Is it the iPad, the apps or the user?

Technology has been trying to ‘revolutionize’ education for a long time now. The mistake we’ve been making all along is placing all of the focus on the least important component of the revolution – the tech itself. It’s where all the money goes and then what? Nothing left to actually ensure it’s going to make the difference we want, with the the people we want to impact – the teacher and the student. It’s happened all throughout education tech history in recent times. The film projector, the photocopier, the typewriter, the desktop and laptop computer, data projectors, interactive whiteboards, digital cameras were all heavily invested in ( and many still are today ) to bring engagement and improved teaching and learning to the educational world….But talk of the revolution is still going on.

And now we have the tablet. The iPad has begun a new “education revolution” and now the obligatory opposition tech companies have joined the battle. The question has to be asked – are we again starting from the wrong end of the battle lines? Is the iPad (inserted alternative tablet if so desired) the real catalyst or is there so much more to this than money spending school systems can see beyond the new and shiny?

It’s why I ask the question: Is it the iPad, the App or the User?

The iPad

What is it about the iPad that has enamoured so many in the Education World? Spare me the trollish jibes about Apple’s Reality Distortion Field and slavish fanboys. Educators aren’t that shallow. There is something about this tablet, originally aimed squarely at the consumer, that lends itself beautifully to educational pursuits. The desktop computer, for all its power and potential, leaves the learner anchored to a desk and reliant on other tech tools to increase its functionality. The laptop improved on this with its portability but it still lacked flexibility and true mobility as well as clunky touchpads that lacked precision.

Then came the tablet. Yes, Microsoft predated Apple with a tablet but the iPad brought its use into the mainstream. In a school setting, it brings big changes to the learning experience. It takes mobile learning to a level far beyond the laptop. Its tactile interface brings the learner in direct contact with the screen with positives and negatives. The touch screen allows for direct drawing, handwriting and screen navigation beyond the capabilities of a mouse of trackpad. The built in A/V capabilities, in particular the front and back facing cameras for photo and video, adds one stop access to multimedia use that adds engagement and creativity that other computers can’t match. Its ‘always on, instant save’ nature means instant interaction, replacing the wait time that can slow down learning in class. And its unique lack of filing system, while a fault for many computing traditionalists, makes accessing work for younger children in particular far easier than combinations of menus, commands and hierarchical folders. The touch interface makes it a familiar experience and easier for children to pick up experiment and learn to use ( although this is not always the case for adults with computer behaviour engrained in their physical memory.)

That in itself, though, falls far short of what is necessary for an “Education Revolution”. Beyond a web browser with its well documented Flash deficiencies ( whether we like it or not, educational web 2.0 tools are dominated by Flash ), basic A/V viewing and editing tools, an e-book/PDF reader, a text messaging system, a VERY basic text editor in Notes and some time management tools, what you get out of the box has serious limitations. So obviously, to get closer to revolutionizing education, we need to tap into the vast system of the App Store.

The Apps
“There’s an App for that!” has become part of the English conversation. While early on, we were inundated with countless games, social apps and a mind boggling selection of skills and drill apps of dubious value, it wasn’t long before every possible educational opportunity could be addressed by an app. For years, many schools have been hamstrung by expensive software packages tied into bulk user licences that added up to hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars, preventing us from going beyond the internet and the obligatory Microsoft Office package. True, there are a great number of Web 2.0 tools that have brought creativity and collaboration to the classroom, but while some are free, many expect yearly licences from schools to use them.

As I have written in my post “Essential Paid iPad Apps”, for a reasonable cost (obviously some will disagree),especially under the half price VPP system, the limitations of the ‘out of the box’ iPad transforms into an all purpose teaching and learning machine. Suddenly students have access to video editing, animation creation, ebook publishing, comic book production, digital storytelling in many forms, annotation tools, note taking, audio recording, collaboration tools, painting and drawing apps, content curation and news feeds all at the touch of an icon. In a 1:1 environment, the user has all of this stored within the apps he uses, making for efficient use of time and a non-reliance on accessing messy network folder hierarchies.

But………and it’s a BIG BUT…..

All the tech tools in the world mean nothing if they are not used effectively. Too often over the last 2 years, I have seen way too many examples of half finished, poorly edited creations in the name of “experimenting with the apps”. That, however, is as far as it goes. The lesson is about the app, not the content or the skills that needed to be developed to make a real difference. This is why the role of the User becomes Number One Priority.

The User

No amount of tech or any other educational innovation can make a difference if the users aren’t prepared to take advantage of the opportunity. The so called “digital natives” in our classrooms may have grown up using technology but it doesn’t mean they know how to use it to its full potential. Teachers have a great opportunity to revolutionise education with what has become available but just because their cupboard is full of iPads (or laptops, digital cameras etc, etc) it doesn’t mean the revolution will happen.

Politicians need PD. Leaders of Education need PD. Teachers need PD. Parents need….whatever we call PD for parents. Students need to learn what  is possible with what they know.

          • Facebook/Twitter/Social media in general isn’t just for organising parties, telling us where in the city you are having dinner or writing funny responses about awkward situations. If that is all educators, students and the community think its for, they won’t use it to collaborate, to share, to investigate, to innovate.
          • If teachers aren’t shown how iPads or any other tech tool can improve their current practices and given time and support to gain confidence in their use and possibilities, they will continue with whole class instruction, worksheets and textbooks and every other practice that worked for them in the past.
          • If we only focus on the tool and not the purpose for using it, then we will still get substandard essays and projects – they’ll just look better.
          • If we spend all of our time talking about increased engagement in class because of iPads, but don’t evaluate the improvement in learning, nothing has been accomplished. After all, a 15 year old can be engaged in an all night movie or video game party. Doesn’t mean they’ll learn anything.

I said at the start that Educators aren’t shallow. We can, though, still get caught up in the latest craze, whether it’s the latest buzzword or the next great tech tool. This Education Revolution has been talked about for a long time. We need to focus on the teaching and learning, the teachers and the learners before we focus on the tools. Instead of investigating and experimenting with tablets and apps, let’s make sure we  investigate and experiment with the pedagogy that’s need to make the difference. Let’s put the user first.

What’s your experience in your schools? Are you planning for change or just having tech thrown at you with the hope that something will stick? Join the conversation.