Getting a grip on technology and our schools

08/21/2013  |  By ART WILLER, M.Ed.

For the first 12 years of this century, American schools were so short of funding, some were asking parents to send toilet paper to school because the schools were unable to supply this staple.

All of a sudden, some school districts have enough money to make technology purchases in the millions of dollars at a time. It is encouraging to see schools re-gaining economic support and moving on with much-needed technology upgrades.

However, many educators, parents and other members of the public are alarmed by the order of spending, the directions of that spending, and the radical thoughts behind it.

This article is a call for a more thoughtful approach to technology acquisition and deployment in schools. It argues for keeping technology in perspective and doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Keeping a Balanced Perspective on Technology

This article picks on the iPad because many recent school purchase announcements have cited iPads as a large part of the acquisition or the only part of the acquisition. The iPad is the best current example where very good decisions are being made in some cases, and some very questionable decisions are being made in others.

For schools, one of the larger appeals of the iPad is its portability and the attraction of using electronic devices instead of printed text books. Purchased as part of a properly funded comprehensive implementation plan, iPads can be wonderful enhancements to the school environment. See “iPads Fail In Schools: How to Prevent this Headline,” SEEN Magazine, March 2013.

Unfortunately, too many school personnel have the idea that iPads replace computers. In some cases, schools are pulling out their computer labs with the expectation that iPads make them redundant. In other cases, so many iPads are being purchased at one time that the schools and their teachers are being overwhelmed and distracted from other important curriculum focuses.

The last time I was on an airplane, I was struck by the nearly universal replacement of laptop computers with iPads and other mobile devices. Doesn’t that prove that mobile devices make computers redundant?

Mobile devices have replaced most laptops on airplanes because mobile devices perform the tasks that people used to perform with laptops on airplanes: E-mail review, calendar review, catching up on corporate memos, reading the latest re-organization plan, reviewing the personal calendar, playing games and videos. Given a mobile device can perform all these tasks brilliantly, why lug a heavy laptop along?

No mobile device has replaced my laptop on an airplane because an airplane ride is my most coveted opportunity to catch up on writing. I also catch up on analyzing financial data, writing company plans, writing corporate memos, critiquing draft agreements, composing detailed e-mails, creating financial workbooks, and catching up on the review and editing of product guides.

What is the big difference between the activities travelers perform on their mobile devices, and those I perform on a laptop computer?

  • Mobile devices are consuming devices.
  • Laptops and other full-functioning computers are production devices.

Ask any company whether it has acquired iPads or other mobile devices. The answer is definitely yes.

Now ask whether mobile devices have replaced the company computers. The answer is definitely not. Mobile devices have given an opportunity to leave the laptop back at the office but as often, the professional carries the laptop plus the mobile device to the next meeting because they perform different functions.

Schools can have their own reasons for technology deployment but any radical notion that iPads replace computers or will replace computers in the future is uninformed. It is also dangerous to the extent that we send the wrong message to our students and fail to prepare them for a world where computers are and will continue to be a basic demand for skill.

Futurists might argue that iPads and mobile devices may not do everything now, but they will soon.

My wife has used an iPad for three years. She recently asked me for the wireless keyboard we purchased at the same time as the iPad. She wanted to see if she could write more comfortably.

Ever since, the keyboard is always with the iPad and my wife never uses the on-screen keyboard.

In effect, my wife has begun a process of converting our iPad into a laptop computer. However, for the iPad to complete that transition, it will require the ability to off-load and on-load data and applications through a variety of devices. It will need to be “networkable.” It will also require a completely different suite of applications that do far more and perform far different tasks than the current iPad applications.

In other words, for an iPad to replace computers, it has to become a computer. In that case, one might as well buy a light-weight computer now. There are plenty available, many of which have a much lower cost than an iPad.

Personally, I think the Microsoft Surface has a lot of potential for schools because it offers flexibility and productivity along with its mobility. Unfortunately for Microsoft and possibly for our schools, the Surface has been over-shadowed by the iPad.

Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reasons

Every school’s sole mandate is to provide a rich and bountiful education for its students in all aspects of life so they can be better citizens and lead successful lives. That is where the mandate starts and that is where it ends.

Every change in the curriculum and every dollar spent in the delivery of education must be justified by well reasoned and well written road maps that clearly connect change and spending with student benefit.

The following are some of the wrong reasons to acquire technology in schools:

We need to keep up with technology. Ask any business what drives their technology acquisitions. The answer is productivity, competitiveness and better service to their customers. Matching some perception that they are “behind” doesn’t factor among wiser business people or wiser educators.

We need to relate to children with the things they are familiar with. The key to any student’s engagement and success is the relevance, meaningfulness, and usefulness of the learning activities we provide from nature hikes to museum visits, from story-writing to being read to. Whether or not we are teaching with the latest gizmos is entirely beside the point.

Twenty-first century children don’t learn the way they did last century. Our parenting methods have changed, our schooling methods have changed, and the world has most certainly changed. However, not a single learning gene has changed within our children. Enriched studies, hands-on activities, project-based learning, team-based learning, mentoring, and constructivist approaches to learning, have all been explored and promoted for at least 100 years and they still stand as the best methods of teaching. We only need to start using these approaches and stop acting as if they were just invented.

The iPad is the way of the future. During my 40 years in education every new technology has been cited to be “the way of the future” until the next new invention has come along. The problem with iPads, especially where they are used to the exclusion of other technologies, is they present a relatively narrow set of experiences and possibilities, the emphasis being on relatively. Television has an enormous capacity for providing learning content to students but I am sure my readers will immediately agree that television would not be good if it were the only source of technology-based learning. Too much iPad-based learning would not be good either.

Now for some right reasons:

We look forward to providing learning experiences we have not been able to provide before. Mobile devices offer the opportunity for schools to disseminate devices to students right at their desks. When the devices are used for carefully planned exploration activities, nobody can argue against this.

We have conducted pilot studies with smaller groups and have carefully evaluated the outcomes. We are now ready to expand the program. Some might debate the premises behind the program and even debate the conclusions drawn from an evaluation. However, nobody can argue the professionalism of the approach where you experiment in small manageable amounts and learn from the experience so that larger efforts and expenditures are wisely allocated.

Our new direction adds to the richness of the curriculum we already offer our students. This reasoning demonstrates that the school aims to enrich its curriculum on an ongoing basis whenever the opportunity arises in whatever form. This reasoning also evidences that the decision makers are not expecting technology to fix problems that are only addressed by fixing the curriculum.

Considering all the ways in which we can spend our limited resources, this is where we believe the money and resources are best spent. There is possibly no greater demand for services and results than that placed on schools. No wonder then that people outside the system and inside the system look twice when a large expenditure is announced. Five thousand iPads? What about the crumbling school yard equipment? What about the gym equipment that desperately needs replacement? By making and presenting balanced purchasing plans that consider the full gamut of school needs, educators demonstrate responsible and reasoned approaches that get the full support of staff and parents.

When I completed a master of education degree and read an extensive collection of education literature, I was struck by the enlightened views dating back to the mid 1800s. I was struck by how many educators so long ago talked about the same concepts I hear being re-discovered today. Project-based learning, constructivism, explorative learning, and child-centered teaching techniques were fresh before I arrived in my profession and they will be fresh for a long while after.

While technology changes every day, people don’t. And systems change even more slowly.

Take a deep breath, be ever mindful of the needs of our students, and plod forward.

Art Willer is an educator by profession who taught elementary children and teachers of elementary children, completed a Master of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (U of Toronto), and founded Bytes of Learning Incorporated. He can be reached at: [email protected].
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