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Pointed Response to NYT Article on iPads in Schools

Pointed Response to NYT Article on iPads in Schools

This week 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 2003 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 50K or even 400K 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.   It's what young animals of all kinds do.   So from that point of view, the iPad distribution is just fine.   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.   By that I mean, 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.   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 (PeterJennings scowled, "Shakespear 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 transformin g 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.   Instead, we challenged students to tell us--to show us-- how these devices could be transformed.   I tell all the details of what turned out to be a very exciting, even transformative experiment in  Now You See It  but, for now, let's just say:  voice archives, heart arrhythmias, citizen environmental research,  placing one's cello into a famous orchestra, video, and, well, podcasting.  It wasn't invented when we embarked on the experiment.  You turned on the iPod, you listened.  Done.  Communication was one way.  Duke held the world's first academic "podcasting" conference (I found the poster recently and love those quotation marks:  no one knew what to call "podcasting" at the time) all came from that experiment in student-driven pedagogy.  


Here's one part of the experiment:  If you were a second, third, or fourth year student (business schools take note!), you were really mad that the first-years got iPods and you didn't.   So we told those students if they could teach a prof to use the iPod in the classroom with a learning application, that class (and the prof) would get iPods too.    Talk about incentive!   (yeah, yeah . . . if you want to find out what happened, you have to read the book)


The ISIS program at Duke (Information Science + Information Studies) was the first program, to our knowledge, to make interactive learning pedagogies, crowdsourcing, peer learning, learning-by-doing a rigorous part of research and learning in higher education and the iPod experiment was planted atop that earlier (we began designing ISIS in 1998!!) pedagogical and research experiment. (HASTAC was the international version; it came along in 2002).   We had faculty and students already primed to think about the Information Age as a moment of new forms of interactive learning.   We became an Apple Digital Campus along with five other universities, each of whom was offered one technology to implement in the classroom.  We chose the iPod precisely because it fit our new model of learning:  that young people were learning more and more about customizing, interaction, self-designing, peer learning; they loved the iPod for music; why not reverse the usual pedagogical hierarchy and let them teach us how and why the iPod might have educational uses.   Last time I looked, there were over 300,000 downloadable free items (including, yes, Shakespeare and calculus) on iTunes U.  And from the iPod experiment, Apple got a lot of free  r and d (no one ever accused Steve Jobs of being a fool) even as some Duke students got a music listening device but many a gateway to a new way of learning the world.


So back to those iPads in K-12 schools.  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 twentieth-century concepts of efficient testing that was explicitly designed to make learning imitate the production of Model T's 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 to the world they are inheriting.


In another blog, 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 #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.



This is a fabulous and inspiring take on the "device as silver bullet" paradigm.  I couldn't agree more that the ipad is just a starting point from which pedagogical innovation stems.  Putting devices in the hands of students can inspire, but it can also create complacency or simply produce a reproduction of the same old lesson plans with a slightly polished veneer.  It is an easy thing to adopt the "if we build it, they will come' model of technology enhanced pedagogy, where we expect magic from hardware without considering interface, content, and even the nunace of the physical situation.  There is a role here for design.  Along with students, teachers, administrators and researchers need to design applications and their uses into the existing classroom.  We need to consider the affordances of the tool - its light weight, friendly UI, collaborative potential - and experiment.  We need to find a place to highlight best practices.  And we need to push hard against the rhetoric of the device; opting instead to steer the conversation towards designed pedagogical practices that are device agnostic. I'm excited as the next guy about the potential of iPads.  In fact, I just acquired 20 of them to use in one of my projects (and in my classroom). But I am treating them as brushes with which I can paint onto the canvas of the classroom.  I am under no delusion that they represent a prefab portrait.

Thanks for getting the conversation started.




I couldn't agree more with your comment "...if you change the technology but not the method of learning, then you are throwing bad money after bad practice...".

I am a secondary (high-school) teacher here in Ireland and I am really pushing the proposition that technology should cause a debate in the staffroom (faculty?) about teaching and learning.

We are very tied down by an examination system that allows for little opportunity for things digital if a teacher chooses that approach - BUT if a teacher chooses to enhance their teaching and learning, by for example,using an online discussion forum in English Literature or a controversial topic in History, what will he or she do for their students interest in that topic, if the work is pedagogically sound and well structured? They will lift and transform it - now that will get the debate going amongst teachers...

Then its not the iPod/Pad/NetBook?iPhone/Slate/tablet but about learning. Yes - they are brushes and very nice ones at that - but students need to be "made" to work harder, smarter, collaboratively, dialogically etc. This "making" will be done by the smart teacher who listened to his/her students and is always on the lookout for pedagogical possibilities..


Great points about bringing the iPads into schools. I just wrote a piece on Huffington Post about the same issue. Basically, saying that youth need a deeper understanding of the devices they interact with and asking whether the iPads are replacing textbooks or computers.


"if you change the technology but not the method of learning, then you are throwing bad money after bad practice." 

Yes and. It's much more complex than our technology discourses are capable of accommodating. If we took half of the resources we expend on them and applied the resources to solving poverty, things would be different.

Even if there were agreement on the best ways and means to teach and learn, and large scale adoption of them, and even if those were evidenced based ways and means (many are not), the affects of poverty on children, schools, communities and our educational system would continue to undermine them. Contemporary reform efforts, heavily influenced by technology advocates, are fueled by neoliberal ideologies and as such have an interest in ignoring these data, and elevating the import of market-driven values.  

As a educational technology enthusiast with a strong sense of social justice, I'd like to see more of us digi-folks challenge the statue quo rather than float around in our bubbles. As a group, we lack historical and political perspective, and get caught up in our own hype. 

