iPads (and tablets) in K12 - When will we get it together?

iPads (and tablets) in K12 - When will we get it together?

Summary: An interview with John Martellaro over at the Mac Observer got me thinking...why can't we get this right?


Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of talking with John Martellaro over at the Mac Observer. He had written an article a couple weeks ago about "The Real Reason Apple Wants a 7-inch iPad" which, in part, inspired my own post on the new Kindle Fire HD and its inability to change the game in education. My problem with tablets in education has, for the relatively short time tablets and e-readers have been floating around, always been one of ecosystem (or the lack thereof). John and I explored this and several other issues around the iPad specifically in education in the interview he published on Wednesday.

By the time we were done talking, he had titled the article "The State of the iPad in Education: a Giant Mess". Not a terribly flattering description, to be sure, but unfortunately fairly accurate. This isn't to say that there aren't educators and students doing awesome things with iPads. However, as long as we keep talking about textbooks (Audrey Watters is right - they're an anachronism of the first degree and Apple is first in line perpetuating this) and not talking about DRM, as long as we keep looking at tablets as glorified e-readers with mediocre apps focused on content consumption, then iPads (or any other tablet) won't be leading the charge in an education revolution.

When John and I discussed BYOD and iPad adoption, we discussed hidden costs that remain barriers to entry as well:

That $399 cost doesn't even begin to address the less obvious costs of appropriate content and device management systems, school bandwidth, teacher training/professional development, and network infrastructure required to fully leverage the hardware.

What we need are simple tools for curating and disseminating both original content and a wide variety of open and licensed content. We need teachers with the subject matter expertise to both create original materials that meet their students' needs and the resources to assemble outside materials and get them to their students. And in situations where textbooks still make sense, we need to intelligently license highly interactive materials with customizable and individualized supporting materials for students with widely varying abilities and learning styles.

Speaking of which, the real power of tablets will come when applications actively collect data on student progress and conceptual mastery, analyze strengths and weaknesses on the fly, assess learning styles as students work, and present content automatically that matches these data. It isn't going to come when Pearson digitizes all of its textbooks.

Many of the pieces are already in place. MentorMob, for example, has created a platform where it is remarkably easy to pull together disparate pieces of content in a very touch-friendly browser experience. Dell's next-generation education platform is getting at the individualized, data-driven education approach, but is still maturing. Apple has great tools for easily capturing and distributing podcasts. Google has wonderful collaborative tools in Google Apps, along with integrated device management. The list goes on.

But none of these have come together yet to make tablets in education really meaningful at scale. To be honest, I've seen more innovative use of tablets among home schoolers than I have in many schools where there are large-scale deployments.

I'll leave this with a final quote from my interview with John Martellaro:

...the relatively independent nature of study and research at the post-secondary level means that tablet devices are great tools for on-the-fly study and research. In K-12, though, our educational system is built (unfortunately) around standardized tests and proscribed curricula from publishers, states, and local decision-makers. If these curricula aren't available electronically or don't fit with student-centered computing models, then schools often can't justify the expense of tablets.

Finally, tablets remain devices largely focused on content consumption. K-12 schools are under pressure to have students create more content and participate more actively in education. There are outstanding tools for content creation on both iOS and Android, but many teachers are still struggling to incorporate digital art or mindmaps, for example, into classroom outcomes. While students intuitively use on-screen keyboards and a variety of apps to express themselves, this is uncharted territory for many teachers, again creating barriers to adoption.

Special thanks to John for taking the time to listen to me on my soapbox! You can follow him on Twitter.

Topic: iPad

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Still ignoring the obvious solution

    The future is here:


    and here:


    Would this be a threat to you and your employer by any chance?
    • Excellent! Thank you.

