Sunday, November 10, 2013

iPad Technology in Schools: What's the Highest, Best Use?

The other day, Amy Biolchini's story about the Chelsea Schools and their iPad problems caught my eye. In "Students evading security software, gaming on iPads post challenge at Chelsea High School," Biolchini writes that,

Officials at Chelsea High School are learning there’s an iPad application for just about everything—except for keeping students from gaming during class.
After the school shifted to one-for-one computing this fall with iPads in the hands of each of the 839 students, administrators are working through challenges inside and outside of school.
A program loaded on to the student’s iPads that filters Internet access has made it difficult for students to work on the devices outside of the school building.
“The biggest challenge has been the whole filter piece,” said Superintendent Andy Ingall. “We certainly want kids to be protected, but it’s a challenge. Access at home has been a big challenge for a pretty good-sized group of kids.”
Nine weeks into the implementation, students are now able to access the Internet at home on their iPads. But now administrators are turning to another issue that’s arisen: students are finding it easy to get away with playing games on the iPads in class.
The reason this caught my eye is that a couple of weeks ago I had read an article in Slate magazine about the roll-out of iPads in the Los Angeles United School District. And that process--which is a $1 BILLION program, by the way--has also not gone so well. Essentially, it has taken almost no time for students to be able to hack the iPads, which were set to essentially be Pearson curriculum delivery devices. Pearson (a for-profit textbook manufacturer, among other things) has contracted with Apple to put its copyrighted material on the iPads. Conveniently enough, they also provide standardized tests to go with them! AND because the Pearson contract is directly with Apple, and not with the school district, it seems to be almost impossible to find out how much money Pearson is making off of this. But I digress, because my main point is this:

From the Huffington Post:

It took just a week for nearly 300 students who got iPads from their Los Angeles high school to figure out how to alter the security settings so they could surf the Web and access social media sites.
But the Slate article, entitled Kids Should Hack Their School Provided iPads, had a slightly different perspective. The subtitle? "That's how they learn." Writes Katherine Mangu-Ward, 

Last year, 40 tablet computers were delivered to the children of two remote Ethiopian villages. The villagers were 100 percent illiterate—the kids had never seen road signs, product labels, or printed material of any kind.
Technicians from the One Laptop Per Child program dropped off a stack of boxes, showed a couple of adults how to use the solar chargers, and then walked away. Within minutes, the kids had cracked the packaging open and figured out how to turn the tablets on. Within weeks, they were singing their ABCs, picked up from the English-language learning software installed on the tablets. Within five months, some kid figured out that the tablets had built-in cameras—they had been disabled for ethical reasons—and hacked the Android operating system to activate them.
So, frankly, it shouldn’t have come as much of a shock when a few hundred of the tech-drenched children of Los Angeles figured out how to “hack” the $678 iPads they were given by their school district, just one month into the new school year.
The article goes on to say:

But why would students gaining mastery over their digital devices be considered a “runaway train” at all? The iPads were loaded with software from the textbook giant Pearson, so perhaps the fantasy was that high school students would be content paging through glowing versions of their textbooks.
But the whole point of introducing current technology into the classroom is to help education catch up with the rest of the world, which has been utterly transformed by fast computers with fast Internet access.
Unfortunately, when it comes to technology in education, traditional schools tend to use fuzzy math. Give ’em iPads, the thinking goes, and the test scores will soar. The intended mechanism isn’t always clear, and the vision becomes even more muddled when the inevitable committees, unions, and concerned parents get involved. The result too often is restricted access to semi-useless tech crippled by proprietary software deals and censored Internet.
Implementing bold ideas like “flipping the classroom”—having students watch lectures at home and spending their classroom hours doing problem sets, engaging in group discussions, or getting one-on-one tutorials—means letting kids use the relevant tech on their own time and in their own way. It means trusting them with access to devices like the ones they might someday use at work. 
 In the Chelsea schools, the cost was around $575,000 and was taken from technology funds, from the 2012 bond.
Technology director Scott Wooster said falling technology prices coupled with leftover money that had been budgeted for computer replacement cycles put the district in a position that administrators felt they could make the iPad purchase.
So what are the plans for replacement cycles?