I welcome debate :)

Some food for thought


One question is:  how efficacious is it to put iPads into the classroom?   My answer to that is:  very, if all the institutional, pedagogical, and social supports are there to make the iPad as inventive as our digital age demands.   Whether the kids getting the iPads are rich or poor, without changing the institutional objectives and methods, you are giving them a wonderful, mind-expanding toy--but you are asking them to teach themselves and you are wasting an important opportunity.


Another question is:  if you have limited funds for improving the educational future of all Americans, should you spend it putting iPads into schools?  That is an entirely different question.   We know, for example, that the correlation on tests is almost direct, 1 to 1, between wealth of a community and test scores earned by members of that community.   New data crunching methods work even block by block now, with comparisons of test results and income, and it is quite shocking how clear the correlation is.  Do you improve the schools?  Or do you first make sure to alleviate the conditions of poverty, to provide supports that poor parents cannot give their kids, and then focus on schools?  These are all complex policy issues that deserve the attention of every educator.


The second answer, however, doesn't answer the first question.   There, poverty is not the determinative factor of how much kids learn from iPads.  I learned this year of an immigrant school in a impoverished urban school district where the savvy principle turned back state money for ten smart boards, requesting only one.  He introduced all the kids to the smart boards, class by class, and then sent them off with teachers and parents (teachers' aides) to their own classrooms to, with post notes and tape and ribbons, make their own "smarter boards."  That is a smarter principal.  He understood that technology is worthwhile only when it changes how we think.   He was teaching his kids to think like new technology--interactive, collaborative.   And even smarter, he paid those teachers' aides, all parents, with the funds from not buying those nine other smart boards.  Win.  Win.  Epic win.


oh - i love that story Cathy - making their own smarter boards.. using moneys in better ways. do you have that referenced somewhere else?




I have not been given permission to identify the school.  I have not heard why.  However, I have spent enough time working in public schools to know that innovation is not always rewarded.   


no worries. still a very powerful story. thank you for sharing.

huge thanks to all you have done and continue to do Cathy, to change that last statement. i love how you are so eloquently and gracefully teaching us all how to innovate.


Hi Cathy,

I agree with you completely! I think you might like my post about The $2 Interactive Whiteboard which won the 2010 Edublog Award for Most Influential Blog Post.

"The word 'interactive' for the $2 IWB means interaction among students. Students are working together to collectively construct knowledge, explain their reasoning processes, and get feedback from the teacher and each other. Students are interacting with each other in small groups when preparing the whiteboards. Then they interact with the whole class when they present and field questions from the class and the teacher. At all times, the teacher can see and hear student thinking and challenge them with questions. This process is called 'whiteboarding.'"

I don't see how an iPad or SmartBoard can replace those kinds of essential learning processes.

-Frank Noschese


I love your piece and am so happy to be connected.   Thanks for all you do!


Just for the record, one can buy something like 200 whiteboards for the cost of one iPad. Oh, and they have better "screen resolution". Just another point to keep in mind.


Handing out iPads accomplishes two very important goals: it makes the school district look like it is Doing Something Innovative, and the school district gets to bask in the radiant coolness emitted by all Apple products. Other than that, I think Cathy's absolutely right. I have no idea what possible educational goal they could achieve by handing out iPads.

The fundamental problem with our schools is not that they are too low-tech; it's that they are too old-fashioned. They drastically overemphasize rote learning, and yet they seem increasingly unable to impart even basic knowledge using such techniques. The goal needs to be building students' creativity and independent thinking. You don't need iPads to do that. So here's an idea: before schools start experimenting with very expensive gadgets like the iPad, they should start experimenting with much lower tech educational resources. Legos and blocks aren't that expensive. Paint and markers and glue and construction paper aren't that expensive. Handheld whiteboards aren't that expensive. Scientific calculators aren't that expensive. Dice and playing cards aren't that expensive--and what better way to teach probability!  Heck, you could even put that money towards teacher training programs. The point is that there are literally thousands of ways that money could be better spent.

But then again, no school district is going to get written up in the New York Times for buying its kids Legos. And they won't get to appear youthful, hip, and countercultural by buying Apple products. Ahem.


The issue: "if you change the technology but not the method of learning,then you are throwing bad money after bad practice" can be seen from a different perspective.  This perspective is the relationship between learning new technology and rapidly changing technologies.  As Robert Pirsig noted in his one famous work, Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance, "we never really catch technology, instead we spend our lives chasing it."  In my many years in education, by the time the technology was purchased, defined in terms of utility, and offered in terms of faculty training, the technology was outdated!


Brilliantly succinct and to the point.  I'm tweeting you now:  "The fundamental problem with our schools is not that they are too low-tech; it's that they are too old-fashioned."   Exactly!


Such an interesting article. I believe that children have the knack for technology since they are all growing up with it now. Technology has changed the world we live in as well as the way we do business. Education needs to change also.


how kids teach themselves things.

we're seeing this all the time in the lab.

Peter - the one playing the ipod, taught himself sign language this way. Cristian, the helper, has made some pretty incredible connections, mostly through comments on youtube videos and facebook and twitter, to pursue his passion in soccer, including some Portugese.



Wonderful article and comments.  I'm just seeing it today!  In the med center we've leaped on board to use and evaluate iPads -- one doctor group is in the ICU setting with iPads for patient data displays and another group on patient wards with pre-configured iPads for medical relevance (even added oversized pockets inside white lab coats) to make access to medical resources at the point of care ever so much easier, not to mention sharing papers.  That's my group -- we're analyzing our results now.  In a previous study with video iPods we showed the value of archived lectures for leveraging time and learning style in a residency program so limited in duty hours (national rules).  These do change how we think about education, for sure.