Why a new Ed Tech paradigm absolutely matters

Earlier today, I posted a guest blog by an elementary principal from suburban Chicago who saw the iPad as an absolute game changer. It provided a clear path to 1:1 and had the potential to be transformative in every aspect of his school.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Earlier today, I posted a guest blog by an elementary principal from suburban Chicago who saw the iPad as an absolute game changer. It provided a clear path to 1:1 and had the potential to be transformative in every aspect of his school. I don't disagree with him. However, for this sort of transformation to occur, the entire educational paradigm needs to shift and technology can absolutely be the catalyst.

I'm not yet convinced that the App-centered model of the iPad (or the upcoming Android tablets, or even the iPod Touch) will be the sort of open platform that will provide the necessary flexibility to allow students to create and share content with each other and their teachers in the way that an OS like Windows 7, OS X, or Ubuntu might. I could be wrong here and I'm pounding away on the iPod Touch that Apple recently sent me to evaluate as just such a platform.

One thing I will say is that I'll probably never bother bringing my Kindle with me anywhere as long as I have the iPod on loan; the Kindle App suits me just fine in a much smaller form factor on a multifunction device. That being said, the iPad/iPod are still largely content-consumption devices. This will change as HTML 5 takes off (you can already edit Google Spreadsheets on the devices and the iPad comes with iWork applications), but until the devices can really tap into the cloud, the sort of seamless exchanges between student and teacher that the guest blogger discussed will rely on less elegant mechanisms.

I consider these to be fairly minor technical details, though. HTML 5 web applications and a growing ecosystem of third-party software will sort out the syncing and sharing of content created by students and teachers soon enough, regardless of the device or OS. The real challenge is ending the "computer time" mentality and allowing tools like the iPad to actually disrupt the way we've been teaching kids for the last few centuries.

There are plenty of times when students need to be fully focused on their instructors. However, most students function naturally and more comfortably when engaged by multiple interactive input streams. The sage-on-the-stage approach stopped being even remotely effective about 15 years ago and, while many teachers have radically improved their teaching techniques to draw students into activities and discussions, a significant faction still believe that technology is a distraction with no place in the classroom. It's fine in a computer lab for research, writing papers, or creating presentations, they say, but having an iPad-like device in use the majority of the time? No way.

The tech is coming, whether it's from Apple, Google, or HP. Will classrooms be ready? Let's say that I bought into the Apple ecosystem 100%, sold my soul to the devil in exchange for an unlimited technology budget this fall, and put an iMac in every classroom and an iPad into every student's hands. The high schoolers could even have MacBooks if they preferred since they'll be typing a lot more, but I'm inclined to believe most would take the iPad. Students, I have no doubt, would be thrilled.

But what would it take to get every teacher to sync their week's content with the devices (I'm talking PDF of handouts, ebooks for the week's readings, formative assessments, and web pages with links to related materials), make podcasts of their lectures, and let students listen to music while they work in class? What would it take for them to project the class's Twitter stream or Facebook page, modifying their lectures and discussions on the fly as students submitted questions or posted thoughts live with their devices?

I agree that the iPad is transformative in a way that netbooks never could be. In fact, our greatest success and engagement with our Classmates has come from students using them in tablet form. Touch is simply a natural interface for students in a way that is hard for us old fogies to understand. However, watch a kid with motor coordination issues or an autistic student use a tablet. Watch kids who struggle to read zip through their friends' status updates and posts, happily navigating streams of data on an iPod Touch.

My guest blogger is right: the iPad certainly matters. However, it matters as a catalyst for change in the classroom and a leader in the industry. It doesn't matter so much on which platform a school ultimately settles. Rather, educational leaders must take advantage of the fact that personal computing technology has finally put extraordinary power literally into kids' hands. How will we transform our classrooms, embracing this technology, encouraging our students to access every imaginable resource and interact with their peers and teachers in news ways as they learn, rather than keeping the tablets in their backbacks or the computers in a computer lab?

We are at a crucial tipping point at which 1:1 not only becomes realistic in terms of cost but genuinely transformative in terms of the creation and consumption of educational content. Will Apple's ecosystem be the best choice to drive your classrooms? Maybe, but the vendor you choose won't mean a thing if the educational community isn't ready to roll. Some of us are there; a whole lot of us have a long ways to go. Hats off to Apple, though, for at least making the most traditional of instructors give a bit of thought to what a tablet in their classroom might mean.

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