Education Opinion

The iPad as a Trojan Mouse

By Justin Reich — April 10, 2013 3 min read
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EdTechTeacher’s iPad Summit begins today. For three days people from around the world will come together to play, explore, share, and discuss how iPads might play a role in creating richer learning environments for young people. If the event is well-crafted, participants will have meaningful conversations with one another about how iPads can enhance classroom practice and student learning. The only way for the event to be successful is for participants to bring those conversations back to their schools and districts.

Using tablets to transform teaching is a tall order. I’m reading Larry Cuban‘s latest book Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education. The central question of Cuban’s book is the name of his concluding chapter, “Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice?

Cuban observes that over the last several decades waves of technology innovations, governance reform, standards revisions, and testing movements have crashed up classroom doors, and teaching practice has by and large gone unchanged by these waves. Would anyone look back at the massive investment schools made in computer labs over the last few decades and argue that these investments resulted in major or even cost-effective shifts in student learning? In so many cases, reformers are trying to change things that happen inside of classrooms—inside the black box— by changing conditions around, outside, above, and under the black box.

To explain the resilience and conservatism of the black box, Cuban makes a useful distinction between complicated problems and complex problems. Sending a person to the moon is a complicated problem; getting children to succeed in schools is a complex problem, “closer to the ‘flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.’” You can use mathematics, science and logic to predict how new inputs will change a complicated system (more fuel = more weight and more thrust). It’s harder to predict how new inputs change a complex system (more technology in schools = ????).

Technology doesn’t magically change teacher’s practice. You can have students use iPads in much the same way that they once used slate boards. But what new technologies like tablets or laptops can do is open new avenues for conversation. In schools where every child has a portable, multimedia creation device, what can we do differently? What is possible now that wasn’t possible before?

Cuban argues pursuasively that the most powerful practice for meaningful reform in schools is teacher professional development in learning communities:

What promises to increase the worth of districtwide professional development, especially if based within schools and involving teachers in the planning, are those efforts concentrating on prevailing beliefs among teachers about teaching and learning, current norms in the school community, and classroom practices. When teachers work together to examine student work and analyze classroom lessons, they figure out collectively what works and what doesn't, and they build a culture of learning across grade levels in elementary school s and within departments in secondary school. They build and share pedagogical capital—a scarce resource because isolation is endemic to age-graded schools"

In the best circumstances, the iPad is a Trojan Mouse. The outside is shiny and attractive, all the better to lure our unwary colleagues into opening the gates to their black box. Those of us interested in meaningful change in teaching and learning need to make sure that the shiny exterior of the Trojan Mouse is stuffed inside with serious questions about practice, student relationships, assessment, a shared language about pedagogy, and a shared vision for our students.

If iPads, tablets, laptops, or anything else will transform classroom practice, it won’t be because we airdropped them from the sky and teachers and students happen to catch them. It will be because the new affordances of technology capture the imagination of teachers and students and invite them into a sustained conversation about what’s worth learning and how best to prepare young people for a changing world.

I look forward to starting those conversations at the EdTechTeacher iPad Summit in Atlanta. But we can only make a real difference inside the black box of classroom practice if we can all bring these conversations home to our schools and districts.

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

If you are sad to be missing the iPad Summit happening this week, EdTechTeacher will be hosting another summit in Boston in November.

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.