iPads Are the New Pencil

kidsipadsAdapting new tools for the classroom is not something that’s ever going to go away. History has shown time and again that, despite resistance, technological progress defines the way almost everything is done – eventually. There was a fight when calculators were first introduced as well, and while it would be a mistake to see the tablet – or iPad, in this case – as presenting the possibility of only such a narrow change, it is facing the same fundamental resistance. Most things have their potential for both the positive and negative, as does the tablet, so the question everyone should be asking here is not whether we should use these devices, but how we should use them. This is not some future event, it’s happening now and has already been going on for a handful of years now. Yes, concern is needed… after all, some kids sniff glue despite the practical applications. Before we can take a fair swing at anything’s permanent status, we have to account for all scenarios.

A comprehensive study in Quebec approached a test group of over 6,000 children of various ages, with a cataclysmic result – 99% of them reported back that they found the iPad distracting and that a third of all the students opted for playing games on them rather than working or studying. A key thing to note here is that they were either able to install games on the machines, or had games on them to begin with. But let’s let that slide for now. Despite the above numbers, the researchers behind the study still recommended the school implement the devices, only in a more controlled way. Part of the study had revealed a major issue: 70% of teachers that had either never used an iPad, or had only done so rarely. When the instructors aren’t prepared regarding a technology that most children are already well versed in, chaos is the least of your worries. Benefits reported by students and teachers alike included better access to information, portability and collaboration.

In Maine a 2012 study resulted in increased literacy test scores and interest in school amongst a group of 266 kindergartners. Part of a year-long study into eReaders specifically, results in Notre Dame management courses were reported as stellar, stating that the college-aged students had little issue using their iPads to consolidate and aggregate information effectively. On another spectrum altogether, research in the January 2014 issue of Computers-and-Education concluded that certain applications, such as using an iPad to help students grasp difficult science concepts such as time, distance and the like were invaluable and that results could be seen in students as quickly as 20 minutes into using the technology. One example laid out was that of a timeline – if you start getting into millions of years, how exactly can the whiteboard compare to an application that can be zoomed in and out?

Any quick look online will be met with study after study on the topic, and likely about a 4 to 1 ratio in favor of pure speculation versus comprehensive research. The fact is, this is relatively new in several ways and it will take some time for the lasting impacts to be recorded, let alone the methodology to be ironed out. Even with the information currently available, it’d be difficult to justify an absolute position. It’s certainly no magic bullet, but there is no such thing anyway. Every system likely leaves some number of students behind in any number of ways. Clearly there are drawbacks that have no current solutions, but it seems reasonable that the discussion would do well to be guided towards coming up with them, rather than winding up as heads being buried in two different kinds of sand.

May We Suggest a Path Forward?
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing to recognize is that it’s the district’s job to figure these things out, and so far it seems like they’re making the right calls – both with responsible budgeting and also the spirit of collaboration. There are concerned parents with views everywhere on the spectrum, including Corvallisite Sara Gumm, whose children have had a good experience so far with the technology.

With parents voicing said concerns and the district quickly slowing down their plans to listen, continued interaction would do well in the form of a workgroup. Parents and district staff together could anticipate the potentials and challenges in this matter, coming to quicker, more comprehensive solutions. This isn’t a new concept. Having initial recommendations as early as April would permit the district some time to prepare for the next school year, and changes could be made as needs arise.

Despite hurdles, it can be confirmed that a majority of studies show improvements in one or more areas, typically starting with the older students. For this reason we hope the district will not wait to develop tablet programs at the middle and high schools levels when they’re ready. However, a slower rollout for K-5 students seems reasonable as parents and the district chart a course for them.

For all age groups, interactive software platforms are emerging that will move the tablet beyond the glorified notebook state and into a place where it can fill in on some of the things that traditional classrooms are intrinsically bad at, including creating different experiences for different courses. Continuing to evolve with the technology is paramount, and again, a parent / district workgroup would be a wise choice for making this process efficient and effective.

Now, sensational rumors aside, the district isn’t proposing to replace real hands-on experiences with tablets and nobody seems to be accusing them of trying to; tablets are only one of a number of tools, nobody seems to be claiming it is any sort of panacea. That said, there will almost certainly be problems with these devices being abused, although a zero tolerance approach to violations would likely prove as unproductive as taking away a pencil.

One thing that’s for certain is that families without the resources for Wi-Fi need to have a concrete plan in place. Moving to that from the current speculative dialogue is a definitive first step.

by Johnny Beaver and Rob Goffins