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Strapping Jet Engines to Stagecoaches; or iPads in Schools

By Justin Reich — April 17, 2013 2 min read
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First, my heart goes out to my beloved city of Boston, the wounded from near and afar, and the families of victims from Dorchester, my hometown of Arlington, and Shenyeng, China. Dennis Lahane, in the New York Times, captures my pride in and my hopes for the city.

Last week, I attended and co-hosted the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Atlanta, which once again focused not so much on iPads as on how we might take the opportunity presented by iPads to rethink teaching and learning.

My colleague Greg Kulowiec gave a wonderful keynote address, which in part focused on an evocative analogy from Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (and recounted later in various writings). As the story goes: imagine an engineer who tries to strap a jet engine onto a stagecoach to increase its power. Of course, the jet engine’s power threatens to destroy the whole enterprise, so the engineer throttles down the jet engine until it is safe to use on a stage coach. At that point, it is also pointless to use on a stage coach. Greg helpfully illustrates the idea:

And while Papert wrote the analogy to describe the effect of bringing desktops computers into schools in the 1980s, the metaphor still resonates deeply with us today. Our hardware is orders of magnitudes more powerful than what Papert could access, and yet these gains in power all too often simply lead to a greater degree of throttling rather than translating into more impactful learning. Greg, again, offers a helpful illustration of strapping iPads on top of existing school systems.

So we soldier on in Papert’s quest, not to ask how we can use computers in schools but to ask how computing devices might help us rethink the bounds of the possible in schools. If you want to be a pessimist, you might note that we’re still asking these questions two decades after Papert posed them. If you want to be an optimist, there were 700 people in attendance at the iPad Summit heading home to their schools to work on the answers.

Greg has a summary of the full keynote on his blog. Many thanks to all who attended and presented at the iPadSummit, and I’m sure more ideas from the event will appear here in week ahead. The next iPad Summit will be November 13-15 in Boston; keep an eye on ipadsummitusa.org for registration and details.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, 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.


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