Sunday, May 20, 2012

Some critical questions about iPads and 1-1 learning

Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for roughly three months now, but was inspired by this weekend’s Maker Faire here in the San Francisco Bay Area to hit the publish button. As I walked about Maker Faire I became re-energized by the amazing things people are creating with computer technology. Most, if not all, of the computing related objects that these extraordinary inventors, artists, creators, and DIYers shared were not created with iPads or mobile technologies of any form. They used Linux, Windows, and OS X. 


Ever since leading a 16 person iPad study group during the 2011-2012 school year at my previous site, I’ve grown more skeptical of iPad 1-1 learning models (eg, giving every student in a school/district an iPad). Over the past 18 months I’ve visited ‘iPad’ schools, attended a range of iPads in schools workshops, and participated in online conversations of all forms regarding this platform. Conversations tend to center around apps, how the devices are going to be insured, the ‘best’ apps for for _________ purpose, etc. Most of what I’ve seen and heard described are learning experiences that could easily be done with less expensive technologies, including a piece of paper and a pencil. The focus of these conversations leaves me feeling a bit empty and filled with questions about whether or not this approach is doing right by the kids we serve.

Here are some questions I have for anyone in the edtech community that has taken their school down the path of 1-1 learning with iPads:

Does giving every student an iPad mitigate or exacerbate issues of equity in our school communities?
Many school communities, by virtue of assigning every student a school owned laptop, would submit that this model addresses issues of equity. I’m not convinced. For some students attending an ‘iPad 1-1 school,’ the iPad will be their only computer. If the iPad is a student’s sole computer, what sort of opportunities are they missing out on? A huge learning opportunity they are missing out on is coding and controlling peripherals of all forms. These students will be unable to write and create executable code or run multimedia programming applications like Alice, Scratch, and Visual Python. Alternately, kids who have a primary laptop/desktop computer at home will be able to engage in these powerful learning activities. Is this promoting the kind of equity we aim to address with 1-1 learning?

iPads are often times promoted as being really ‘easy’ to use. Is this true? And is ‘easy’ what we really want?
I find myself constantly setting my iPad aside in favor of my laptop to do a wide range of simple tasks that I find cumbersome on the iPad. Even a simple task like multi-tabbed browsing on my iPad1 is clumsy at best. How about collaborating in small teams and loading raw source video, audio, and even photos that are not created on the iPad itself? I’ve found this process to be much more difficult than it needs to be. Finally, is ‘easy’ what we are really after? Some of the most complex and sophisticated tasks that we can do with computers are really hard. Working with scientific probeware peripherals, programming physical microprocessors (eg arduino and gogo boards), building robots (lego nxt), controlling 3D printers, crunching complex heaps of data, etc. are all complex tasks for the classroom. Many of these incredibly rich and rewarding learning experiences aren’t accessible on the iPad. Do we shy away from difficult experiences like these because they aren’t ‘easy’? I hope not.

What are the learning dispositions we aim to foster in our students and school community and is going all-in with iPads going to help us build these dispositions?
I want to help empower our learning community to design, hack, build, collaborate, remix, share and explore in all sorts of ways. In essence, I strive to contribute toward building a learning community that is open-source, accessible and inspired by principles of DIY. Is the iPad the best platform for cultivating such an ideal?

Are iPads the best use of our precious school funds?
Because owning an iPad is like owning a highly mobile vending machine, it is difficult to quantify the total cost of ownership. Many schools that are heading in this direction are purchasing the 64 gig models ($699) along with keyboards, apps, insurance, and other accessories. This amounts to a significant financial investment. It is even more significant when you consider that many schools are looking at upgrading every 2-3 years. A laptop will last four years. What are the opportunities costs of such an investment?

How are iPads helping your students participate in the long tail of invention, creation and manufacturing (the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ as some have called it)?
Shopbots, laser cutters, 3D printers, etc are bringing tools that were once only available to a few corporations to the creative class. iPads don’t interface with these devices. Have you given this some thought?

And a question for the adults in your community who were involved in making this decision: Are you making the iPad your primary computer? If so, kudos for eating the same dog food that you are serving up. If not, why not? Why is the iPad good enough to be used by youth as their primary computer but not good enough to be used for your primary computer? If the device that is revolutionizing the world before our very eyes isn’t good enough to be used as your primary/sole computer, why is it good enough for kids who want to hack, remix, code, print to 3D, and create amazing representations of their learning?

Did you ask the students about their preferences?
I have and as one might expect, students are all over the map in terms of their preferences for mobile computers. While a good number of students certainly are Apple fans, many are already comfortable using other computing platforms in creative ways. Ask the students and you might be surprised with the thoughts they share with you.

I hope this doesn’t come off like I’m anti-iPad or a technology curmudgeon. I’m not. I love my iPad for niche uses and feel like it could be a useful devices for *some* students. I also realize things change quickly in technology and we all may be using touch interface tablets at some point in the future. But we aren’t there yet. I’m legitimately interested in any answers to these questions. I’m also interested in other critical questions that we should be asking about going 1-1 with the iPad platform.