Kids using iPads in schoolMac Observer’s John Martellaro has a great interview with tech expert Christopher Dawson on the status of iPads and tablets. In short: A giant mess. Dawson outlines a number of food-for-thoughts for those interested in technology integration for education. I will briefly recap them below, and add my own thoughts…

1. School Use Does Not Mean Student Use

Dawson cites Tim Cook’s remark that he is doing ‘very well’ selling discounted iPads to schools. That may be true—but the extent matters. Most schools are not buying one per kid. My own school, for instance, has almost 80 kids and we have nine iPads. Enough that the teacher can do a good lesson and pair the students off for some group work? Yes. But they certainly aren’t taking them home at night. There are several reasons for this. Our school’s parent association has earmarked technology as a priority issue, but iPads/tablets are just one piece of a bigger puzzle. We’ve outfitted four classrooms with SMARTboards ($5,000 per room); we’re badly in need of new computers for the aging computer lab; we have six Macbooks that teachers sign out for in-class; and so on. There is only so much we can do!

2. Bring-Your-Own Device Initiatives Carry Financial, Logistical and Equality Issues

So, what about the students who have iPads at home? That’s very nice for them. But we can’t assume that’s a universal reality. I teach at a private school and we have our share of very wealthy families. But we also have kids who come from regular families who sacrifice a lot to send their kids here. We’ve had kids whose grandparents fund all or part of the tuition. We’ve had kids who pay reduced tuition. We can’t make having your own device a compulsory without providing for the ones who can’t do it. And our IT/support system consists of me (I primarily run the iPad project), one other teacher (who is lord of the SMARTboards) and an on-call IT firm who comes in whenever the server stops working. We can barely maintain and support the tech we have already. We just can’t run tech support for every device a kid might have.

3. K-12 and University are Different Animals in More Ways Than Just Age

Dawson points out that university students are accustomed to buying their own books every year, but in K-12, the school is expected to provide them and they tend to stay the same every year. This makes e-books a financially threatening proposition for K-12 publishers: If there is no ‘wear and tear’ on a physical copy, schools will have little incentive to replace them. “Until a publisher or distributor comes up with some sort of site-licensing model forTwo kids using an iPad content, this is going to be a major barrier to adoption of tablets in K-12 schools,” Dawson notes. On this, I agree with him. I have one resource I use that costs $500 up front, because they expect that you’ll copy it for your students. So they attempt to recoup with a high cost of entry. (And they have since vastly expanded their teacher training offerings, perhaps in an effort to subsidize the loss of sales they are getting from the move to e-versions—the books are becoming the loss leader that they’re using to entice teachers into paying for ongoing courses.) I have another self-created book I use that features the names of teachers in our school. Not only can I endlessly replicate it at whim every year, but I can edit it too, and change the names of the teachers!

4. Curricula in K-12 is Prescribed and Standards-Based

This is a good thing because it means you have a ready market, but it’s a bad thing too because your content has to fit the standards. “If these curricula aren’t available electronically or don’t fit with student-centered computing models, then schools often can’t justify the expense of tablets.” So it becomes a chicken and egg scenario: The school won’t buy because there is not enough stuff available, and stuff won’t become available because there are not enough sales to justify the work.

5. The True Elephant in the Room

Teacher Training. Sad, but true. Most teachers did not grow up with this stuff, and were not trained in its use while going through their teacher training. In 20 years, that may not be the case. But there are a lot of teachers who have to retire out before we have schools being run by digital natives. In my own school, I would say that out of 15 or so staff, maybe four are truly comfortable with all the techie stuff to the extent that they could lead others. We are three weeks into the school year, and one of the classes just unwrapped their SMARTboard for the first time this year. In my school, nothing gets on the iPad unless I put it there. So, a teacher has to know to request it, then they have to wait until I have the time to track it down and put it on …

6. Textbooks are Anemic and Publishers are Thinking Too Small

As Dawson points out: “[Publishers’] current strategy, by and large, stinks: Take dead-tree textbooks, convert them to PDFs, add some links and videos/simulations, and call them e-textbooks. At the same time, although they are cutting prices, these books are generally licensed to an individual student, with no mechanism for sharing, transferring, or otherwise realizing the promise of lower-cost texts. Their current strategy appears to be to milk the existing system for all it’s worth before finally figuring out a new way of doing business when the right disruptor finally comes along.”

