because they wanted to, others were perfectly happy with the standard on-screen keyboard. The thing is, had our school decided what type of iPads, cases and accessories they should be using and dictated the size and configurations they should be, then a significant number of our “customers” would have ended up using something other than what they actually wanted to be using. If we take a one-size-fits-all approach to giving technology to kids, we run the risk of making choices that disappoint our end users.

Is BYOD the best approach? I don’t know but I thought this next fact was food for thought… I was talking to a teacher yesterday from another nearby school that also went 1:1 iPad, except they took a non BYOD approach. Their iPads were school provided, highly locked down, kids could not install their own apps, and they were being used for little more than digital textbook readers. In their first year of operation they had $14,000 in damages!

In contrast, we’ve had virtually no damages at all. It turns out that students look after their stuff when they own it. What a concept.

y6appslam

Launching our BYO iPads

At my school, PLC Sydney, we just launched a BYO iPad program for our Year 5 and 6 students. This followed on from a fairly successful trial of iPads last year and the subsequent decision that we wanted our upper primary kids to have full time access to this technology. We initially looked at the idea of the school providing and managing the iPads, but in talking to the students it turned out that a very large percentage of them already owned iPads, so it didn’t seem to make much sense to spend a whole lot of money providing something that most of them already had. The general feeling from the parents was supportive of the BYO idea and the kids were keen of course.

So this week we officially launched the BYO program. We invited all the parents and students to come to an information night where we explained exactly how we wanted things to work, and far more importantly, why we felt this was the right move to be making. The response from parents was very positive, although a few were concerned that their children would not develop  proper typing skills (which is amusing because it doesn’t seem that long ago when the big parental concern was that their children would not develop proper handwriting skills, so I guess we’re making progress!)

As well as uploading the slide deck to Slideshare, I also recorded the audio from the talk on my Nexus 4 using a Rode SmartLav Mic, then synced it up to the slides  using the Slidecast feature. This lets viewers listen to the accompanying soundtrack while the slides change in sync.

Slidecasting on Slideshare is, or rather, was, a very cool feature that I used quite a bit. Unfortunately they decided to deprecate that feature as of today, and it will stop working altogether by the end of next month, so if you’re seeing this blog post after that time I guess the audio Slidecast won’t be working. Sorry!

Do you know of any other slideware services that allow the syncing of an audio track? It’s a great feature and I’ll miss it if I can’t find a replacement.

The Difficulty Differential

Yesterday, I ran an all day iPad workshop for the teachers at my school. There were two things that were a bit unusual about it. One is that it was an all day event. Usually in a school – or at least in my school – it’s hard finding time for staff professional learning that allows for any real immersion and play. The second unusual thing is that it was held on a Saturday.  (And not just any Saturday, but the Saturday of the first week back after the Summer break!)

No coincidentally, the fact that it was a Saturday was the whole reason we were able to get that extended period of time for learning. When I offered it to our staff (as an entirely optional event for anyone that was interested in coming along) I thought maybe we’d get 3 or 4 teachers show up. Surprisingly, we had 25. Some even brought their children and spouses along. They didn’t get paid for attending, and there was no pressure to be there. But 25 turned up. I was impressed.

photo

We had a fun day of learning what iPads could do, digging into the nooks and crannies of iOS, learning a bunch of tips and tricks to be more expert users, but then spending most of the day actually making things with the iPads. My goal for the day was to make it learner-centred, fun, hands-on and practical, and I think we achieved all that. I had the teachers looking for information, using maps, browsing the web, creating documents. making videos… all the sorts of things that they might typically ask students to do.

I think it’s really important that teachers attempt to produce the same kind of tasks that they ask their kids to do. Often, we teachers come from a background of using a laptop or desktop computer and although we’ve all mostly used an iPad for our personal use, it’s a very different use-case when you have to actually be productive with an iPad as your only device. Assumptions about the iPad’s ease of use as a device quickly get a reality check when you try to use them yourself for real work. You soon hit the wall with workflow issues, data transfer issues, filesharing issues… none of which are insurmountable but it is amazing how many casual iPad users have never had to deal with some of these problems that become very real when the iPad is your only device. I needed my teachers to see that while the iPad might be “revolutionary and magical”, don’t expect it to be the same as your laptop computer. It isn’t. And you need to take that into account when you ask kids to live with one as their only device.

I gave this group of teachers an hour or so to work on making a video using either iMovie or iMotionHD. I know from experience that many teachers are intimidated by the idea of moviemaking because they think it’s too difficult. And some avoid using it with their students because they feel that they need to be really good at it themselves before they can do it with the kids. The classic case of “needing to know how it all works so I don’t look silly in front of the students” syndrome.

I gave this group a very quick demonstration of the main skills they need to shoot a movie – shooting footage, editing clips, adding transitions, adding sound and narration. That sounds like a lot, but it can be easily explained in less than 10 minutes with a simple demonstration, and everyone seemed pretty comfortable with the ideas even though most of them had ever done any video editing before.  So off they went to work on their movies.

