eConcordia Summit (or How I got to meet Steve Wozniak)

This past Thursday a friend of mine (Sarah Leavitt) and I attended the eConcordia Summit. She is a journalist, and managed to get us both media passes – I was the photographer. We left our neighborhood at 7:30 to get there for 8am registration, and walked in a few minutes before the summit began. The topic of this particular summit was E-Learning, and the future of technology and education. And the keynote speaker was Steve Wozniak.

Before I entered this conference I wasn’t really very informed about the woz’s role in the personal computing revolution. I was aware that he made the connection between processor and monitor, and that he was one of the co-founders of Apple, but I didn’t really know much more than that. I didn’t know, for example, that he created the Apple I on his own, from scratch, and began selling the boards to interested persons for $40. That’s right, ladies and gentleman, the product that started this obscenely lucrative market for dignified calculators was started buy boards being sold for $40. (Note: It’s pretty easy to see the parallels between the Apple I and the Makerbot that have been pointed out on the Thingiverse Blog recently, especially after hearing this presentation).

Wozniak wasn’t the only speaker at the summit. There were quite a few other people who talked about mobile technologies and how they relate to education, more permanent “classroom-centric” technologies like projectors, and e-learning. They were all very interesting, although some weren’t what I had expected. The talk given by John Mullen from Dell entitled “Efficient and cost-effective educational technology” read more like a sales pitch than a talk about education. He informed us that modern classrooms have a digital whiteboard, a web cam for displaying documents and demonstrations, gigabit ethernet ports, and a few other fantastic things that I have never seen all together in any of the classrooms I’ve been to in my more than 10 years of schooling. Considering that those digital whiteboards cost around $11000 USD with installation, I’m pretty sure they aren’t included in all “modern classrooms.” Nevertheless, he did make some very good points about education and technology.

The talk directly before him, given by Elliot Soloway and Cathleen Norris of GoKnow, Inc, explained how the integration of mobile technologies into the classroom could, and has been shown to allow students to learn more than the information they have been taught in class, and that such an interactive approach ensures that children understand the concepts they learn. The implication was that students who are allowed to grow beyond the limitations of the curriculum will perform better overall, very similarly to the way that the Steve Wozniak’s of yesterday were allowed to explore their interests. Anyone who has been inspired by something they learned in school and pursued that topic knows what this feels like. The idea is to use that inspiration to its maximum potential, increasing the benefits that children reap from school.

My overall impression of the talks was as follows. While obviously technology represents some barriers to the human race (reliability, use as a tool vs. use as an appendage), it always has been and will always be a very useful tool. My friend asked Mr. Wozniak during the press conference if he thought that education was driving technology, or if technology is driving education. My opinion on the matter is that education led us to develop technology. For example, calculus and physics are  technologies that were developed so we could model the world around us. However, the technologies we have created answered old questions and left us with new ones. In a sense, we know more because of our technology, and because we know more we know that there is so much more to learn. The other interpretation of the question asks whether we are simply becoming educated so that we can feed our technology; have we become slaves to the machines. In a sense, I think we have. If someone sends you an e-mail, you feel you have to respond to it. The technology is looming over you, telling you to do something, but it was instructed to behave that way by another person. While I think that some people have become slaves to their Blackberry’s or e-mail, I think that the world as a whole will get over it. In other words, I think the issue isn’t with the technology, but with the way some of us use (or abuse) it.

The answer, as I understood it, is to pursue technology, keeping in mind that it is nothing more than a tool, and that it must remain that way. Since the first proto-human picked up a club and began hitting things with it (yeah, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey recently), technology has been creeping into our lives. It develops as we develop. Abilities and information are becoming more accessible with every technological step. Technology enabled us to hunt, and eventually it helped us write down information, then we stored that information in libraries, and soon we’ll be able to reach many or all of those resources online and even download objects from the internet. It’s a natural progression, and even I was a little skeptical at first, but I came to realize something important. Taking less time to look something up doesn’t make you lazy, it just means that you have time to look up other things, or to do what you would otherwise be doing if you didn’t have to flip though 5 books to find the information you’re looking for. I think the solution lies in understanding both worlds. I think present and future generations should always be aware of basic technologies like construction, survival, writing, and similar things that don’t require our unstable, electronic technology, but as long as we have that as our parachute, we can fly as high as we want.

However, on to the meeting Steve Wozniak part. After the talks, there was a press conference, and, being press, my friend and I attended. It turned out that CTV, CBC, the Gazette, the Suburban, and everybody else weren’t interested. Not at all. There were two press agencies represented, Canadian University Press (us), and something else. This meant that we got to ask as many questions as we wanted. Some ordinary civilians from the audience were allowed to come speak to the woz as well, but since most of the people at the conference were business men who did nothing during the summit but stare at their Blackberry’s, only a few interested souls came to the press conference. In the end, I actually spoke to Mr. Wozniak, asked him two or three questions, got his business card, and got a picture taken with him. Sadly, however, the professional cameraman hired to take pictures for the event was the one given my camera, and he managed to motion-blur the picture. How does that happen? Good question.

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