I've recently been traveling around the world with only an iPad instead of my MacBook Pro to see how it will hold up to an actual computer and whether I could do all of my normal crushing workload on it. It's been amazing how much I get done; after all, the battery lasts and lasts. On a plane, I'm writing, creating keynote presentations, watching movies, then answering some emails -- all without having to break my back carrying a six pound weight. After some rest and talking to a neighbor, maybe I'll read a book or touch up some photos.
But the iPad will leave students between a computer and a hard place. Indeed, it is a third device. And one that I'm quite fond of. But it's a poor substitute for computer learning.
This issue is being raised by two prominent articles, one in the New York Times and one in TechRadar, about schools that give every student an iPad. My immediate response was "horrified." Teachers and administrators are already sinking a lot of money that schools don't have into this tool, hoping for it to act as a panacea that it cannot and should not be.
It's not that I want to deprive young students of these experiences, but when I think of the potential for interactive curriculum, there is so much more than what the iPad can offer. And it can be delivered faster. While the lack of proper mutli-tasking might be good for focus, it certainly slows things down. When I'm researching for an article or a report, I have the virtual equivalent of having books and articles scattered across my desk. When I have several devices, I often do, relegating a content type to each device. Kids who are in the process of learning what the world has to offer don't need to be doing so with the brakes on.
The iPad is magic to children. Press a button and it does everything that you want it to. The problem is that it doesn't tell you how the magic happens. Unlike even the Android tablets, when downloading an app, there is no explanation that the app is utilizing the accelerometer, contact list, and your current location. Or all of your photos. Or your fingerprints. There's a danger in teaching kids to inherently trust technology without being more critical of it.
The iPad defaults in being a consumer technology, not a producer technology. People who are taking photos, videos, ideas, etc and trying to make something with them find it harder to operate than those who are consuming those same media. This is something that Douglas Rushkoff explores in some depth in Program or be Programmed.
Youth need a deeper understanding of the devices they interact with. Are iPads replacing textbooks or are they replacing computers?
It was unnerving to hear the principal's statement in TechRadar that "as good as the iPad's hardware is, it's the software that makes the device interesting in education." This is exactly the kind of mentality that is getting kids to fall behind in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Instead, they should be concerned with cracking open an iPad and understanding how it works, how it can be improved, and how it can be modified to reflect them as individuals. The software is certainly interesting, but only if they can understand how to build apps, not just learn how to use their interfaces. What I've discovered is that kids who have never touched technology in their lives can adapt and learn an iPad within minutes, regardless of language barrier. It's not something that school time should be spent on.
Even more unnerving was Mr. Reiff from the Times article, who stated that "if there isn't an app that does something I need, there will be sooner or later." He now uses an application that includes all of Shakespeare's plays. Here is a teacher that fundamentally misunderstands how a computer works, trying to teach the next generation of youth, and expecting apps to magically appear. Instead of using a program designed for books, say Stanza, and downloading any of the tens of thousands of books readily available through it, including the extended work of Shakespeare, he is limited selection that he understands and to the hand-picked selection that Apple offers to him.
To truly learn about how to orient ourselves to the democratic society within which we live, it's hard to believe that learning through a centralized and strict system is the best way to go. Open source software intrinsically reflects the values of our society - it is transparent, accountable, and efficient. As our government is increasingly built on this framework, from the new open data repositories to the sites themselves, as well as our corporate enterprise infrastructure. It's crucial to teach our kids with tools that reflect this world.
It's important to consider how to introduce 21st century learning into schools and into the lives of people everywhere. As new options present themselves, it's important to think about cost-effective ways to deliver proper and thoughtful solutions that can inspire the leaders of tomorrow, while giving them the right skills to be at the front of the pack. At the same time, at their age, I cherished the thought of not having to carry 15 pounds of books back and forth from school.
Follow Mark Belinsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mbelinsky