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iPads in the Public Schools

Cathy Davidson on what is missing from the discussion

Early January saw another mostly celebratory account of iPads in schools in the New York Times, "Math That Moves: Schools Embrace the iPad," by Winnie Hu.

Since I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke in 2004 when we "embraced" the iPod experiment -- giving free iPods to entering first-year students before iTunes even existed and no one had thought of one single learning application for the very popular and coveted music-listening device -- you probably think I'm jumping for joy about school districts spending $50,000 or even $400,000 on giving all the kids iPads. Since I co-direct the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, you may even think I'm partly responsible for this trend. Not so fast.

Here is the issue: If you change the technology but not the method of learning, then you are throwing bad money after bad practice. You're giving kids a very fancy toy with enormous educational potential and, being kids, they will find exciting things to do with it and many of those things will be beneficial, exciting, and will help them be more adept in the 21st century world of new forms of communication and interaction. If you leave kids to their own devices (pun intended), they will find ways to learn.

The user interface on tablet computers is appealing, the multidisciplinary possibilities inventive, and the potential for downloading lots and lots of apps for just about anything -- and even for designing apps yourself -- is fun. That makes the iPad a flexible, smart device. That is the upside.

The downside is that it is not a classroom learning tool unless you restructure the classroom.

There is no benefit in giving kids iPads in school if you don't change school. You might as well send them off with babysitters to play in the corner with their iPads for eight hours a day. Without the right pedagogy, without a significant change in learning goals and practices, the iPad's potential is as limited (and limitless) as the child's imagination.

Laptops in Duke Classrooms

Student use of computers and other electronic devices in the classroom are also attracting the attention this semester of the Arts and Sciences Faculty Council.

Chaired by Professor Ruth Day, the council already has held one preliminary discussion in December on the topic and plans to have others looking at the extent of their use in Duke classrooms and faculty views on the subject.

Day said faculty are concerned enough to want to know more about how these devices change the teaching and learning process. Currently, it is up to each individual faculty member to set their own policy on classroom use, Day said. Faculty will continue to decide what happens in their own classrooms; however their decisions may change with more information about the benefits and risks of student devices, she said.

That's great on one level -- but it misses the real point of education as well as the full potential of the device. What iPad and all forms of digital learning should do is help prepare kids for this moment of interactive, complex, changing communication that is our Information Age. This is the historical moment that these kids have inherited and will help to shape. Are we preparing them for the challenges we all face together simply by spending our tax dollars on iPads? Yes. And no.

When we gave iPods to the incoming students, we made the cover of Newsweek ("iPod Therefore I Am"), made primetime on ABC News (Peter Jennings scowled, "Shakespeare on the iPod? Calculus on the iPod?"), and were denounced in a long, harrowing editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("The University seems intent on transforming the Pod into an academic device, when the simple fact is that iPods are made to listen to music. It is an unnecessarily expensive toy that does not become an academic tool simply because it is thrown into a classroom.") Darn right! And we didn't.

Here's one part of the experiment: If you were a second-, third- or fourth-year student, you were really mad that the first-years got iPods and you didn't. So we told those students if they could teach a professor to use the iPod in the classroom with a learning application, that class (and the professor) would get iPods too. Talk about incentive!

If your school district has embraced student-centered learning, if it has redeveloped its curriculum, and if it no longer thinks that end-of-grade testing measures what students today do learn and need to learn, then computer-aided learning and digital learning and learning as play are wonderful. Embrace those iPads!

But the metrics, the methods, the goals and the assessments all need to change.

No Child Left Behind, our national educational policy, is based on early 20 century concepts of efficient testing that was explicitly designed to make learning imitate the production of Model Ts on Ford's assembly line. We still have that institutional basis undergirding schools in an era where there is an app for anything. Simply throwing iPads into the classroom cannot begin to educate kids about the world they are inheriting.

Another time, I'll talk about my concern about the closed nature of the iPad as the model we're embracing. That's a more complicated argument for those who don't know about open source and closed source devices and computing. Let's just say fantastic games and devices and learning tools -- including elementary kids' coding languages like Scratch -- make STEM learning inspiring and fun and help us break down another invention of the Industrial Age: the "two cultures" divide of science/technology versus arts/humanities.

New ways of learning (including with the iPad) blend these -- and not a moment too soon. Maybe those iPadding kids will demand art back in their classrooms because you're shortchanged, really, if you don't know how to create with such a fabulous tool for creativity. But even more fabulous would be learning how to write the code so you could create your own device.

That, my friends, is Lesson No. 2: Embrace new ways of learning -- not just a marvelous (but closed) and very expensive tool.

Your kids have infinite potential to learn if we give them the chance. That requires not a device but a pedagogy and a set of institutional practices that put energy, imagination, creativity, and inspiration -- across those arbitrary and limiting "two cultures" divides -- at the center of learning. You cannot replace the Model T model of education with an iPad if you still believe learning can be produced by assembly line standards and standardization. That's what we have to change! The iPads are a start, because they inspire ... but we have a lot of work today to take down the 20th century apparatus that harnesses our 21st century imagination.