      This was the FIRST time I've ever followed a link in a zdnet comment because it seemed legit. Wow! Thanks for the information.
      Bruce Lang
      • You are more than welcome

        I personally find this exciting because the Khan solution has such IMMENSE potential, both w.r.t. teaching/learning effectiveness and educational cost. It is noteworthy that Khan already has solutions to the very issues that Chris is raising, such as:

        ".... the real power of tablets will come when applications actively collect data on student progress and conceptual mastery, analyze strengths and weaknesses on the fly, assess learning styles as students work, and present content automatically that matches these data."

        The data available to the teachers also looks very useful.

        The problem is that a LOT of vested interests find this solution very threatening to their business model and livelihoods, but that is always the case with disruptive solutions from the outside.
    • No I would not want my kids sitting in front of a

      computer all day consuming canned lessons.
      Johnny Vegas
      • Even if the ......

        learning is far superior?

        I guess you did not watch the 60 minutes clip very carefully, especially from 6:38 on. When the grade 7 student was asked what the hardest part of learning this way was, she replied, after momentary reflection:

        "I don't really think there is a hard part"

        Suit yourself, but you may be short changing your children, which would be a shame.
      • “Sitting In Front Of A Computer All Day”

        In the old days, it was “sitting in front of a desk all day”. And before that, “sitting in front of a clay tablet all day”. And no doubt, when the concept of actually teaching things was first thought up, “sitting in front of a teacher all day”. Sure, it’s not healthy for the kids: shouldn’t they be out hunting wildebeest or something?
        • Canned lessons the bigger issue

          I think that the "canned lessons" are probably the bigger problem here. If all you're doing is forcibly cramming test-relevant information into the kids' heads, there's little that an iPad can do that a teacher couldn't do just as well. While Bruce Schneier's famous statement relating to attempting to solve problems with technology was specifically in reference to security, I think it applies here as well: people who think that educational problems can be solved with technology don't understand the problems or the technology. Garbage in/garbage out still applies regardless of the means of educating the students.
          Third of Five
          • Huh?

            You must have followed the wrong links ;-)

            Your comments do not make much sense, given what the Khan Academy is actually doing and how their system/methodology cater really well to both teachers' and individual students' needs.

            Clearly both Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates disagree strongly with you and Bill uses the Khan Academy for his own children. Perhaps a rethink is in order?
  • The reason the progress is so slow here is

    because the schools are derelict in adopting a vendor neutral standard for eLearning media. Nationwide. Put out the specs and the price you're willing to pay and the license terms your willing to operate within. All of today's major players and a few upstarts will show up. If you lock into apples falsely inflated one or google falsely deflated one your just screwing today's taxpayer and tomorrows with. You'll get price and feature competition for a change without having to rely on corporate "sponsorship" and it's associated kickbacks
    Johnny Vegas
    • I think....

      the Khan Academy approach basically takes care of most, if not all your concerns in this area, which incidentally are valid.

      The "material" (minus the HW) is free from a not-for-profit entity and hardware neutral. There is clearly serious collaboration with schools and teachers and highly sophisticated, ongoing and almost real time evaluation of the teaching/learning effectiveness. While the entire approach/program is likely to undergo constant tweaking and expansion, the "student need" tailored approach and teacher tools are clearly the future of education.

      One area where I think they may improve in the future is replacing some videos with intelligence in the form of interactive "game" play including drills. Math may be one obvious area where this could be helpful.
  • The problem is that you're looking at it the wrong way around.

    What I've read here has a classically backward way of approaching a problem: define a goal (we need to get tablets - especially iPads - into schools), then identify existing solutions that seem to block the path (textbooks - which isn't actually the problem) then try to find some way to get rid of THOSE problems and shoehorn in the preferred solution.

    So let's back up a moment and ask 'what are the real problems?'

    Finances. You may not have heard, but they're cutting funding and firing teachers. Coughing up $400 a student isn't a good way to deal with this. You could argue 'but it saves money in textbooks' - except it doesn't. If it's electronic copies of textbooks, schools still have to pay for them, perhaps less - but it's not free. And if you're thinking 'well the teachers can abandon the textbooks...' well, that means 'someone has to write whatever it gets replaced with... ' which leads to..

