Of Course iPads Belong In Classrooms — It’s All About Balance

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“iPads And Digital Textbooks Don’t Belong In Classrooms Yet”? What a headline. Alas, it doesn’t quite do the post justice; Matt actually raises a few valid points on the potential woes of digitally assisted learning, but they’re lost under a headline that (falsely) paint him as some sort of luddite.

iPads absolutely have a place in the classroom. It’s just a matter of finding a balance.

Let me tell you a bit about my childhood.

I grew up in an interesting place, in an interesting time. My (relatively) small town was about an hour outside of San Jose — just close enough to the glowing core of Silicon Valley as to feel its warmth, but far enough that you always wondered if you were actually a part of it. If Cupertino is the heart, we were its appendix. For every tech millionaire who chose my town as their escape, there were two nth-generation locals with calluses for hands and sweat for blood. It made for an interesting crowd.

By the time I hit gradeschool (’92 or so?[Cue jabs at my age]), computers were by no means rare in my area. While they still weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today, I was lucky enough to be coming in just as the late 80′s explosion of computers into education had begun to pay off. Most (but not all) classrooms had one, and the teachers knew how to use them (with the vast majority happily embracing them). By second grade, computers were deeply intertwined into our curriculum.

And thank heavens for that. That immersion into technology is a driving factor for who I am today. The early typing classes turned me into a key-pounding monster (I was unknowingly being polished for this very job.) The BASIC programming classes that came later were the foundation for the programming and web design work I did to avoid getting a real job in High school, and the early introduction to technology acted as a spark for my still-burning desire to learn as much about it as I possibly can. I consider myself a part of the first generation born and raised with keyboard in tow, and I love it.

Now, what does all of this have to with Matt’s post?

Even in my little town located but a stones throw from the core, there was some resistance to letting computers make their way into schools. In the build up to the aforementioned educational computer explosion, naysayers were asking many of the same questions that Matt asks in his post, and that I see being asked in the comments down below it.

“What if it becomes a crutch? I want my kids to know how to actually do math, not push buttons.”

This is a matter of curriculum, not the tools used. If a kid leaves knowing how to solve a math problem (or whatever challenge) using a calculator (or in this case, iPad) but turns to stone when the calculator is taken away, it’s because something in the teaching process was broken, not because the calculator was introduced.

That’s not to pretend that I’m some sort of math wiz regardless of my computer-heavy upbringing — quite the contrary, in fact, and that’s part of the reason I’m comfortable waxing on about this topic.

With a connected device in hand, I am a demigod. With a universe of knowledge at my fingertips, I am all-knowing. 37th President of the US? boop boop boop Nixon! Math problems? More like math LOL–BREMS. Bear attack? Don’t sweat it guys: If we’ve got signal, I’ve got this.

Take away my device, and I am a shadow of my former self. Dewey decimal system? I didn’t need that book anyway. Math proof? More like math POOF IM OUT. Drop me off in the middle of a forest, and I’m bear food by sun down.

I am the kid Matt worries about. But I’m okay with that — and I don’t blame my computer, or my calculator, or my iPhone. I don’t blame my teachers, either; it’s a weird, ever-evolving world we live in, and hindsight is 20/20. In the end, it’s no one’s fault but my own that I can’t recall how to do all of this stuff sans gadgetry.

With that said, I honestly believe it’s entirely possible — nay, crucial — to teach a kid to live both with and without technology. Teach and test them on how to do it the hard way (and more importantly, to understand the underlying concepts)… then drive it in with technology. If you instill a sense of pride in doing things with your very own brain, perhaps all that junk won’t fly out the window as soon as the diploma is signed. It’s all about balance.

“But they’ll be so distracting!”

Of course they will! Anything you put in front of a kid, if they have no interest in being there, is a distraction. Paper and pencil? Doodle time! Science book? Let’s scan the index and try to find pictures of boobs! Graphing calculator? Don’t even get me started.

Here’s the thing: true attention is binary — you’re either paying attention, or you aren’t. Being distracted by an iPad is no worse than being distracted by anything else. Again, it all comes down to the teacher and how they use the tools at hand. If you can get away with playing Infinity Blade II (Matt’s example) in class on a 9.7″ display, your teacher probably isn’t paying much attention either.

“But what possible value do they actually add?”

Instant feedback, tailored to a kid’s learning style. The physical metaphor in touch interaction. Enjoying learning, even when the kids don’t realize they’re learning. Portability. Share-ability. (And, to go slightly tangential for a second, security. It’s a lot harder for a kid to accidentally bork the iPad’s software then it is to demolish a computer running XP/IE.) To say a tablet adds nothing over books, or even over a more traditional computer, is incredibly short-sighted.

“But they cost so much! There’s no way District X can afford these”

Technology is expensive, period. Just as not every school district got computers at the same time, not every school district needs to get tablets right away. Those that can afford to experiment can — and should. When District X can afford them in a way they feel is beneficial to their curriculum, they should. Whether that means one tablet per student, a tablet lab, a roaming tablet cart, or a single shared presentation tablet isn’t set in stone. One school using a new tool and a new teaching method doesn’t antiquate all that came before it for everyone else— and regardless of Apple’s announcement today, school books aren’t going anywhere any time soon,

(Oh, and given Apple’s history with schools and little details like all of today’s new stuff being compatible with the original iPad: if you think Apple’s not going to find a way to push iPads into schools on the cheap, you’re crazy)

Tablets, like their bigger desktop computer brethren, aren’t going anywhere. Nor are touch interfaces. For a kid entering Kindergarten this year, tablets and other portable form factors will likely be as big a part of his life as any other computing device. If school is a place for learning, it’s our duty to surround kids with the technology that will empower their lives. We must teach them a deep comprehension of the world around them, but also how to traverse its challenges in the most efficient of ways. Teach technology as a means of efficiency, not a means to an end — find the balance.