Every so often, a technology arrives that attracts educators like moths to a light, becoming the next must-have item in the classroom, whether deserved or not. We’ve seen things like the personal computer, interactive whiteboard, classroom response system, and LCD projector all take their place in what we often think about as an ideal classroom. I’d argue that today’s bright light is the iPad.I believe the iPad craze has hit education in an unfortunate way. Every time I open up a paper (I still do that sometimes), or check my favorite news aggregator (I do that daily), I am reading about another iPad deployment. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure and contrary to what you might be thinking, my district is going to be piloting iPads in a 1 to 1 initiative this fall in four grades, so some of my criticisms could be considered hypocritical.
What concerns me most is what seems like a lack of planning on the part of many districts as they roll out this new and exciting technology. In talking to my peers and even to vendors, I hear stories of districts doing little in the way of systems analysis to see if they are even ready, in many cases deploying devices that they are in no way capable of supporting from a technical or personal perspective. Specifically, I am concerned about readiness in four areas:
1) Bandwidth. I’m personally aware of a district that is planning to roll out an iPad initiative with only a T1 line coming into their district. One of the strengths of the iPad is its ability to easily connect students to content either they or someone else has created, which most often lives online in some format or another. A student staring at an iPad trying to connect to a slow internet connection is a bored, frustrated, and disengaged student, the opposite of what the device should be intended to do.
2) Internal infrastructure. Districts deploying large numbers of iPads need to be extremely concerned with wireless density – that is, the availability and strength of wireless in the learning environment. Experts suggest the best way to ensure that devices can reliably connect with the speed needed to do meaningful work is to have a wireless access point in each classroom. Unfortunately, a wireless access point isn’t nearly as cool looking as an iPad, and as a result, districts often skimp on the very thing that makes the iPad the most useful and enables access to the internet.
3) Staff development. The iPad is a great tool, but like any tool, is only as good as the person using it. Staff need to feel comfortable with the device if they are going to be expected to use it to enable creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. Staff can’t be handed iPads as they leave for the summer and then be expected to be ready to transform teaching and learning in the fall, but unfortunately, that is the story that is being played out over and over again. Districts need to thoughtfully plan staff development activities that not only address the technical how-to’s but also the process of designing units and lessons that teach and reinforce 21st century skills.
4) Policies and expectations. I believe strongly in the saying “If they knew better, they would do better.” Staff, students, and parents need direction as they navigate their way through this new way to do education. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers say that we need to “script the critical moves.” In this case, that means making sure people are clear about what they should and shouldn’t do as well as what appropriate use looks like. New technologies demand new policies and practices.
Sometimes it is possible to ignore ineffective practices in other places, especially if they don’t affect the children in my district. Districts rushing into large scale technology projects without careful planning can have some serious and wide spread consequences though, because every deployment that fails is fodder for those who are quick to point out places where technology has failed to improve outcomes for students. To the degree that community support for my district’s efforts is weakened by poor outcomes in other places, the children in my district will lose out, and that I can’t ignore.