When they came back about an hour later, many were totally engrossed in the editing process. One group shot an amazing stop frame movie and added a soundtrack to it. Others made mini documentaries about the school gardens. We exported the final films, and had a little film festival on the Apple TV so everyone could share what they made.

But here’s what I found interesting.  After they had made their first ever movie, I asked them “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a movie?” This group (who remember had never made videos before) thought about it for a moment and agreed it was only about a 3. In other words, they thought the iMovie software was pretty easy to use and the skills required to make a video were straightforward enough to master.

Of course, just because it’s easy to use,does not mean that they all made amazingly professional looking videos. Most were, shall we say, “a good first attempt”. So then I asked them a second question. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is it to make a good movie?” This time they agreed that it was more like a 9. Much harder.

The interesting thing about this is that they saw the “difficulty differential” between making just any old movie and making a really good movie is about a 6. In other words, more than half of what’s required to make a good movie is just polishing up the same basic skills that would be required to make a bad movie.

The really encouraging thing is that most the skills required to make a good movie are not technology skills. If you can make a bad movie, you already have the technology skills you need to make a really great movie. What you need to move from ordinary to good (and on to great) are things like a critical eye for lighting and sound, helpful advice on plot and story, and useful feedback on your visuals. None of which are technology skills.

I think this is really encouraging news for teachers, because all of those are things you can give your kids even if you don’t have strong technical skills yourself. You can say to a student “I like your opening scene but I think it’s about 10 seconds too long”. You can tell a student that “the soundtrack music you’ve chosen is not the right fit for the visuals you’re using”. You can let a student know that “your voiceover track is too soft and needs more volume”. You can give a student feedback that a “scene is too dark and needs to be fixed”.

You can give students good advice, wisdom, and adult perspective. You can help them be better by pointing out what can be improved. You can help them make great movies, even though your own technical skills in moviemaking might not be any better than theirs. And that is an incredibly important realisation. It means that we shouldn’t be intimidated about using technology in our classrooms. It means that we can feel ok about the idea that we don’t know all the answers. It means that we don’t need to know more than the students in order to give them opportunities to create.

I would love it if all teachers had my passion for what technology can bring to their classrooms. I love to see teachers pushing themselves forward to learn new technology tools and getting excited about what they might do with them. But I’m realistic enough to know that teachers have so many other demands upon them that technology is not always going to be their number one concern all the time.

I think as teachers we need to commit to at least knowing enough about technology to understand what things might be possible, even if we don’t have the high level skills required to do some of those things ourselves. And if we understand what’s possible with these technology tools, and we can get over being scared that the kids might know more than us, and instead of worrying about what we don’t know about technology and instead we fill the “difficulty differential” with our adult wisdom, advice and feedback, that’s a pretty good recipe for letting the kids unleash the potential of classroom technology for themselves.

We just need to be willing to get out of their way while providing them with some wise guidance.

PS: If you want the notes from the workshop session, you can get them here.

Tablets in Schools: A Hangout on Air

I posted this on Google+ last week…

Do you teach in a school that uses tablets? (iPads, Android tablets, etc) Have you been involve in planning the rollout and implementation of a tablet program in a school? Do you have thoughts about how suitable tablets are for education? Do you have any success stories to share? Warnings to give?

Come along and join in the conversation as we take this opportunity to learn from each other about this fast growing area of educational technology.

Here’s what happened.  It’s a long recording (1:18:00) but has lots to think about…

Thanks to everyone who joined us, both in the actual Hangout and also in the live stream.

Nothing New Under The Sun

The recent decision in the Apple/Samsung debacle has really got me thinking about a few things. If you read my last blog post you’ll know that I feel somewhat disappointed in Apple’s seemingly bullying behaviour towards a competitor. I suppose I feel like this because I have had such a high opinion of Apple for so long and this is just not what I expected from them. The hashtag #boycottapple was trending globally on Twitter for a while this morning so clearly a lot of other people were equally unimpressed with the whole thing.

Realistically, I know it’s more complicated than that. The fact is that Apple is a company, not a person, and companies are ruled on business decisions, not emotions. There is no doubt that Apple brought amazing innovation to the phone business with the release of the first iPhone and that numerous competitors immediately changed their design ideas in order to compete. And yes, quite a few of them probably copied some ideas. I also understand that Apple has a responsibility to their shareholders to protect their intellectual property, and so they probably had little choice but to pursue Samsung and teach them a lesson that to copy is not acceptable. There may have been other options on the table for Samsung to license some of these technologies and ideas, paying Apple for the right to use them, but no deal was reached. Whether that was because the price was unacceptably high, or some other reason, I don’t know. The point is that no agreement was reached and Apple had to act to protect their patents.

Which is the real issue here. The patents. Let me point out that I’m not a patent lawyer, so I won’t pretend to understand the finer issues of IP law, but it seems quite obvious to me that the US patent system is set up in a way that allows ideas to be patented that many reasonable people would not see as patentable ideas.

