Appropriation and the real function of artefacts

What’s the educational use of an iPod?

Al Briggs points to an article in the Independent about the Teaching Awards last month.  (Incidentally, these were an idea of Lord Puttnam’s, who’s now the OU’s Chancellor.) Shawlands Academy in Glasgow won an award for a scheme where the kids got iPods.  Al comments:

On seeing the headline I thought this would be an education related story but the iPod prizes are used as an incentive for the students to eat more healthily.

The overall story is one that we already know – iPods are extremely attractive to students.

I am left with the thought – wouldn’t it be great if they were being used not just to encourage healthy eating but to encourage and increase engagement in education.

I’ve even heard that you can put educational materials on them!

It reminds me of that old barometer anecdote (dissected here by Snopes and Wikipedia) where a mythical physics student is asked how they would determine the height of a tall building using a skyscraper barometer.  The student dodges the ‘obvious’ answer (measuring air pressure at top and bottom) by reeling off a list of imaginitive ways it could be done (throwing it over the side and timing its descent, various trigonometric shenanigans, use it as a pendulum bob top and bottom, etc), before they finally suggest going up to the building’s caretaker and saying “I’ll give you this shiny new barometer if you’ll tell me how tall your building is.”

The ‘obvious’ answer is not always the best one.  The obvious use of an iPod to promote learning is to put educational podcasts on it.  That’s not a wrong answer by any means: I’m a huge fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast and of course our own OU presence on iTunesU – as plugged by my colleague Peter Scott in the Guardian recently.  But a significant revealed social function of an iPod is (and always has been) to be a desirable consumer good.  Harnessing that function rather than the MP3-playing one may be a better option sometimes.   “I’ll give you this shiny new iPod if you show me how much you’ve learned.”

Though there is, of course, the danger of hamfisted attempts at extrinsic motivation undermining learners’ intrinsic motivation.

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