    Usability (by teachers). A GREAT deal of a teacher's time is spent tuning the material being presented to the students. With traditional materials (paper, blackboard), this is relatively easy because it's using passive materials. You don't need to be a programmer. You don't need to be an artist. Good teachers don't just read the textbook to the class, they write content around the textbook. Some don't even use the textbook at all. But what they write is essentially text. It doesn't really need a computer at all.

    Teachers barely have time to do this with traditional 'technology' - adding a 'solution' that requires even more specialised skills isn't going to help. Adding tablets as content delivery works against this.

    Usability (by students). Simple problem - what happens at 4pm when the student goes home? Do they take the tablet with them? Are they expected to have their own? Education doesn't stop at the doors of the school.

    And does the tablet's software actually make education work better or does it just distract?

    Alternatives: I'm not a huge HTML fan, but here's one case where it's easy to make an argument that educational technology should not be tied to a specific hardware platform. By having a school web server - which is actually pretty inexpensive and easy to maintain, all the student needs is a web browser. The teachers can learn basic web construction skills - or pass the task along to a relative small staff who can handle the task. While the web tools out there are primitive compared to coding tools, the *needs* of a teacher are actually fairly lightweigh as well - there are actually some web creation tools that make the task 'simple enough'.

    Things like the Khan Academy are good ways to get content - and I think it's very valuable - but they're only part of the solution. They help deal with the 'where do I get content' and even better 'how do I get it for free', but it doesn't help with interactivity.

    In the end, we have to approach the problem the right way around and that starts with a far, more fundamental question: how do we fix the problems with the current educational system and make teachers more effective?

    If technology solves this - cool. If it's tablets - nice. But you shouldn't define the technology first then try to figure out how to make it fit into the system.
    The Werewolf!
    • Here is a hint or two

      "In the end, we have to approach the problem the right way around and that starts with a far, more fundamental question: how do we fix the problems with the current educational system and make teachers more effective?"

      Just watch the 60 minutes video in my link above. You apparently did not. Focus on the parts that deal with the roles of teachers and teachers' views, as well as the issue of pricing, since cost/funding is the first problem you listed.
    • Concentrate on the education process...

      I have served on my local school board. In our community, we have a web-based system that allows parents and students track their performance on homework and other assignments, tests, etc. We are also required to report student progress - to the individual student / subject level - to a state wide system. Not only do teachers have to MANUALLY enter student grades into the system, they have to MANUALLY transcribe and re-format data between our local system and the state system! Gad what courage! (The IT staff argues that it "only" takes a teacher about 20 minutes a day to do this and that doesn't justify the IT effort to fix what we alread have... Our district employs about 500 teachers, so this on-going problem is costing us a man month per DAY.)

      Systems like Kahn are great, but they have important shortcomings. They don't interface with existing reporting systems and they don't accommodate varying teaching and learning styles. Apple has some great authoring tools, but again, the assesment tools don't soleve the real world problem of seamlessly delivering results to our existing accountability processes. Thes things may sound like minor quibbles, but they mean that these systems don't really "work" for teachers as well as they should and because of that, there is substantial resistance by teachers to adopting these technologies. If you want someone digging ditches to adopt your new, trick shovel, you had better make sure that your shovel is a sharp, and not a dull shovel...

      A successful teacher-centric tool needs to be not only simple to use, it also has to be powerful and sophisticated. Let me offer a practical example. My daughter taught a Highschool history class, 5 sections, block scheduled with 2 sections on "A" days and three sections on "B" days. It became apparent that "A" day students were passing answers to multiple choice questions to "B" day students. To discourage this practice, my daughter prepared two identical tests - same questions, same answers - such that all multiple choice answers were 'b' on the test given to "A" day students and answers on the test given "B" day students were either 'a' or 'c'. The problem did not appear to persist.

      A technology based solution needs to allow teachers to do this kind of thing without making it hard (or impossible). Teachers are not interested in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of some programmer. They want and expect a system that is intuitive, powerful, easy to use and capable of everything they can now do with paper.

