Tablet computers, iPads in schools: Some answers, more questions

Out of the woods and soon, back to school with an iPad.

Out of the woods and soon, back to school with an iPad.

My son, PD, picked up his new iPad from his school yesterday. They are being distributed to all students going into the 9th grade at our suburban public school.

A few months ago I posted here about my skepticism, and a fairly long list of questions for the district. Since then, I had a meeting with the technology director and an assistant superintendent. I got most questions answered.

After that conversation, and further research, I have come to believe that tablets do have the potential to introduce some exciting learning opportunities to the classroom, although it requires a motivated teacher.

Some potentials:
Supporting students of different levels and learning styles to achieve via differentiated instruction in the classroom.
Providing an opportunity to bring back classes that had attracted only a few students and had been eliminated due to budget cuts – such as high-level language classes.
Opportunities for students and teachers to learn and practice how to investigate, learn, and work collaboratively.

There is a lot to talk about, and I suspect I will be writing a lot more on this subject, so today I will try to stick to an overview of financial costs and benefits.

What research are you relying on that indicates the educational value of tablet computers for 9th grade?

The district relied on the reports and self-evaluations of other similar school districts in the state.  The district provided me with two reports – one written by an “Apple Distinguished Teacher” and the other is labeled an “Apple Distinguished Program application.” So my impression is that these were not much more than Apple marketing pieces – evaluations written by teachers and schools that are already biased toward the success of their own iPad programs and toward Apple. Disappointing.

Both reports talked a lot about “student engagement.” In other words, the kids are participating. But this new engagement could easily be attributed to the novelty of having the devices in the classroom. One of the reports made a claim about the tablets helping to teach critical thinking or problem solving skills, but offered no specifics.

I was hoping the school system would have access to research that I didn’t have. In fact, there is precious little independent peer-reviewed rigorous academic research on the value of tablets in education. I’m still searching for it.

What is the total cost? Is it worth it?
The program – half a million in hardware, software and training – is initially paid for by the local education foundation. After that, upkeep will be paid out of the current school technology budget of $40,000. My concern is that the school’s entire technology budget will be redirected to the iPad program, on the basis of one pilot program of 80 honors students and a highly motivated teacher, along with apparently biased evaluations from other schools. If we find down the road that laptops would have been a better choice, it will be very difficult and costly to make the switch.

Meanwhile, a study by the Center for American Progress found no evidence that any state was collecting data on technology return-on-investment. So right now we have no way to know if it will be worth it.

New questions
The iPads were introduced to parents and students yesterday with unrestrained rhetoric: “You are about to embark on a brand new educational experience you’ve never seen before…The old [high school] has been torn down…” etc.

Yes, this is an educational tool that could be transformational in a conscientiously and rigorously implemented program. The Center for American Progress also found that, so far, most schools are not using these devices to their potential:

Far too often, school leaders fail to consider how technology might dramatically improve teaching and learning, and schools frequently acquire digital devices without discrete learning goals and ultimately use these devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers… In short, there is little indication that technology has revolutionized our nation’s school system.

If our school is to avoid that fate, we must have clear goals and objectives for the program, and methods of evaluation. So I’m adding these questions to my list:
What is the goal of this program? What are the objectives? And how is the program going to be evaluated? How will we know if it is successful?

Hope to get back to you soon.


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