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The iPads-in-Schools Challenge: Tools for Consumption or Innovation?

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Recently, the media has been ablaze with news of significant glitches with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) iPad deployment. From students removing management software and accessing sites that were off-limits, to concerns about lost and stolen iPads, the deployment is turning into a headache for the hard working and well-intentioned leaders of the district.

When asked why students removed the security lock, one student cogently remarked, "(We) took them home and can't do anything with them." According to a District press release, efforts will be made to ramp up mobile device management efforts, along with greater accountability for students, parents, and educators so that such problems do not happen anymore.

Here we go again. Time after time, school districts have placed great hope on technology to be the silver bullet and great equalizer. From Apple II computers in the 80s and 90s to the "tabletification" of today, education leaders have invested precious resources (estimated to be over $50 billion in 2012) in technology so that students will be "prepared for the future," equipped as "digital citizens" and "21st century learners" who are empowered through technology. But, time and time again, the same reality hits: It is not about just having technology in the classrooms, it is what students do with it and learn from it that matters.

In 2000 we conducted a research study focusing on computer science in schools. A more detailed account can be read in Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing (MIT Press, 2008). We found that once again the wrong indicators for success were being watched. For instance, as Digital High Schools were granted huge investments for computers and the supporting infrastructure, what was called "computer science" in those schools was often just glorified typing and low-level activities. Most distressing, it was rare, if ever, for college-preparatory computing courses to exist in schools with high numbers of African American and Latino students.

Schools must stop being "technology rich, but curriculum poor." As school districts across the country launch ambitious tablet roll-outs connected to the Common Core State Standards and related assessments, student learning must be ramped up. What students do on the iPads must be as innovative as the iPads themselves; curriculum must be challenging and engaging, connected to what the technology now allows students to do, and connected to issues that spark their imagination and curiosity. If not, these tools will just become a huge distraction from critical thinking, and students will be screen-focused "zombies" as one teacher observed.

Resulting from our research, and filling a need to provide access to the increasingly important field of computer science, a partnership of educators from UCLA and LAUSD created the program Exploring Computer Science (ECS). ECS introduces students to problem solving, web design, programming, data analysis, and robotics. ECS also teaches about the ethical and societal issues that accompany technology - issues about privacy, piracy, and responsible communication. The ECS mission is to make inquiry-based computer science education available to all students, particularly girls, African Americans and Latinos who are underrepresented in the field. ECS is now in schools in LA, Chicago, and Washington D.C., but should be available for all students. Plans are also underway in Los Angeles for courses to be developed in Game Design, Robotics, Data Science, and a new College Board Computer Science Principles course so students can further develop the critical thinking skills to become creators of technology for social good.

As districts and schools consider the role of technology in helping them meet standards and assessments, they must not be distracted by the devices - as students so often are. Instead, the focus must be on the curricular planning and the professional development necessary to recharge education with pedagogical approaches that enhance problem-solving, collaboration, communication and connection making - the critical computational practices all students need for the 21st century. Curriculum developers must offer software tools that enable students to engage in algorithmic thinking and create computational artifacts with tablets and other tools across all subjects. Policy makers must work to make sure computer science is part of the core of student learning, and not merely an elective. Together these forces can help create the context for students to genuinely become educated digital citizens.

As the recent incident in Los Angeles shows, LAUSD students today have the savvy to tinker and problem-solve with technology. While we don't in any way condone students breaking school rules, these incidents suggest a necessary element in finding a balance between issues of security and privacy for which a school district must be mindful, with a need to create innovative learning opportunities that spark students' interests for tinkering and thinking more deeply.

Consider Bill Gates and Paul Allen who hacked their own high school's computer systems (which they themselves developed) in order to do such wildly non-academic things as placing the young Bill in classes filled with mostly female students. The result was that Gates, Allen, and several other students were banned for some time from using their school's computers, but then negotiated the exchange of their programming skills for more school computer access time.

Many of today's tech gurus report that it is such experiences, combined with plentiful home resources that supported their pathway into computing. Equity mandates that these experiences and this knowledge be accessible to all kids through education. Yet, while computer science is driving innovation across all fields, national research from the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education shows that there still is not a clear understanding of what computer science is and its role in K-12 education. This is especially significant because according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.4 million computing jobs will need to be filled by 2018.

As all the events spin around tablet rollouts, we must remember this: No matter how flashy the packaging, iPads and other devices alone will never be the sole solution. The true indicators of progress will be challenging curriculum, informed, skilled and passionate teachers, a school culture of caring and high expectations, and engaged students thinking creatively, collaboratively and critically. Students must learn about the technology in a new way; they must learn the computer science so that they can become creators and innovators, not just readers of digital textbooks and consumers of modernized worksheets.

The next "big thing" to shape our society and economy will not come from what students hold in their hands, but from the know-how they possess in their minds.

Jane Margolis is a senior researcher at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing (MIT Press, 2008) and Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (MIT Press, 2002).

David Bernier is a former LAUSD teacher and Project Director of Exploring Computer Science. He is affiliated with UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies' Center X, a teacher education program and initiative dedicated to dramatically transforming public schooling for underserved students in Los Angeles.

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