One point Dawson does not raise, which I wish he had, is that we need to be careful, too, of making technology the be-all and end-all. There is limited time in the day, and some of it needs to be spent on gym, music, art, lunch, free play and so on. We have to be careful that we use technology in the smartest way—just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use it for every activity. For instance, we’ve been talking to our students, as part of the health curriculum, on ‘smart screening.’ In the same way that it isn’t healthy to have an ice cream sundae for every meal—in the same way it’s important to eat from all the food groups—so too is it important to learn in a variety of ways, and spend your time on a variety of different activities.

We don’t want students going home and neglecting their books, their toys and their sports for video games. So we have to make sure we model smart screening at school—use it when it’s appropriate, but learn to rely on other tools, too.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. A great article. I’ll add another thought told me by a middle-school student just two days ago.

    Her school, she said, only gives them four minutes between classes. That’s not enough time to drop off some textbooks and pick up others. As a result, they have to carry every textbook to every class. It’s the sheer weight of paper textbooks that’s driving many to turn to ebooks. A few more minutes between classes would serve as well and cost nothing.

    I sometimes write at a public library that, in late afternoon, gets an influx of kids from a nearby Catholic school. They not only look like sherpas when they come in struggling with heavy packs on, a lot of the weight isn’t necessary.

    Many of their textbooks are huge, much bigger than anything I had at their age. I’m not sure if that’s because they have two years of material or just one, but it’d certainly make sense to set a maximum weight for textbooks for each age group, again reducing the rationale to go digital until things settle down. And maybe they should opt for multiple, lighter, and cheaper paperbacks at the expense of a shorter book life. With a bit of adult pressure, kids could learn to treat those books a bit more gently.

    And keep in mind that the real advantage of a new technology isn’t obvious at first. When factories first began to convert from steam to electric, they didn’t real one of the main advantages of the latter.

    * Steam power drew from a central machine through shafts and belts, so equipment that required a lot of power needed to be close to that engine. That meant multiple stories and a workflow that jumped all over.

    * Electrical power put the motors on the machines, so production could be arranged in a linear fashion. Also, there was no need for the cost and inefficiency of a multi-story building. Everything could be done at ground level. But it apparently took factory designers years to figure all that out.

    I suspect education via digital gadgets is in a similar situation. People still see an iPad as replacing books. They should be asking what it can do that books could never do. Some of that already exists in interactive apps (such as Star Walk) that can be used to teach astronomy.

    Another came to me a few days ago when I upgraded my iPad to iOS 6 and was playing with Sirl. Thinking I might use it to entertain the kids of my friends, I asked it questions like:

    “What is a cat?


    “Show me a cat.”

    It understood both questions and gave me word definitions and Google listings. How adult! What I wanted was a picture of a cat. Kids, I figured, would love a gadget that’d answer the sorts of questions they ask. No such luck with Sirl. It obviously needs a ‘Kid mode.’

    Schools, particularly in the younger grades, could benefit from something similar–software that can answer the sorts of questions that kids with no research skills are likely to have. At school, a teacher could answer their questions, but this would be for at home.

    Finally, a personal note. Apple’s iBooks Author seems to have been designed to fit the (archaic) workflow of the big textbooks publishers: Word documents with each chapter a file. It also has a rigid format for how an ebook should look that doesn’t work well with many subjects. Digital textbooks aren’t going to take off until the tools to produce them are better.

  2. Technology in the classroom is just another tool for teachers to use, not the solution to all of “our” education woes.

    But solutions are “sexy”, unlike tools, and something politicians/administrators can point at and say “See! We’re forward thinking! This will make things better!”

    And this isn’t the first time that some new technology has been oversold as a solution without thought as to the true question. Some of us are old enough to remember earlier attempts to forge tools (computers, etc.) into THE solution to a multiple of educational ills.

    Tablets won’t become really useful in an educational setting (other than as a replacement for a computer for a teacher/administrator) until they “disappear into the woodwork” and become just another tool like a pencil.

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