Sunday, March 17, 2013

Are iPads just for consumers or do they belong in schools?

Our school has decided that we'd like our technology program to help us implement more challenge-based learning. I have been looking at different mobile devices. There is plenty of controversy. We have looked at Windows 8 tablets, Android Tablets, Chromebooks, and iOS tablets. I don’t intend for this post to go into a lot of details comparing the alternatives, but I will provide an overview of my thinking. First of all, you must start by identifying your instructional need (i.e., don’t put the cart before the horse). The choice of device must follow from what you want to do with the device. See Sam Gliksman blog post on asking the right questions.  

There are different reasons for wanting mobile devices in schools. The first of three major reasons is to provide students productivity tools to become more efficient at their learning tasks. We could call this philosophy "teaching technology for technology sake". This philosophy provides a great benefit as students move into their workplace. With this philosophy, it is a priority that the device be easily managed by IT and support the productivity tools which the students are already familiar.

A second reason for providing mobile devices for students is to not just help them learn about technology but to help them learn about content by using technology tools that will help them become better readers, writers, problem solvers, scientists and historians. You might call this philosophy "technology integration". With this philosophy, the teacher's role is to cover the curriculum and to make sure that students master the outcomes as established in the curriculum. Technology's purpose is to leverage technology integration to enhance instruction. With this philosophy, it is very important for teachers to be able to manage the dissemination of information to students and be able to track their progress towards the standards being covered. With this philosophy, it is important to have a strong repository of instructional media, assessments, and standards. Technology is beneficial because it helps the teacher to align standards, instruction and assessment. Technology is also beneficial because it allows the teacher to measure student progress against the standards.

With the third philosophy, it is important for students to learn "how to learn". This is a more student-centered approach. It includes instructional strategies such as problem/challenge-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and perhaps personalized learning. You might call this philosophy "21st Century Teaching and Learning". The device that suits this philosophy needs to be easy for the students to use and easy for the student to customize (when appropriate). With this third philosophy, it is important that students can access information through a variety of techniques and modalities. It is also important that the students can demonstrate their understanding through a variety of approaches and modalities. Students need to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and self-monitor their progress. The teacher acts "as a guide on the side" to ensure that the tasks are challenging, yet achievable; and provide a sufficient depth and breadth that the students are well versed in a deeper understanding of the disciplines being studied. Technology is beneficial because it provides the ability to collaborate with others, explore resources outside the school walls, work on authentic problems, and publish results to authentic audiences.

There is a place for all three philosophies in education. There are overlaps between them as well. To strive for one approach at the complete exclusion of the other two is ill-advised. None-the-less, each technology program may select a single philosophy as its focus.

A Windows 8 mobile device, Windows laptop, or Chromebook is a better fit for philosophy 1. (See a blog post on the merits of Chromebooks or Surface tablets versus iPads). The strengths of these mobile devices are in productivity tools and IT manageability. A LearnPad, Kuno, or Amplify Android tablet is a better fit for philosophy 2. (See Scott McLoad's blog post: Why Big Brother Would Love the Amplify Tablet). Its strength is in teacher control over the learner's experience. An iPad or iPad mini is a better fit for philosophy 3. Its strength is in ease of use for the student, versatility, opportunities for student/teacher creativity, and an established network of innovative educators striving to use technology with best practices which modify and redefine education (M and R of the SAMR model). See this list of curated resources on iPad best practices, ideas for using iPads, and this summary of research on the impacts of instructional use of iPads on student achievement. Here, I have exaggerated the distinctions between the devices to make my point. All three devices can serve any of the three philosophies depending on how the teacher or students uses the devices. Yet, the different devices strengths are better aligned with different educational philosophies.

Our school has already had five years as a technology-rich school. Our teacher laptops, student laptop carts, student-operated TV studio, as well as, interactive whiteboards have allowed us to leverage technology for the purposes I outlined under philosophy 1 and 2. We have been endeavoring to use technology in ways fitting philosophy 3, but we still have a ways to go. We don't intend to get rid of our existing technology, but we are looking ahead to add technology that will help us move into more innovative instruction. We don't intend to discontinue our pursuits of use of technology for the purposes of philosophy 1 and 2, but we are more than ready to pursue philosophy 3. Philosophy 3 is aligned with our school mission statement and our newly articulated technology program vision.

Because of our hope to promote challenge-based learning, iPads are best for us. There are tons of instructional apps for any content area. eBooks can be created that make the most of the Internet, video, audio, interactives, and multimedia resources. There are tons of creation apps so students can demonstrate their understanding in a way most appropriate for them. The camera, camcorder, voice recorder, speech-to-text, and text-to-speech provide an excellent "swiss-army knife" for learning. The device turns on quickly and has a long-lasting battery, so students can pick it up when they need it and use paper and pencil when that would be more applicable. Many of our teachers and students already use iPads personally outside of school, so they know how to leverage them. The iPad is so easy to use that toddlers take to it easily. They rarely fail and if they do, restarting usually fixes any problem. Not that it should matter, but they are cool (teachers covet them and so do students).