The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is under fire for an iPad implementation that has gone awry. It was reported on October 2, 2013 that all iPads have been taken back from students because some were able to defeat the security software to use the iPads for social media and entertainment rather than strictly for the educational purpose intended. The fact that students would not use any computer device solely for education is nothing new or surprising. Expecting students to use technology for exclusively academic purposes is an unrealistic expectation for a device intended for entertainment. The iPad was never designed for academic use, although surely offers interesting potential in academic environments. Whether students have desktops, laptops, or tablets, the temptation and desire to also access social media will persist. Prohibition vis a vis access to media sites is likely a losing battle. Yes, there are programs to lock down certain sites, but locking down specific sites offers no guarantee that students will then use the technology as expected. Access to non academic content has always been one of challenges for computing in schools. Once the internet is opened, students have available to them all of the goodness inherent to accessing the worlds information, and also the downside of accessing entertainment oriented web sites. There is no academically sterile internet access. The key is how the technology can be used to further learning achievement. The fact that students also use the device for other purposes does not tell the complete story about educational technology and how technology can augment learning achievement.
From the get go, it is important to realize that the use of tablets in education, whether iPads or any other brand, is new ground without any reliable research. The rush to use iPads is essentially based on speculation and political aims. Educational professionals have little if any scientifically based research evidence that tablets can increase learning achievement any more than any other delivery device. The famous quote from Richard Clark still rings true where he stated that “[…] media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.” Because there is little evidence that any specific media will result in increased learning achievement, there is a disconnect as to why educators continue to overflow with technolust toward the iPad. The theoretical ideas behind using tablets in education are many, and indeed very exciting. Tablets need exploration and experimentation to identify how they can be best integrated into curriculum. Whether a public school massive expenditure is the best way to conduct the research is debatable. It does appear that small scale proven successes would be preferable prior to a billion dollar expenditure.
A good adage is always the carpenters rule: measure twice, but cut only once. There are many voices in the education profession that express a cautious attitude about iPad or tablets. There is essentially no research to support that iPads or any other tablet devices are additive to learning achievement. In a recent article from the LA Times, Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban shared some insightful comments. He stated, “There is still no evidence that iPads will increase student achievement at all. It’s not the hardware, it’s the software, and no studies have been done on the software apps in use, so no one knows,” said Cuban, who suggested the money might be better spent on training and recruiting teachers. “I’ve seen students with iPads and the novelty is there and the engagement is there, but it’s not clear that novelty and engagement will lead to increased academic achievement.”
We cannot say that iPads are any more valuable than a laptop or less expensive tablet for accessing instructional or learning content. Cuban raises a very important point about a well understood tenet of technology called “novelty effect”. Students often show short term increased achievement due to the novelty of the device, but after a short period of time when the novelty dissipates, the achievement levels decrease to previous levels. We simply do not know if this is true or not for iPads, and needs further research. Another valuable tenet of instructional technology is the least technology to achieve the learning goals is often the best decision. The LAUSD has reportedly appropriated 1 billion dollars for the iPad rollout. That’s a lot of money for something that is still in the experimental stage. A fair question to ask is if there were no other viable technology alternatives at a lower cost to achieve the desired learning objectives. Roughly $700 per device plus yearly Wi-Fi and support costs is quite a lot for unproven learning gains. As professor Cuban also stated, it is not the hardware, but rather the software. There are few examples software unique to the iPad that significantly increases learning achievement.
Without sufficient empirical evidence that tablets offer unique learning gains, the decision to move to a full scale implementation is a very risky proposition from the outset. Did the LAUSD really do their administrative homework prior to the decision to move forward? That is, was the decision based on solid principles of instructional technology and distance learning, or just a desire to have the latest and greatest technology? One not-so-small-point is that subsequent to the initial rollout, the district found that students needed keyboards. It is well understood that tablets are primarily suited to consumption activities and not productivity. There is a substantial amount of information readily available about productivity challenges inherent to tablets. Was that ignored or just never researched?
The fact that students hacked iPads to use social media should not be the major concern. What else are the students doing with iPads, and how well is the technology connected to the curriculum design and instructional delivery? That is not clear from the media reports. Is the issue more about the fact that students did not do their academic work with the devices? Will limiting access to social media fix that? It’s a difficult proposition to suggest that the absence of entertainment on the iPad will result in pursuing academic content. The absence of social media is likely not the catalyst to pursue academic work. We have to dig deeper into how to motivate students beyond removing temptation.
Because the students were able to hack the devices to access social media, we cannot throw in the towel. The integration of technology into curriculum extends far beyond securing hardware. This looks like another expensive lesson for educational technology. Technolust has always been the nemesis of educational technology. The truth is, many older technologies can provide substantial benefits to the learning process that are far less expensive than tablets. However, laptops and netbooks are surely not as much fun as iPads. Did LAUSD really need to take the 1 billion dollar plunge with iPads? This is likely a good lesson on proper implementation of educational technology. A carefully constructed plan to integrate curriculum is the catalyst. It is unclear how well this entire plan was thought out, and how it was implemented. Better to cut the losses sooner, before the entire 1 billion dollars are wasted.