      The reason we don't see more teachers and more schools clamoring for more tablets in the classroom is that this technology and its supporting ecosystem aren't there yet.
  • D. T. Long....

    In the four posts you've made, you've...

    Impugned the commenter's motivation and impartiality (ad hominem) "Would this be a threat to you and your employer by any chance?"

    Impugned the professionalism of teachers and educators (ad hominem): "The problem is that a LOT of vested interests find this solution very threatening to their business model and livelihoods"

    "Refuted" someone's concerns with irrelevent counterarguments (strawman argument): "I don't really think there is a hard part" (the concern had nothing to do with difficulty - it was with canned lessons)

    Implied that not agreeing with your world view means you're being a poor parent/person (ad hominem): "Suit yourself, but you may be short changing your children, which would be a shame."

    Appealed to authority (ad authoritatem): "Clearly both Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates disagree strongly with you"

    I'm sure Khan Academy is a great thing. But you're doing the same thing the author is: you've decided that X is THE solution and anyone who disagrees clearly is being mendacious or clueless. That means you've stopped listening and you're just talking. And not in an effective way, TBH.

    Maybe the Khan Academy needs lessons on how to communicate more effectively.
    The Werewolf!
    • And your point is what?

      So someone invents a better mouse trap and a lot of people either do not understand or feel threatened by it. That has happened countless times during our history, but somehow we cannot deal with the obvious facts because it is not politically correct?

      Let me give you a simple hypothetical scenario: Someone invents a pill that will eradicate ALL disease. Would you expect the medical profession, pharmaceutical industry and the US health insurance industry to celebrate it as their work being finally done or do you think they would fight it tooth and nail? And when someone fights it, we cannot question their motives, impartiality, professionalism, views that clearly fail to see the benefits and cannot refer to leaders of our society supporting it? Give me a break!

      When someone writes a blog about a problem that apparently is in the process of being substantially solved, but the writer somehow repeatedly manages to avoid mentioning that solution, motive is an obvious issue. Just look at his CV and apply a dash of understanding of human psychology. Are you suggesting that self interest is never a factor or that we should somehow not talk about it?

      What exactly is the issue with a so called canned lesson, which by implication is probably derogatory? We are trying to impart knowledge to our children and whatever method is best is the one we choose. Clearly the Khan Academy approach is far superior to the classic classroom teacher and textbook approach and likely better than any proprietary solution. Its absence from this blog is a glaring omission.

      When someone of considerable intellect, wealth and experience chooses to financially support a not for profit endeavor and/or use the products/services/methods for their children, I do not care what you call it. It certainly carries a lot more weight than you questionable ramblings.

      I am not associated with the Khan Academy or the field of education in any way whatsoever. I have no dog in this fight. I am however very capable of making relevant observations and thinking independently. I have raised two children, educated in a public school system for the first few years and then distance/home schooling for the balance. I therefore have personal and varied experience in this matter.

      Now where do you sit in all of this?
      • A textbook IS a "canned lesson"

        I'm with you D.T. ... What's so bad about "canned lessons"? Exactly how is a textbook not a canned lesson? I was a college teacher for a few classes over the years and I eschewed the book that was previously required by my predecessor... The college bookstore hated me, but the students appreciated that they didn't have to pay $110 for a (very heavy) book that was going to be out of date before it was even printed. My course was an intro web development course and I used the excellent and FREE w3schools.com. My students got a BETTER education using interactive tools, without paying a dime extra for a book that would just gather dust. I was also able to tell these students that they needed only to continue learning from w3schools.com and they would have an excellent start to a web development career, WITHOUT more college courses! These "canned" courses were much better (interactive AND up to date) than anything I could have made myself or taught out of ANY book. Thank goodness for w3schools (and now Khan)!
  • Tech isn't what we need, certainly not tablets.

    The idea of tablets and laptops at all necessary in educating our students is pure idiocy. Tablets do not teach. Teachers teach. Tablets and laptops and the internet in general are resources. But so are textbooks and libraries. Neither of which are as fragile and short lived as an expensive tablet.

