Education Opinion

MIT Students Debate the Value of iPads in the Classroom

By Justin Reich — February 20, 2013 5 min read
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This is the time of year where I have the great pleasure of teaching an education class to undergraduates at MIT. We address two questions during the semester: “What’s worth learning?” and “How do we know that students are learning what’s worth learning?”

Most weeks, we have an online discussion about current events in education. This week, students chose to examine an article on a school district that just committed to a district-wide 1-1 iPad program. Their responses are characteristically thoughtful, and here are a few of their perspectives. We’ll be discussing this during our class meeting Wednesday at 2:30, so leave a comment or tweet a response (@bjfr) by then, and I’ll make sure the students get it.

For Individuals not Groups
As I said above, individual iPads for each student create barriers in the classroom. It’s hard for me to see how doing something on an iPad is better than doing without it. The best way to teach is to engage and motivate, and if throwing expensive technology is the school district’s plan, in my opinion they are wasting a lot of money. If everyone has an individual tablet, then it’s hard to make the argument that these iPads will bring the classroom together. Whenever we worked with laptops in my high school, the classroom felt empty when everyone quietly labored away on their keyboards. Even if the classroom is brought together through this technology, what is preventing them from working together without any Apple products? Ideally, it sounds nice to present every student with the best technology out there to do their work, but not at the expense of deteriorating classroom cohesiveness.

While I’m against the idea of having iPads in the classroom, I’m not opposed to using them outside the classroom. Great teaching is done with groups and collaboration, but reinforcement of material could be greatly improved with interactivity, social aspects and new technology. These are all areas where I think the iPad could be beneficial to learning.

iPad as Toolbox

I think giving iPads to students is a great idea and I can’t agree with the whole “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” idea. I think there is always room for innovation in a field, including education, even if things are going well. The iPad is a great toolbox that teachers and students can use to improve the classroom. For example, I’m sure there is an app somewhere that allows teachers to design quizzes or tests that can be administered on the iPad. If the answers are multiple choice or fill in the blank, perhaps the program could grade the test leaving giving the teacher more time to grade other parts of the test, such as short answers or essays. It could also give teachers better data on how their students and have a better idea of who needs more help with a particular topic. Companies, such as Khan Academy and Quizlet, already provide apps with this kind of tracking information.

If teachers are worried that students will be distracted by their iPads during group discussions, they can simply ask the students to put them away. I don’t think they are necessary at all times of the school day, but can definitely add to the classroom experience. I also think, that the “old fashioned way” may not be the best way. We just think it is because we’re used to it. Sure, I prefer writing with pencil and paper and using a laptop rather than an iPad, but this younger generation is growing up in a world where these kinds of tablets are the norm and what we are used to may not be what they grow up preferring.

Spend Money on Teachers before Technology
First of all, I feel this focus on tech in the classroom is taking us the wrong direction. We need good teachers, not bells-and-whistles technology. Tech alone doesn’t help if there isn’t solid curriculum to go along with it.

I worry that this kind of article frames the debates on education the wrong way. People think the more tech in schools, the better, here tech meaning computers, etc. People like tech in schools because they seem a good stand-in or proxy for improvement in education: it’s easily quantifiable, and it makes news; we spend x dollars to put y computers (iPads, etc.) in these schools! What people should be asking rather than how much new technology we put in schools is: how are they actually going to improve the curriculum?

There is no shortcut for training better teachers, and giving teachers the opportunity, resources, and communication for improvement, and in my opinion, would be a better use of money.

I think that iPads in schools have the effect of amplifying the teacher’s abilities, positive or negative, rather than improving learning indiscriminately. If you give every student an iPad, and still have an incompetent teacher, or even an decent teacher who isn’t given the relevant training, then you’ll get students surfing the web during class, teachers trying to troubleshoot software problems when they should be teaching, etc. A smartboard doesn’t help if you can’t write in an organized way on a blackboard in the first place. If you have a good teacher who can deliver, who can construct curriculum, say, around this kind of “instant flow of information” that the iPad provides and the interactivity between different students, then it would improve the classroom culture.

Technology and Relationships
There is no reason that students need iPads to supplement their educational experience. iPads are only productive for providing supplementary material to already motivated students who will actually use the iPads productively. I am a strong believer that to spark and interest and confidence in learning, the most essential thing is the inter-personal relationships between teacher and student. With an iPad, these relationships slowly become less personal and learning becomes less individualized. Fundamentally important parts of the classroom experience -- i.e. constant communication with other students/teacher, and taking notes with a paper/pencil -- are lost.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.