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.
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.
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.
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