While the teachers are rightfully concerned with gaming going on in classrooms (a concern I share somewhat, but really--what did they expect?), I found a couple of other things concerning in Biolchini's article on the Chelsea schools. (And I have no idea about most of what is on the iPads. Is it Pearson--or other--textbooks?)

1. There is an app called iBoss on the iPads. It not only filters the internet, it is a tracking device.
If it gets to the point where we need to regulate what students are looking at or downloading, iBoss keeps an account of that. The only time that we will check that is if a parent calls us, or is a teacher in class notices a student off-task and is looking at sites that maybe they shouldn’t be then we can pull up their history,” Kapolka [Chelsea High School principal] said.
You might feel that students need tracking. I myself am more concerned with "Big Brother" than I am with students doing some gaming. However, in the article, one of the students asserts that lots of students have been deleting the iBoss app.

2. Sophomore Alayna Schweda said,

On one hand, your studying materials: you don’t have the your second time of writing them down in notes, so it’s a little harder to remember, and it’s kind of a big transition.
So now we encourage students to study things but they don't take notes on them?

3. What's the penalty for gaming?
Taking the device away if a student is found gaming is the school’s solution now. Students will receive two warnings for misuse before the device is completely taken away from them.
So if the textbooks and the classwork and the homework are all on the iPad, and you take the iPad away, how exactly is that student going to be able to keep up with the classes? This reminds me of some of the research on student suspensions, which indicates that when you take kids out of the classroom, they fall further behind.

My takeaways from this:

1. Administrators and teachers are often blinded by shiny new technology. I'm not saying that technology can't be used for good in classrooms. Of course it can be, and some teachers do. But most, don't.

2. Technology can often be a distraction. There is a reason the Socratic method has lasted as long as it has. Questioning, and discussions, are fundamental to teaching. To the extent that technology can support discussion and understanding, that's great--but often, it serves to distract from that.

3. If one is going to use technology in the classroom, then one can't be afraid of the technology. Fundamentally, I think the idea of "controlling" the students using the technology is at odds with students using the technology.

4. Beware Big Brother. Who controls all the information that gets input into the iPad or computer, when students answer math questions or write an essay? Does that information go back to the textbook manufacturers or is it only used locally? I think it's fair to ask what is on the iPads (or other technology), and how that fits into for-profit educational models. Certainly, Apple and Pearson stand to make a boatload of money (or two boatloads! $1 billion dollars, if the deal--currently paused--eventually goes through). I think there are some civil liberties issues here.

5. Clarity of purpose, use, and replacement planning is essential. It doesn't seem to me that either Chelsea schools or the Los Angeles schools have that. Who is paying for these and what is the replacement cycle? What is their purpose? How will they be used differently from textbooks? (Because iPads are very expensive textbooks.) What happens if a student breaks or loses an iPad?

When we can answer these questions, then we might be ready to include the technology in the schools.


  1. Great column, Ruth. Your point #4 reminds me of something you wrote earlier this year about spending on reading intervention specialists in Ann Arbor - is there a plan in place to assess whether the intervention is working? Districts adopting technology like this should have the mindset of a pilot that needs to demonstrate results to be continued.

    And per adults being blinded by shiny new technology - I bet this explains in part why these districts select iPads, the highest-end tablets, as opposed to the many other models out there that are cheaper and more flexible (e.g., have USB ports). To many lay users "tablet" and "iPad" may be synonymous.

    Lastly - do you plan to promote your Ann Arbor Chronicle columns here? Readers of this blog would almost certainly be interested in all of them. And the Chronicle would appreciate the readership. I'd love a quick note here to accompany each Chronicle post along the lines of, "check out my latest column for the Chronicle on ____."

  2. Speaking as someone with a little training in educational technology, I like your point #3 and the notion of "Kids Should Hack Their School Provided iPads." My oldest child gets much more time on the computer, because he uses it to create things - make 3D art, write programs, create his own games, etc. The other two are much more consumers than producers, and it's really hard to get them to change their mindset. We don't need to be giving them $500 textbook replacements.

  3. Sam, that's a good point about the Ann Arbor Chronicle article. I'm not that great at self-promotion, but I will try to do that next time!

    In the meantime, if anyone missed my article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle on the prospect of the schools doing some redistricting and closing schools, here it is: Taking a long look at redistricting