The jury is still out on school iPad deployments

iPads in schools? Great idea, but it can't just be more of the same ol' same ol' with a veneer of tech.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

A colleague recently sent me a link to a recent USA Today feature on an iPad initiative in the Zeeland Public Schools in Zeeland, Michigan. A quick read of the story would have the average administrator or parent thinking that, not only are iPads the best things since sliced bread for students, but also wondering just how they can replicate the district's expensive and ambitious program to equip virtually all students with iPads.

The program has already achieved some admirable goals. Paper usage has decreased with some "some teachers going paperless" and many the use of ebooks instead of dead tree books was highlighted in a particular class. The treehugger in me is is very excited. We also heard about students working on organizational skills, enabled by electronically issued assignments ("It's all on our iPads," one student commented) and other instructors are giving assessments via the devices. Sounds good, right? And I believe that it is.

I also believe that USA Today hasn't given us a complete picture. Let's take a step back first. One of my favorite bloggers, Karl Fisch, wrote about his 6th-grade daughter's recent assignment to "write 10 facts about Bermuda." He, being Karl Fisch, turned an otherwise unremarkable assignment (and one that sounds too much like the assignments that tired teachers give after a long week - I know, I've given them, too) into something really memorable for his daughter. A little tweeting, a little blogging, and suddenly his daughter is Skyping with someone from Bermuda (that's called a primary resource, kids). She got her 10 facts, but in the process, actually managed to learn something that broadened her world view a bit.

So what does this have to do with iPads? The problem with too many iPad deployments (like the one highlighted in Zeeland) is that schools end up doing the same thing they were before the new technology rolled out, except now they're using "21st Century Technologies" to do them. Imagine how easy and trivial Fisch's example of the 10 facts about Bermuda would be if everyone had an iPad. 3 minutes of Googling, max, and 5 minute to type them into Notes or Google Docs and everyone's done, filled with a few facts about Bermuda. Then everyone moves on, feeling very 21st Century.

Until students start using the tech to reach out around this very flat earth, though, or genuinely collaborate with each other (and I don't just mean they both contribute to the same document or wiki but really explore what it means to manage projects and work together), they aren't gaining anything from their iPads that they couldn't have achieved in a computer lab or, frankly, with paper and pencil.

iPads (and their Android brethren) are starting to come into their own with enterprise tools and management utilities that make life easier for IT staff. Electronic texts are emerging. Cloud-based applications and state-of-the-art tools for organization and communication are already here. We've basically arrived in terms of tech. Where we haven't arrived is in terms of pedagogy.

The examples cited in the USA Today article (using iPads for flash card Apps or highlighting passages in a text with touch) hardly point to the pedagogical shift that tools like the iPad can enable. Sure, anytime access to information is an extraordinary tool for students and teachers and that in itself can help justify the cost of iPad deployments. But it's hardly transformative until an active, natural, regular part of instruction is helping students effectively navigate all of that information. It isn't enough if the advanced communication tools in most tablets are just used to post or email assignments. It isn't enough for students to awkwardly type their essays on a virtual keyboard when those essays are the same, tired, regurgitations of facts grabbed off the web.

When students can access tutoring resources whenever they need them or are driven to explore and create in new ways, when students build their own cloud-synced portfolios of high quality work, when students find new things they want to learn and are imbued with the curiosity and empowered with the tools and time (and guidance) to go after knowledge, when students spend their lunches with their iPads under a tree reading a good book that they were allowed to download instead of watching teenagers crashing skateboards on YouTube, then you have some transformation.

There is an entire cultural shift that needs to accompany 1:1 deployments (whether or not they involve iPads). While the emergence of such deployments is very encouraging, decision-makers and stakeholders need to understand that the scenario outlined in the USA Today article only scratches the surface of what it takes to make 1:1 successful, meaningful, and a positive use of taxpayer dollars. This isn't to say that the folks in Zeeland aren't doing everything right. We'd never know from the article. What we have to avoid is the impression that handing a lot of kids iPads suddenly prepares them for the 21st Century without a whole lot of work on the backend in everything from network infrastructure to teacher coaching and professional development.

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