Slide to Unlock images from the Apple patent applicationTake the slide-to-unlock feature for example, Apple’s method for unlocking a touch screen device. You can read the full patent application here (pdf, 418kb) which describes the idea behind the slide-to-unlock feature.  The application is titled “UNLOCKING A DEVICE BY PERFORMING GESTURES ON AN UNLOCK IMAGE” and takes 35 pages to explain the rationale, background and method for sliding a finger across a touch screen to unlock it. Again, I’m not a patent lawyer, but surely for an idea to be patented it needs to be original, and not have prior art. If it’s been done before by someone else, then how on earth can it be a patentable, original idea?

Now take a look at this video of a demonstration of the Neonode M1n, a quirky little device that was not overly successful, but skip to the 4:00 minute mark in the video and look at how the device is unlocked. I’ll wait while you do that…

Look familiar? Sliding a finger across a touch screen to unlock an electronic device clearly existed prior to the iPhone, so how can a patent be awarded for this? You might argue that Apple implemented it differently to the Neonode, but you could equally argue that Android implemented it differently again. And how different does it really need to be before you can argue that it is not just an evolution of the idea that came before, but is now a whole new idea?

In fact, what about the picture on the right, which make the point that the basic idea of sliding something sideways to unlock it is not at all new and has existed in a pre-digital form for a long time. At which point do we accept that a new idea – which clearly has its fundamental roots in an existing idea – is different enough to be considered a whole new independent (and therefore patentable) idea?

Slide-to-unlock is a good idea, no question. Whether they invented it or not, Apple implemented it in a good way that makes sense. If other phone makers had truly wanted to play by the rules they would have looked at what Apple did and said to themselves “Ok, so we can’t do it like THAT… we need to come up with a different way to do unlock the touch screen.” And given the number of really smart people who work in this industry, I have no doubt that they could have come up with some other non-infringing way to do it (and given the ruling in Apple’s favour, they may have to come up with other ways to do it in the future).

And that’s just slide-to-unlock.  There were other, much vaguer, patents that were apparently infringed, like making a device that was rectangular with rounded corners. Or having glass screen that goes from edge to edge. Or the shape of the bezel. Let’s assume that there were numerous patented ideas that other manufacturers looked at and said “well, we can’t do it that way, we just have to come up with a different way to do it”. Presumably, this is what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said he wanted other companies to stop stealing Apple’s ideas and come up with their own ideas. Make it differently so that it’s not the same as Apple’s stuff. This, despite the fact that Apple is obviously very good at taking the ideas of others and reinterpreting them into something different enough, or polished enough, or novel enough, that it might be considered “new”.  A lot of the anger being directed at Apple right now is because of the massive hypocrisy they’re displaying by both simultaneously taking the ideas of others and building on them while doing everything possible to prevent others from doing them same thing to them.

I know that when I get into a car to drive it, I’me very glad that there is a round steering wheel in front of me, and brake, clutch and accelerator pedals where I expect to find them. Whatever car I drive, I’m glad they all work in a similar way. I’d hate to have a situation where every car I got into had a slightly different method for stopping and steering, simply because each car company had to come up with their own way of doing things because they were not allowed to “copy” other cars. That’s not innovation, that’s insanity.

In an interview with Robert X. Cringely, Steve Jobs once famously claimed Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. A bit of research online suggests that Picasso never actually said this at all. Jobs never let the truth get in the way of a good story. It turns out that the Picasso myth was actually based on a similar quote attributed to the poet T S Eliot, who allegedly said “Good poets copy, great poets steal.” In an excellent blog post by lawyer Nancy Prager she asserts that the (mis)quote was attributed to Eliot in a 2006 article by a chemical engineering professor called Bill Hammack about fair use and copyright. Further research revealed that the misquote was based on a 1921 essay written by T S Eliot about the playwright Phillip Massinger, which Bill Hammack later decided to paraphrase as “Good poets copy, great poets steal”.

The original Eliot essay said…

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

In other words, stealing might be ok as long as you make the original better. Or, as Albert Einstein once observed, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”.

I find it interesting that even the story of the statement about copying vs stealing is based on an evolutionary trail of the quote as it morphs from one form to another, becoming variously attributed to different people along the way. Maybe Picasso did say it, who knows? He may have even come across the T S Eliot version. And he apparently influenced the thinking of Jobs with it. Or not. Who knows. Does it even matter?  It seems that ideas rarely stand on their own, and are usually part of a much bigger web of similar ideas.

Perhaps when we hear Jobs misquote Picasso, who was misattributed to Eliot, who was paraphrashed by Hammack, what we should take from the statement is not only that “stealing” is really just about taking ideas and making them better, but also that copying and “stealing” of ideas is a legitimate means by which a culture is transmitted.

I think it opens up an even bigger discussion about what constitutes originality, what we mean exactly by “innovation”, as well as the incredible value of sharing.  Perhaps in another blog post…