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2 Posts authored by: Charles Gervasi

The logistical issues associated with the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) introduction of iPads must not discourage us from making tablet computers part of education.  The inevitable mistakes are small compared to the potential benefits. 


Some of the criticism of the introduction of tablets in Los Angeles focuses on students using them for unapproved activities.  The curriculum of approved activities is much more important than what students do when they're goofing off. 


These problems with execution are not evidence that tablet computers should not be part of education.


The Benefitsplaylist-teacher_414_276.png

News Corp spinoff Amplify is working on a custom-built Android tablet with software designed to track student progress and customize the activities of each student.  For example, if a student gets a vocabulary word wrong on a test, it could direct more readings containing that word to the student in the future.  There are features for running a quick class poll and randomly calling on students.  The teacher can press a button that locks the tablets and has them generate an “eyes on teacher” symbol.  In the future the tablets could have inputs that track student eye movements and pupil dilation to gauge cognitive response to specific features on the screen. 


Here is a video from Amplify promoting these features.


I do not trust that their product works as well as advertised, but I am confident that what they are advertising is just the beginning of possible ways to use tablet computers in the classroom.


Amplify's CEO, Joel Klein, says education is ripe for disruption.  In this case his buzzword language represents the truth.  US is falling behind other countries in education.  Schools need to prepare students for jobs in the modern economy, which often involve temporary workcells being formed to work together to solve a problem. 


According to Arne Duncan, US secretary of education, the US currently spends $7 billion to $8 billion on textbooks.  The value is in the content.  We are needlessly spending money on textbook printing and distribution.  The savings of distributing this content on tablets could offset much of the cost of the tablets.  Duncan calls the six-year hard textbook-adoption cycle “a Neanderthal system”.  He says we must equip our students to compete with their counterparts in other countries, but he warns there are “a lot of hucksters” wanting to exploit the fear of falling behind.


15klein6-sfSpan-v2.jpgThe Pitfalls and Downsides

There will be pressure to offset the cost of the hardware and software by selling student data to companies.  Data on individual students' interests, strengths, and weakness could be very valuable.  At first schools will find the notion of selling student data unacceptable, but it will be hard to resist a vendor with a lower price but a laxer privacy policy. 


There is concern that tablets may over-stimulate kids' brains, making it hard for them to concentrate.  I share this concern when I read about Amplify's software containing games to make learning fun.  Learning is work, and it may not be possible to make it feel like a video game.  In one Amplify’s promotional video a student says “You definitely need a factor of some fun to learn.”  You really don’t, though, at least not the type of fun associated with a video game.  This is an issue of pedagogical approach, though, not of the technology itself.


There is concern that constant availability of stimulation prevents the brain from going into the creative daydreaming state called “default mode network”, which is the mode our brains used to go to when we were waiting in a line and didn't have Kindle and the Internet on our phones. 


Screen time for kids is huge problem even without tablets in schools.  It's easy and inexpensive to get on-demand programming geared even to infants.  Screen time has the amazing ability to occupy infants and toddlers, who previously would have required close supervision.  This has only become available recently.  It remains to be seen if it causes problems in these children when they grow up.  We certainly would not want to do anything to increase screen time for small children.  Mr. Klein says he would be cautious about introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom and he wouldn't put fourth graders in a massive open online course (MOOC). 



The many legitimate issues with tablet computers in school are the same issues our entire society faces with technology.  Using less technology in school will not keep the problems away.  It seems like the LAUSD leaped before it looked with its iPad purchase.  I admire them, however, for attempting to be an early adopter. 


Schools in the Netherlands have introduced iPad tablets with good results.  They get the problems too, but they're surprisingly stoic, at least based on the one article I read, in their management of the problems. 


Kids using the equipment for all the things kids do in their spare time actually does not matter at all.  What matters is how teachers and students apply them to school-related work.  


Futher Reading

News Corp Has a Tablet for Schools (Mar 6, 2013) - Amplify announces it will promote its own Android tablet

Tablets in Dutch Schools Usher in a New Era (Jun 9, 2013)

No Child Left Untableted (Sept 12, 2013) - Detailed article about tablets in schools and experts’ opinions on them

ipads-education.jpgMost people have at least seen headlines about the problems Los Angeles schools have been having with student iPad tablet computes.  The schools purchased these computers for the students to run applications and visit websites approved by the school.  In the very first day the students “hacked” them so they could talk to one another, share music, and go to unapproved websites.  The school district police chief suggested in a confidential memo that district delay issuing more tablets.  Some of the schools are taking the tablets back and the district is considering a slower rollout.


My first thought is what the students did is exactly what the 21st century economy needs people to do:

  • Be fluent with computers.
  • Talk to peers and build a tribe.
  • Use the technology and network to do new things that sound wrong by conventional standards and somewhat frightening to existing power structures. 


The biggest problem, I thought, was the security was too easy to hack.  They should make it harder, so that only 10% of the students could do it.  They could add the new security and tell students they’re now safe from talking to one another and from unapproved websites that give the political, religious, or extremists viewpoints.  They would only be able to do things that support the national Common Core Standards Initiative.  (Common Core is one of the main selling points used to market tablets to schools and is one reason for Los Angeles schools’ tablet computer purchase.)  Not in a day, but this time in a week, the smartest kids would have hacked the tablets again.  The cool kids would be sharing/listening to music, going to the wrong websites, tweeting articles from Fox News, Al Jazeera, The Nation, People magazine, looking at porn, and so on.  Continuing this fantasy, the school would again act shocked and appalled and install even better security.  They would repeat this cycle until they had a school in which hacking skills and sharing new ideas with a tribe were as cool as everything else the government tries to discourage kids from doing. 


When I researched the issue and talked to someone who had kids in the LA public schools, I discovered reality is much more complicated than this techie/libertarian fantasy the headlines conjured. There were practical problems with how the school introduced the tablets:

  • The school borrowed money on 25 year notes to purchase tablets with a three-year warranty and an estimated life of three to five years.  Imagine if a school were just now finishing paying for 286-based IBM ATs they bought 25 years ago in 1988!
  • The cost of the tablets with software was $678, significantly higher than the cost of tablets in stores.  The software is only partially developed. 
  • There was no plan in place to deal with tablets being lost or stolen.  Under California law, students and families cannot be held liable for loss of equipment provided by the school.
  • The school district realized after it purchased the tablets that it would need to purchase keyboards in order to use the tablets on Common Core testing, which was one of their primary intended uses of the tablets.


Despite these serious logistical errors, the LA school district is on the right track in encouraging tablet use in schools.  For these kids, tablet computers will not be the fancy toys they seem to adults but the primary method of reading books and a user interface for many devices, including lab equipment, that now have buttons and displays. 


The logistic errors are easy to correct.  The difficult part is working out just how to use the technology.  We cannot take the approach that NASA critics say we took with the Space Shuttle: This is the amazing but expensive hardware we want to use.  It has great potential.  Let’s look for things to do with it.  We need to define what we want to do and then find technologies than help do it. 


Next time, I’ll write about educational experts’ differing opinions of what computers should be doing in schools.


Further Reading on LAUSD iPad Rollout

Further Reading on Tablets in School in General

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