The New York Times and Justifying the iPad

Winnie Hu, writing in the New York Times, reports on the increasing use of the iPad in American schools:

As part of a pilot program, Roslyn High School on Long Island handed out 47 iPads on Dec. 20 to the students and teachers in two humanities classes. The school district hopes to provide iPads eventually to all 1,100 of its students.

...

Roslyn administrators also said their adoption of the iPad, for which the district paid $56,250 for the initial 75 (32-gigabyte, with case and stylus), was advancing its effort to go paperless and cut spending.

I'm slightly surprised that Roslyn High went for 32GB iPads and extremely surprised that they bought styli, but the quotes hit many of the points I like to make about the iPad: battery life, easy mobility, more social interaction in the classroom.

The saddening thing is the unbelieveably reactionary nature of the comments on the article which are, almost unanimously, filled with venomous hatred for the very idea. They're worth reading just for a taste of what we're facing when it comes to advancing education into the technological era.

I freely admit that I speak from limited experience here but it's going to be a tough job to tear the American education system away from its textbook- and test-centric orientation and towards a more flexible and dynamic approach as befits the 21st century.

Many of the commenters focus on a "back to basics" approach to education: back to pencil, paper, mental arithmetic, paper books. I'm increasingly coming to believe that there are "new basics" to teach. I'll have more to say about that later.

The Critique of Cost Savings

Ewan McIntosh wrote an interesting critique of the Long Island iPad deployment which you should read.

I think Ewan overstates the emphasis that Long Island placed on cost savings. Savings are only mentioned twice in the article and the claim that the iPads will "pay for themselves in the long run" isn't a direct quote.

Ewan also posits a false dichotomy between "the iPad" and "the internet", which I don't agree with at all:

Teacher Larry Reiff now publishes all his lessons online.

But this isn't thanks to the iPad.

This is thanks to the internet, and millions of educators already publish their courses online through learning environments or their personal sites. You don't need an iPad per se to do this, you need any device, including the much cheaper and more likely student-owned smartphones that, increasingly every holiday season, we see our youngsters hiding at the bottom of their school bags.

Any iPad owner knows that, without the internet, the iPad is a much less interesting device. However, having "the internet" without having the devices to access it is perhaps even more pointless.

I recently spoke to some educators who were involved in rolling out GLOW (Scotland's national intranet for schools) to their local authority. They were pushing out GLOW quite aggressively but admitted that their device ratio remained at around ten pupils to one computer.

The internet, without abundant hardware to access it, simply doesn't exist. Access to hardware is the sine qua non of educational technology.

I've already written my take on student-owned devices in "Run What Ya Brung", but to say that smartphones are cheaper than tablets is just not right. A look at the unsubsidised costs of tablets and smartphones makes smartphones look kind of pricey, really.

Student-owned devices may not cost the school's hardware budget anything but they carry a cost in terms of teacher effort that nobody will factor into any purchasing decision.

Where Ewan is completely right, though, is this:

The iPad is not any old computing device - it's a personal computing device. The most disheartening practice I've seen is a return to the computing lab, something we realised a long time ago is not an effective means to integrate technology into learning.

...

You cannot get the most out of an iPad without letting the student own it, and harness their personal accounts, tastes and media for some creative learning. Putting it in a lab like this takes away from the iPads principle boon: it helps us move further away from the office metaphor of learning and into new, personalised, anytime anywhere learning metaphors.

The iPad has been in users' hands for less than a year. Everyone is still finding their way with it and what's happening in education with iOS is exactly what's happening in society as a whole: normal teachers are excited about and interested in technology.

I've written about this before in "The Invisible Computing Teacher":

The idea of acquiring additional software for your computing device has become so straightforward and non-threatening to normal computer users that instead of pushing new software into the school, I'm now trying to hold back the demand for software to keep it manageable.

I feel that teachers aren't looking for "new software that I can run on this computing device", rather that they're asking "can I make this iPad into something else useful for my teaching?".

It's worth pausing for a moment to fully realise what a sea-change this is in educational technology.

This is the first time that non-technical educators have been out ahead of the technologists. Apple is scrambling to catch up with the demand for both the device itself and for tools to manage and deploy iOS devices. My inbox is rammed with school administrators and tech people trying to understand how to support this device.

We have to give teachers time and freedom to explore.

Justifying the iPad on hard cost grounds alone is not the right approach. You may see some cost savings but you'll probably also drive an "everything on the iPad" mentality that will force its use when it's not appropriate.

By the same token, though, condemning the iPad on cost grounds is premature. Crushing teachers' new-found enthusiasm for technology with "Well, you asked for iPads but you can get a Linux netbook for £150 less so, dude, you're gettin' a Dell" will take us back to the bad old days of heavy IT bureaucracy, teacher apathy and under-utilisation.

You want creativity in schools? Let people try new things.