iPads in School – Not Even if Free
Last November I trudged over to Chula Vista High School for the mandatory get trained up on the iPad or else session. A harsh cold front had dropped the local temperatures into the low 50's and I actually had to wear a sweater (something we San Diegan's rarely do) which I forgot because it was so warm when I left. It's tough working in San Diego County, but I digress.
When I left Silicon Valley to become a teacher in San Diego, I was a big technophile. As each year passes, I become less enthralled with technology in the classroom. I teach some physics classes so I would like carts of laptops loaded with digital acquisition systems and I certainly like photo-gate timers that allow students to meaningfully investigate kinematics. I could see spending on high speed video equipment and electron microscopes but not on toys like the iPads.I also teach mathematics. Before digital boards were installed, I had whiteboards all around a very shabby classroom. I could send multiple students to the boards which increased engagement and provided me with real time assessment. Now I have less board space to accommodate the expensive equipment. Spending on the digital whiteboards has dubious value. They make the teacher more dependent on a fragile technology that does not significantly enhance teaching and lessons are undermined when the technology fails and technology does fail. iPads are wonderful for checking social media, or email, or looking up restaurants, or playing games, but they do not solve any pedagogical problems. They are a technology that fails from time to time and unlike electronic whiteboards they introduce management nightmares to the classroom.
The number one application of the iPad at schools is – by far – gaming. Students quickly figure out ways to load games and play them instead of engaging in the learning. One of the major points of emphasis at my training was learning how to quickly assess what off-task things the students are doing with their iPads.
These devices have relatively small screens but school districts are buying licenses to load e-books on iPads instead of buying printed textbooks. Seven years ago, my math students were given the opportunity to check out an e-text instead of a printed book. Printed texts are heavy and we have no lockers at my school, so many students opted for the e-books. Within the first six-week grading period every student who opted for an e-text went to the library to get a printed book. In general, math textbooks from the giant publishers are poor, but they are wonderful when compared to studying mathematics from a giant publisher's e-book. Of course on an iPad, e-texts are even worse, because the screen is too small.
To nurture the use of iPads in classrooms a learning management system must be in place. The system in my school district is called Canvas. Canvas may have the worst interface of any program I have ever used and that is saying a lot. One of the reasons this system has such a difficult interface is that it is designed to facilitate online education. Maybe this explains why schools are being pressured into buying iPads and learning management systems. The real purpose may be to put public schools on line, profit corporations that sell into the system and reduce the need for teachers.
That is a recipe for substandard education, but elites in this country do not seem to value quality education for common people. Bill Gates and his children went to Lakeside School, Barak Obama's children go to Sidwell Friends School and wealthy people where I live send their children to schools like La Jolla Country Day. All of these pricey private schools have small class sizes ranging from 10 to 20 students and they do not give their students textbooks on iPads.
During my training in November, the youthful teacher who was leading the session was clearly excited by the possibilities with iPads. We were all required to make a video, use an app called Preci and take a Kahoot quiz. Videos made with an iPad are of less quality than existing technology from those deprived pre-iPad days. Preci is an app that has similar but reduced capabilities to PowerPoint which is a tool often associated with boring didactic lessons. Kahoot is an inner active group quiz facility that has limited application but could be used to start a conversation.
A colleague mentioned that some bright young teachers have made a few creative lessons with iPads. I am sure that is true, but I bet those same teachers could make creative lessons that do not involve iPads. iPads are not the seed of creativity. That seed exists in the person with a desire to bring teaching and learning alive.
Even if iPads were free, I would recommend against introducing them into the classroom and they are definitely not free. Spending on technology in public schools is straining budgets and causing class sizes to balloon. For fifty iPads and the support infrastructure required for their use in a classroom, another teacher could be hired and class sizes reduced.
Is it ethical to give these devices to students? Recently I read in the New York Times that Steve Jobs limited his children's use of technology and that other hi-tech leaders like Chris Anderson were concerned about the danger to their children from these devices. An excerpt from the article:
'"So, your kids must love the iPad?" I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company's first tablet was just hitting the shelves. "They haven't used it," he told me. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home."The BBC has been conducting surveys about the dangers of internet enabled devices and the awareness that parents have of these dangers. They report:
"Since then, I've met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children's screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends. …
"The dangers he [Anderson] is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents."
"Many children aged nine to 11 are indulging in very risky behaviour online, suggests a survey. Many are sharing personal information and playing games rated for much older children, found the survey drawn up by the ISC2 IT security education group. In addition, 18% of the 1,162 children queried said they had arranged offline meetings with friends made via the web.With schools giving cyber-space enabled devices to their children, parents lose the ability to control their child's exposure to the dangers of the World Wide Web. Children become more sedentary and device addiction is a real threat. Giving every student these devices is probably not pedagogically helpful, fails any reasonable cost-benefit analysis, and is not ethical.
"Meanwhile, a second survey suggests 55% of young people in England accept cyberbullying as part of everyday life. Security experts have urged parents to help their offspring stay safe by being more involved with what they do online." 
1) Bilton, Nick, "Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent", http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/fashion/steve-jobs-apple-was-a-low-tech-parent.html?_r=0
2) BBC, Technology News, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-24580139