Ben Jackson is a writer and app developer living in Brooklyn, NY. He likes clean typography, dirty language, strong coffee, apple pie and comfortable chairs, and he writes about his obsessions at 90WPM.
As the post-PC era moves from interesting theory to cold, hard reality, one of the most pressing questions is: How can we use tablets, and especially the iPad, to help people learn?
Most of the focus has been on ebooks replacing textbooks, a trend fueled by Apple’s recent updates to iBooks. Specifically, the company released iBooks Author, a tool for creating immersive ebooks on the desktop.
Plus, the new iPad is now the first tablet with a retina screen, making reading and watching multimedia on the device even more enjoyable.
But technology is only as good as the system it’s applied to. Much like a fresh coat of paint will not improve the fuel efficiency of a ’69 Mustang, the application of technology to a broken system masks deeper problems with short-term gains.
Not Just a Textbook
The iPad (not to mention the iPhone and iPod touch) is a personal, mobile computer capable of performing tasks unthinkable 10 years ago on a high-end desktop.
For starters, the device features an incredibly natural user interface. Andy Brovey, one of about 1,500 teachers who have been chosen for Apple’s Distinguished Educators program, says, “There is a connection between the tip of your finger and the edge of your mind.”
Besides its advantages over traditional PCs — like “instant on”, all-day battery life, freedom from messy cords, and the elimination of what Edward Tufte called “computer administrative debris” — the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch can augment or replace many classroom tools, and accomplish the following.
Lead classes on a shared digital whiteboard with Penultimate, Splashtop Whiteboard or Doceri Remote.
Pair the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch with a bluetooth keyboard and Writing Kit, Elements or iA Writer for typing instruction and document editing.
Remote-controlled class presentations with Idea Flight or Fuze Meeting.
Teach music theory, composition and editing with Garage Band or a number of third-party apps.
Digital sketchbooks with Brushes, SketchBook Pro or Procreate, and digital collage with Mixel.
Encourage students to use apps like Reeder, Longform and News.me to discover and consume both breaking news and long-form writing, and to compile reading lists with Instapaper and Readability.
Of course, schools need to budget not just for the purchase of iPads, but for apps as well. Fortunately, Apple makes it easy to buy apps and ebooks in bulk through the Apple Volume Purchase Program.
If your school can’t afford iPads, consider less expensive alternatives. Essa Academy had great success with its iPod Touch program.
And there are plenty of free tools to liven up the classroom.
Online scrapbooking with Pinterest
Entrepreneurship with Kickstarter
Self-publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing or Lulu
Blogging with WordPress or Posterous
Photo-blogging with Flickr or Instagram
Digital photo and HD film production with the iPhone 4S and any of dozens of camera accessories like the Glif, SLR Mount and Rangefinder
Incorporating iPads does not require new classroom equipment, and in fact, can breathe new life into old tools. For example, legacy VGA projectors can be retrofitted to work with an Apple TV using a $60 adaptor, allowing teachers to use Netflix, YouTube and iTunes rentals. What’s more, students can wirelessly project their iPad screens at any time.
SEE ALSO: This Is How Apple Changes Education, Forever
Remember, just because it has a touchscreen doesn’t mean it’s an iPad. Fraser Speirs, head of computing at Cedars School of Excellence, cautions schools against settling on less-expensive Android tablets for many reasons, not the least of which is that Google has a poor track record delivering updates to users through carriers. If you decide to go with an Android device, don’t be surprised when you receive a shipment of two-month-old tablets only to find out that none of them run Google Chrome.
How to Do an iPad Pilot
The majority of iPad pilots are based on the lending model. Speirs calls this the “iPad cart” philosophy, named after the “computer carts” common in schools before they installed machines in labs or issued laptops to students.
However, Speirs cites it as a common error. In his opinion, “The iPad, and computers like it…make school look like the society in which we live: one-to-one computers.” This is a much more important lesson than any measurable gains, such as test scores. The iPad “makes the school relevant to the culture in which education is happening,” he says. “And that’s much more important than a few points on math tests. Because if the school’s not culturally relevant, then mass disillusionment is the result.”
Consider his analogy: “What would it be like if all the people who write for Mashable had three computers between them? How would you do your job if you only got your computer on a Friday?” Speirs equates technology education to handwriting education, and believes computer literacy should be taught alongside other subjects rather than confined to a lab.
An Oklahoma State University study indicated that 75% of the students in the pilot agreed that the iPad enhanced the learning experience, and only 3% would opt out for a similar course with no iPad.
Another common pitfall is not using iCloud. For one, students doing work on an iPad will never again be able to say that the dog — or their PCs — ate their term papers. In addition, iCloud abstracts the file system, putting an end to misplaced documents and wasted class time while students search for the previous week’s assignment. Spiers also sites iCloud in his argument for student email accounts. While giving email to an eight-year-old may seem risky, Google apps for educators allow schools to use Gmail while administrators monitor student use.
While it may seem obvious, all the iPads in the world are useless without fast WiFi and plenty of power outlets. What’s more, many schools forget that teachers need their own iPads, and must become avid users, too. Speirs reminds educators, “You have to think through how it is to actually live with this device.”
Finally, Speirs cautions teachers not to be intimidated by parent and faculty expectations, to gradually introduce the iPad rather than rushing in. Teachers and school administrators may wish to refer to Ruben Puentedura’s excellent argument for tech in education and to the NMC Horizon Report. And look for inspiration in existing iPad pilots.
