Skeuomorphic Tendencies In Education?

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Have you ever wondered why the icon for a phone is a 1950, hand cradled device that nobody born today will ever know unless they watch an old movie?  The answer is skeuomorphic design.  Why do we “cc” somebody on an email?  Skeuomorphs.  They are everywhere!

Skeuomorphs are necessary to some degree.  Very few designers would deny that.  There has to be some kind of meaningful transition to new technology.  But the question of how much and how long they remain is a pretty decent debate in design communities.  Some argue that you simply need to look at the difference between Apple and Microsoft to see the difference.  Apple is often seen as using the “minimally viable” skeuomorph, until people get up to speed, while Microsoft uses traditional paradigms in light of better technological options for longer periods of time.  (Obviously Microsoft would argue this point and it’s truly up for debate!)

[I have to smile.  Even as I write this, our blogging tool has a “related articles” tab that I can use to add context to my blogs.  The first related article is titled, “In Defense of Skeuomorphs” whereas the second article is titled, “Sick of Skeuomorphs.” ]

But my question is less about hardware and more about technological innovation in an educational context.  I have heard a number of educators at the various conferences I attend lately really struggling with tablets, for example.  “If only they were easier to keyboard with!” is often the exasperated cry that I hear.  But why?  Instead of trying to force the tablets to do something that notebooks and desktops were designed to do, why not look at them for what they WERE designed to do effectively?  Surfing the web, gaming, aggregating with curating in mind, and connecting to others are just a few things that come to mind with regard to tablets.  When I think of my iPad, I don’t think of word processing…it’s just not the ideal technology for that.

It’s akin to using technology for purposes other than what they are designed for, simply because of a paradigm.  I think back to the conversations we’ve had over the years about using Elluminate (our integrated white-board tool) for web conference meetings (like faculty senate meetings, etc).  It’s a tool that simply was not designed to work like another tool (Webex for example) was.  Elluminate was originally crafted as a tutoring tool and grew from there.  Yet, people don’t want to double up on technology or don’t want to learn a new way of doing something.  So, they force that round peg into a square hole.

Or what if we start talking about the “Flipped Classroom” initiatives that you may be reading so much about these days.  Essentially, the idea of giving facilitation, curriculum, and even assessment control over to students is what “Flipping” your classroom entails.  And there are some instructors I have spoken with who are willing to go down that road…to a degree.  But how far are they willing to go?  I would venture a guess that we all reach a point where it just doesn’t “feel” right – like we aren’t in control the way we want to be, and that is where “Flipping” the classroom stops.  (I realize I am over-simplifying a complicated strategy here – but you get the point.)

I think it’s an important conversation to have at our schools.  What skeuomorphs are we employing because we are afraid to move forward?  One example I think of often is around student choice.  Could students choose more than their major these days?  What about choosing their schedule, their instructors, their content, or their textbook?  Could all of these be done (and be done quite efficiently and with great transparency thanks to technology…)?  YES!  But when was the last time you saw an instructor open up the class with, “We’ll be choosing our textbook during the first week together…”

As technologists understand and (mostly) agree on, some degree of skeuomorphic usage is necessary.  But when the innovation stops simply because retro design becomes the norm, there is a problem.  What are the innovative skeuomorphs in and around your instution, department, or classroom?  Are they required bridges or the fallacy of tradition at work?  I think it’s a decent question for us all to ask as we try to not only model innovation for our students, but teach and assess innovation as well.

Good luck and good teaching.

Jeff Borden

About Jeff Borden

Jeff Borden is the former head of the Center for eLearning. He is also a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer. As an Enriched Lecturer at Chaminade University and past college administrator, Dr. Borden has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Recently he testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, keynoted a 6,000 audience member conference in Asia, and presented in the New Media Consortium’s Virtual Symposium for the Future.
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