Sunday, July 20, 2014

Digitizing the classroom with iPads: prudent or perilous?

Little House On The Prairie on

Babbitt on

Plenty of inane stereotypes have proliferated about the state of Minnesota (thanks to classic movies like Fargo), but without a doubt, Minnesota is a fulfilling place to live if you’re into books and literature.  My wife loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder growing upone time we even visited a couple of Wilder’s old residencies in rural MNand my favorite Minnesotan writer is Sinclair Lewis, who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I write from the capital city, St. Paul, home to literary celebrities from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Garrison Keillor, and its neighboring 'twin' city, Minneapolis, ranks as one of the most literate cities in the USA.

I mention the bookish background of my state because it may shed light on why a recent decision by St. Paul Schools has sparked questions, even skepticism, among parents and teachers.  In short, St. Paul Schools approved a plan to equip every student (including pre-K kids) with an iPad.  Since the details are yet to come on exactly how these devices are supposed to help teach students and close achievement gaps, it’s difficult to evaluate the board’s decision in any methodical way.  

So should parents and teachers be concerned about digitizing the classroom with iPads?

Well, to try to answer that question, the first thing we can do is look at similar attempts by other major cities.  The Los Angeles schools, for example, experimented by giving iPads to students in hopes to aid learning and raise grades.  When asked for feedback in surveys, however, most teachers reported little enthusiasm about using iPads.  Then again, this survey feedback is pretty ambiguous and not necessarily scientific, which makes it difficult to generalize.  Unfortunately, scientific data on iPads in education is pretty scarce.

However, we can look at how other attempts to digitize the classroom went over prior decades.  For example, we now have plenty of scientific data about laptops and how they affect student learning.

Laptops, like iPads, are a kind of screen technology—in contrast to the print technology of books.  In the next two posts to come, we will look at how laptops and books—screen and print—differ.  Then we will see how those differences make a difference in education, for better or for worse.

But before going further, we should be careful to frame the question correctly; otherwise, we won’t be able to answer it correctly.  Arguing for laptops and iPads over books, or arguing for books over laptops and iPads, should never be understood as ‘pro-technology’ or ‘anti-technology’ arguments.  Laptops, iPads, and books are all technologies—the first two being screen technology, the second being print technology.

The real question should be this: what technology is best for learning what educational skill?  Or the way I’ve put it previously: which information-processing technology is best for which information-processing task?  Let’s not radicalize ourselves with labels like technophile on one hand and technophobe on the other.   There are enough culture wars in our society already.

So stay tuned, and join me in the next couple posts for Screen vs. Print, where we will return to the question concerning iPads, laptops, and other digital devices in education!


  1. I'm glad you're addresing the technology itself, reflected vs projected light. The difference between the two is significant in how they affect your vision in the long term. In this review, would you extend your assessments to include e-ink devices? They seem to be a nice middle ground between Books and Tablets that over get overlooked for either cost or glamor.

  2. Yes, in information technology, we will definitely see that reflected vs. direct light is one of the major factors affecting learning and human cognition. Interestingly, the Kindle is a kind of screen that uses both direct and reflected light, a kind of middle ground. The e-ink devices you bring up are another interesting middle ground that I'll have to eventually address too--thanks for the suggestion! Next few posts on these topics to come soon, I promise.