We have seen this before. Every new technology has been held up as “the thing” that will save ailing schools and jointly castigated as the downfall of them or at least as an ineffective answer to the ills of American schools. Currently, tablets are the new laptops of our schools. In the article “iPads In Our Classroom” it was reported that half of the USA’s schools are using some sort of tablet or e-reader. As a selling point for their schools, many progressive, private, and charter schools are advertising that they are schools with tablets. Are they good, bad, or an uncertain thing in our schools?
The aforementioned article examines the issue from both sides. Tablets can incredibly transform the classroom. They have the ability to make the classroom a more stimulating and integrative learning experience. The article discusses a school whose fifth grade class took the novel Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis and made movies to demonstrate what they learned about civil rights during the Depression Era. The article’s author found a fully engaged class, working avidly on this project, passionately learning every step of the way. Tablets can make a differentiated learning experience for each student. An example is given of a kindergarten class who all had different reading material, games, and lesson plans loaded onto their tablets, based on where each child was at academically. For the first time ever, the veteran teacher of 22 years experienced every student moving onto first grade, reading above the first grade level! Yet another example is given of a teacher who used technology to help his high school math students with homework woes. He was finding that too much class time was being spent going over the previous night’s homework. Students complained about getting stuck on various aspects of the problem and being unable to correctly complete assignments. The teacher came up with a way to alleviate the situation. He thought of the typical problems that arose for his students when solving equations. He made You Tube videos of solutions and thinking points for such scenarios that tripped his students up. He found that students were able to go to these videos on their tablets and receive the assistance they needed to get through their homework. The article cited two studies, one out of the United Kingdom and the other done by “National Geographic”, that found a range of benefits from the use of tablets, including: increased motivation; increased collaboration between students and teachers, increased collaboration between students themselves; and improved understanding by high school students of space and time.
Yet there is the downside to their use. When offered to as a panacea without instruction or a plan, they have failed miserably. The article discusses how the Los Angeles United School District started a one billion dollar program aimed at getting iPads in the hands of 600,000 students. It was a huge undertaking, with limited success. There were problems with internet access; inadequate training for teachers; ethics questions regarding pandering to corporations in exchange for tablets; and other ethical and financial concerns about spending money on tablet, as as opposed to repairing schools and on other looming needs. When tablet programs are implemented in the early grades, there is also a question of sustained funding in the years to come. Another common criticism has been that this is another way of increasing screen time in children’s lives who already have too much screen time. Teachers who have had success using tablets have said this is not passively spent time and that this is just one tool of many of a well-rounded teacher.
With these factors in mind, a pragmatic approach seems to be the answer. A careful roll out of such a program has great potential, as indicated by the examples and studies given. Done too fast and carelessly, tablets are as ineffective as any other empty solution. The experience of the Los Angeles School District is representative of this fact. I am curious to hear about the use of tablets in your district. Has it been successful, a failure, or absent as an option?