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On iPads and EduTech in General

Having just spent some time sampling Jeff Utecht’s thoughts on computing/information tech devices in schools (beginning here and meandering on to here), I find my own thoughts on the subject trying to land in a specific part of my brain so I can get them down in blog form.  This process is aided/complicated by the fact that in the professional seminar I’m attending this Fall, we all just got issued iPad Minis.  I say issued in italics because it just seems to warrant that extra dramatic touch.

Let me nail down a few facts (yes, the underline was necessary) about the iPad.

1.  It has no keyboard.  Oh, you can type with it – but the technique required would make my dear sweet computer skills teacher from 3rd grade (back in the early 90s) faint with horror.  I’m not sure elementary-aged kids would even recognize the term “hunt and peck” these days.  Maybe it’s a phrase that’s disappearing.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing – in fact, I’m not evaluating this state of affairs at all, at least in an objective sense; I’ll not hesitate to say that I personally loathe trying to type on a touch-screen.  My point is that if you’re expecting kids to learn to type on an iPad, you’re dreaming.  One final point, though: there are quite a few dictation apps available that I’m only starting to play with.  I almost wrote this very post with Dragon Dictation in my car as I drove home from class today, but I ran into the following problem:

2.  Without wireless internet around, the iPad has approximately as much utility as a hand axe.  Am I using hyperbole to make a point?  Yes.  Is there truth behind what I say?  Also yes.  While there are many apps which work perfectly fine without any need for the internet, some of the most useful ones are hopelessly crippled when there’s not a wifi source nearby (including Dragon, which I mentioned above).  I find this ironic, since this confounded widget (he said, sounding not at all like an elderly backwoods curmudgeon) is supposedly meant to be an ultra-portable computer.  Put “portable” in quotes and you’re closer to the truth – to get the most out of this device, I have to be within ten feet of the service counter at a Starbucks.  Again: you can still use the iPad without wifi – and I have a feeling I will, which luckily means I can still take advantage of the video and audio recording tools which I’ll need for my work in the coming months.  But it’s clear the thing isn’t really designed for that paradigm.

Others have said it better than I: the iPad is, at its heart, a tool for consumption.  Not the 19th-century disease – the act of absorbing information and entertainment.  While such an act is a necessary part of education, we as educators – when we find ourselves lucky (yes, lucky) enough to be placed in a school which has one of these fabled 1:1 EduTech programs – have to make sure we’re pushing the tech beyond its basic capabilities as marketed.

The iPad certainly has grand potential for this – especially when a school has a well-maintained, well-broadcast wifi network in place.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how these things impact the way my classes look and feel and work over the course of this quarter.  But let me throw just one more fact:

3.  “iPad” is a brand.  Just like “Dumpster“, it’s a brand which very nearly became synonymous with an entire category of computing devices.  Why do I know this?  Because my tablet of choice is a Nexus 7, a device which apparently NOBODY has ever heard of, because whenever I’m seen using it I’m always asked EITHER “How much did your iPad cost?” OR “How much did your Kindle cost?”, leading me to believe that Kindle is now warring for supremacy in the brand-as-a-technical-title competition to completely wipe the term “tablet” from the English language.  My point?  The choice of so very many schools to buy iPads, specifically, is a great glaring instance of vested interest.  Most of those schools have very cuddly relationships with Apple.  Is this a bad thing?  Not if it helps students.  I’m not impugning the iPad’s capabilities (as a tablet).  I’m just saying it’s not the only one out there.  So don’t let it dazzle you – chances are there’s something out there which looks almost exactly like it which can do most or all of the same things (or more) for a more competitive price.  (Yeah, I said it.)

What I’m getting at is that the iPad is a tool, in the same conceptual category as the hand axe I mentioned above (i.e., it is an artificial object created to extend human capability).  Unlike the hand axe, the iPad can easily open up a grand horizon of learning opportunities for students, after relatively little training in its use.  As Mr. Utecht has mentioned, it is miles beyond a “textbook replacement”.  Actually, that wording’s inadequate: what I’m trying to say is that the iPad has the potential to completely destroy the entire textbook industry by making textbooks completely irrelevant.  I’m going to mention vested interest again as a segway into the following statement: in a public education system (or “complex”) such as that which currently exists/is currently pursued by American policymakers, the decisions being made as far as what’s good for children, what will best prepare them for their future, and what we should procure or design to facilitate all the above ends, are so bogged down by vested interest (the relationship between politicians, test-makers, and textbook writers, for instance) and sluggish adaptation to the times as to be laughable.  America will start to see that more and more clearly as more of these 1:1 programs become prominent.

IF – and only IF, or “IFF” – those programs are managed in a clear-headed and open-minded manner – as opposed to this.

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