iPads, Hotels, and Learning

When digital should not replace physical.

April 1, 2015
Recently, I stayed at a Hilton hotel that had replaced the big paper information notebook you find in the room with an iPad. All the directions as to where to find the exercise facility, the room service menu, the key phone numbers and directions, the instructions on how to check out, and the listing of all the hotels amenities and local sites had gone digital. 
This may sound like a good idea in theory, in reality it was completely annoying. Finding where the gym was located took multiple guesses (which sub menu is it under?) and swipes.  Not being able to page through a book meant needing to go through multiple screens to find the information that I needed.  Simple tasks of locating basic information became a frustrating technology mediated process.
Is higher ed doing the same thing to learning as this hotel is doing to hospitality?
We should probably have a very high bar before we move any physical process to one that is digital. 
One area that I’m thinking of is grading and commenting on student papers. We seem to be moving quickly to adopt platforms that allow the paper never to be printed, the submission to be all digital, and the comments and grading to be all done on digital platforms. This method can have lots of advantages. Less printing (which is expensive), less paper to carry around, and the availability of digital assessment tools such as rubrics that can be built right into the grading process. Has anyone really stopped to investigate, however, if the act of handwriting marginal comments on a student paper improves the quality of the feedback? Or maybe if students physically get back a marked up paper then the act of receiving,  and then processing, the physical paper might encourage greater introspection and thinking.  
Can you think of other areas in teaching and learning where the old analog process works better than a digital strategy? What about test taking? There seems to be real value in having students show their work, enumerating all the steps that got them to their answer.  Having students show their thought processes gets harder as more assessments move to online platforms. Can you think of other examples?
The information book found in hotel rooms has been refined and modified over decades. There is an enormous amount of experience in understanding what works well and what does not with the paper form factor.  With an app on an iPad serving as the information guide, everything is new. It may be that it is cheaper in the long run for a hotel to move from print to digital.  (If every Hilton did this, that would be an awful lot of binders that would be replaced). Going print to digital is certainly more sustainable. But there are real costs to making such a move - costs borne largely by the people who need to quickly find how to locate information. The benefits to the hotel need to be weighed against the costs to the guests.
I wish that someone at Hilton would have stopped and questioned the head-on rush to put everything on the iPad.  Do we have enough of those people in higher ed?  Are we always thinking carefully about the costs to our students, and their learning, when we replace a very old analog process (one that has been refined over generations) with a new digital one?   
It may seem strange to you that someone who has "digital" in their job title would be asking these questions. I maintain that those of us that work at the intersection of technology and education have to be the most critical about edtech.  We need to ask the most questions. We need to be the most on guard against tech fads that may find their way on to our campuses. Only then will we have any credibility to support technology-enabled solutions that truly improve student learning, lower costs, or improve access.  (And ideally, accomplish all 3 goals).
What are your higher ed examples of the iPad in the hotel room?


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