    Instead of adopting feel-good, useless quick fixes that will do nothing except waste money and our kids minds, put more effort into getting real education into schools. Stop laying off teachers. Stop loading them down with pointless paperwork, which detracts from time needed to do their jobs. Get the parents involved in kids education. Stop blaming poor grades on an overloaded educational system and put it where it belongs - the parents and communities that won't pay for education or support their schools. Tablets - crap. Without good teachers you may as well give tablets to chimpanzees and expect them to learn calculus.
    • Sorry, but you're dreaming...

      Most parents are NOT going to get involved. MANY teachers are simply incompetent and incapable of effective teaching (because their teachers were likewise incompetent and unable to teach them how to teach). Even though I was a teacher myself (see above), I saw a LOT of simply lame teachers all around me... and hey, I certainly could have done a better job as well. We need to look at education how it exists now... a broken system that is full of indoctrination instead of facts, full of unprofessional people who might mean well, but are clueless about how to reach today's kids (hint: their noses are buried in their iDevice... look around!). The sad truth is, the iPad is our only hope! Without a tablet-based education system, you will simply lose an entire generation who is uninterested in you archaic "old school" methods which are clearly not working anyway.
  • I agree ... and I disagree

    One problem is "the market" to which you refer. The dominant source of authoritative information is still the textbook, reference book, encyclopedia, or other published academic research.

    The Internet makes this wealth of information accessible to all. The problem with the Internet however is that all content is presented with equal weight - without regard to the credentials of the original source.

    Educators would like to make that information which is pertinent to their curricula available to all their students in the appropriate context - but how can they if there is no single technical solution for consolidating this information across all devices.

    Publishers are finally bringing e-texts to post-secondary education - but as you point out, it is still textbook-based. This particular solution also tends to be proprietary. Why? Because, the content is expensive to gather and publishers have no other way to recover the costs associated with Academic Research than to charge a fee for others to consume it.

    To be sure, the Apple ecosystem is the most robust of the lot - but it is also expensive - and Apple is a polarizing influence because of the control it exerts over the content of that ecosystem.

    Is a $399 iPad truly more capable that a $199 7" or $299 9" Kindle Fire HD? Probably not.

    Would an education-oriented, cross-platform, open-standards ecosystem fill the need? Of course it would! But who will finance such a project and who will pick up the tab for licensing content?

    If you leave that to government, you open the door for massive control over content - which nobody really wants. If you leave it to massively-underfunded school districts, you lose any kind of economy of scale and uniformity of content that we want form our schools.

    Add to that that few educators are sufficiently trained to leverage the technology and it becomes apparent that it will take a much larger commitment to educating our kids than most school districts can muster.
    M Wagner
  • the problem with ipads/tablets

    It is not a problem unique to these technologies. All those things are part and parcel of learning in general but just adding a layer of complexity and expense for school systems to embrace. Every new technology promises to be a better learning tool, but in general the technologists are not in tune with how people learn, reinvent wheels, face failures, and then eventually have to settle for just being a part of learning and not the central focus.

    People need to get over the concept of gizmo as solution. What works for 1 set of learners does not work for all and not in all subject areas. But bling causes people to lose focus on proven methods and try to substitute the gadget rather than using the gadget.

    Also these things don't work well for a lot of subjects....I taught navigation theory and there is nothing I can do to each latitude and longitude on a tablet that can't be done better with a globe and tinker toys...the same is true for how gyroscopes work.

    There seems to be some research that tablets are helpful for autism and maybe other learning disabilities and that would be a great place to focus. But the idea that they're some kind of answer for everything is a falsehood underscored by every educational tech solution that there has ever been including chalkboards, programmed instruction, video, and every other 'revolution'.

    By persuing inappropriate technology solutions we're really ignoring learners in a quest to have all the snappy and cool stuff. The learning profession doesn't need to be ego driven this way. It needs to be learner centered.