Obstacles to Progress
The media loves to hold up technology, and especially the iPad, as the savior of America’s overworked public school system. In reality, however, there are many reasons why students have difficulty learning — and not having enough computers doesn’t top the list. These reasons generally fall under three umbrellas: political, pedagogical and cultural.
Politics greatly influences school curriculum. Elected school boards make decisions about what to teach; federal funding is contingent on meeting standardized testing requirements; and local governments determine who may open a school, where they can build it, and who can attend.
Often, poorly thought-out or outdated legislation and policies not only hurt the existing educational experience, but also block technological progress. And because policies are made on a local basis, there is no way to ensure that sensible ones are put in place across all schools.
Pedagogy is more ingrained, and harder to change. For example, it was long thought that the most effective way to teach most subjects was through rote memorization. We now know this not to be true. And while a community may elect new officials every two to four years, teaching methods are developed over decades and rarely change without a fight.
Digital whiteboards, for example, have many benefits over their analog equivalents. But try explaining that to a science teacher who’s been using an overhead projector to teach biology for the last 30 years. As Rob Kling wrote in 1996, “schools do, on some level, understand the implications of the technology, and they resist them.”
The most difficult problems in education, however, are often cultural. For instance, one might suggest that more efficient classrooms through the use of technology could allow for a shortened or staggered school day to serve more, smaller classes. But, according to Brovey, “It is difficult for us to imagine a school structure where [class time] becomes more fluid.”
This also ignores one of the primary cultural roles of the American school: It is, effectively, the largest babysitting service in the country. What is to be done with those children once they’ve finished class? Where will they go? What will they do?
These kinds of questions are enough to make any school board official quickly change the subject to less-controversial solutions. At each turn, educators must reconcile their desire to bring technology to the classroom closer with their legal obligations.
Tumblr, Twitter and CIPA
The issue of Internet access in schools is particularly thorny. The Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that school intranets filter inappropriate content. To that end, many schools err on the side of safety, often to an unnecessary degree. For example, YouTube is blocked by most schools, even though the site doesn’t violate CIPA.
In addition, many popular websites lie in uncertain territory. Those which rely on user generated content, like Pinterest, Tumblr or Twitter, are potential minefields.
Tumblr poses a particularly vexing problem. The site has become a hub for sharing news, links and inspiration, and yet it also hosts innumerable sites that consist of little more than nude photos, both artful and pornographic.
SEE ALSO: Pinterest or Porn-terest? What the Social Network Is Doing to Keep It Clean
But what happens when these sites cease to be niche communities and become the go-to sources for information in the real world? Twitter is the undisputed channel for everything from breaking news to political and cultural debates. How long can schools block access to it before they become completely irrelevant? The important thing when deciding school online policies, says Brovey, is that “you have to show that you’re exercising due diligence.”
The only way to ensure that important resources are not blocked by the school’s firewall is to allow teachers to bypass those filters, and to have a simple, fast whitelisting process, ideally from the page that appears when a user visits a blocked site.
Brovey notes, “[Students] can help us to act as gatekeepers,” by identifying false positives as well as inappropriate sites that slip through the filter.
With its recent updates to iTunes U, Apple is clearly positioning itself as a poor man’s Blackboard. For many schools, a free system from Apple, even a limited one, is better than nothing.
iTunes U allows students to time-shift more of the passive learning that currently makes up the majority of class time. This has a few benefits. For one, teachers only have to give a lecture once. And students can watch as many times as they want, rewinding and fast-forwarding recordings as needed.
But most importantly, removing lectures from class allows students and teachers to work closely with hands-on assignments. There’s a world of difference between practicing algebra with a trained professional in class, and struggling with the student’s parents at home.
SEE ALSO: Kids and Tech: Parenting Tips for the Digital Age
However, instructors must establish limits. Watching one lecture per night is fine, but how are students to deal with six or seven lectures per day outside of class? Schools will have to consider how and when students will consume the material. More importantly, simply inverting the school day misses an important point: We need to provide students with new and engaging ways of learning, rather than just shuffling around the current methods in hopes of improved efficiency.
A Way Forward
Apple’s ecosystem presents an opportunity to allow students to learn in new and engaging ways, and opens possibilities that were inconceivable even a few years ago. But technology is not a cure-all. Until society addresses the larger problems facing schools, introducing tablets and laptops into packed classrooms with overworked teachers is like putting a band-aid on a broken femur.
Many educators are still skeptical of the iPad, citing the lack of empirical evidence that tech improves test scores as proof that the iPad is all talk and no walk. But this ignores other important metrics, such as student satisfaction and drop-out rates. And at least one controlled study has now confirmed that the iPad does in fact boost algebra scores significantly.
Joel Rose focuses on disrupting long-standing, outdated practices in education with new approaches, rather than adding technology to existing ones. His program, the School of One, focuses on providing personalized instruction that moves at the pace of each student. Technology only comes into play insofar as it advances that personalized instruction. Machine-learning algorithms adapt the curriculum as each student progresses, and monitors direct each student to his or her next lesson.
Services like CourseKit are simple, free course management systems that compete on design and user experience. They look less like classroom tools and more like social networks.
These kinds of innovations may not impress parents or school boards as much as ebooks with interactive charts, but they begin to dig at the roots of the problem, rather than pruning the tips.
Technology’s real promise lies in its ability to disrupt established systems and change the way we frame problems. How should we address the real issues plaguing our schools? Do we need technical solutions to everything? Are these problems better addressed the old-fashioned way, or should we just accept some of them and move on?
Until we acknowledge which problems really need fixing and begin working on ways to solve them, we’ll be stuck with fancy, expensive — but ultimately useless — toys.