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I’m wondering why there is so much of a push to get iPads in the classroom. Aren’t laptops a better tool for students?

April 30, 2011

Are our schools being convinced to put iPads in the hands of students instead of laptops? And don’t tell me that this is not an either/or issue, because there’s no way schools can afford to emphasize both.

On the “Apps in Education” blog, we’re given “7 reasons you need an iPad in your classroom,” as well as “10 concrete ideas for using them in the classroom RIGHT NOW.” Among the reasons given for using the iPad is that it is “more streamlined, portable, and cool… boots up faster.” The blogroll on this website is a veritable collection of iPad evangelists, preaching the gospel according to Apple. I’m sorry if I sound a little skeptical. I guess it’s because, well, I am. What is behind this outpouring of love for the iPad? Is the iPad really going to promote a “revolution in education”?

The Keyboard’s the Thing

In fairness, one of the 10 concrete ideas offered to teachers is about writing. We’re told “There are also apps that allow the user to handwrite on the device, using either their finger or a specialized stylus. This would provide another way for students to write instead of having to keyboard.” Hmmm, instead of having to keyboard. That’s an interesting choice of words. I thought we wanted students to learn to keyboard. Isn’t that where the great majority of their serious writing will happen? I mean, I’m over the whole “pen on paper is better because it slows down thought” argument. But just when we have embraced the concept of students writing on a keyboard, are we being subtly pushed toward a keyboard-less future?

I think the bottom line is Steve Jobs. Apple is pushing their product and they are taking aim at schools and the children in them as a primary customer target. And this bothers me for a number of reasons. This is one more step toward the commercialization of education, is it not? I mean, think about it. Some genius at Apple has convinced school districts all over the country that they need to get these iPads in the hands of kindergarteners! And district superintendents and teachers are buying into it because, after all, these things are really cool.

Seriously, the iPad is the crack of all media technologies. I want one really bad. It’s just so vivid and svelte and popping with digital energy; who can resist? But here’s the thing, and tell the truth… is there anybody out there who wants an iPad so they can write with it? Maybe read, yes, I can believe that, but nobody wants to use an iPad for serious writing. I want an iPad for consuming YouTube for hours on end, watching fascinating stuff like guys squirt milk out of their eyeballs.

So why would we train first-time students on an iPad instead of a laptop? It makes no sense, especially when one considers the declining literacy rates in the U.S. As a side note, have you noticed how the word literacy has been swiped by EIT folks? I was just talking to an EIT guy today (learning from him about how to use WordPress in the classroom), and he said something about the lack of literacy in students. He was referring to computer literacy, but he just used the single word “literacy.” Fascinating, I thought. Well, that’s another subject for another post.

Writing as a Mode of Learning

When I speak of literacy, I’m talking about writing and reading. Did you know that children can write before they can read? It’s true. And it concerns me that Apple and all the iPad evangelists out there are pushing our youngest students toward a learning style that mimics habits of our culture that are still in question in regard to their effect on our thinking — the visual, skimming-the-surface, multitasking-oriented world in which we live.

Writing, whether it is scribbled on a piece of paper or pecked out on a keyboard, is still the most dynamic mode of learning. In her classic article “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” Janet Emig explains that “writing is a uniquely powerful multi-representational mode of learning… as it simultaneously utilizes enactive, iconic, and representational forms of learning.” Paulo Freire defined literacy as “critical engagement with word and world.” At the risk of oversimplifying (because I certainly don’t deny that the iPad can be an effective learning tool), I firmly believe that the critical engagement all teachers want is more likely to happen on a laptop than an iPad.

The evidence is overwhelming that writing skills are diminishing among high school and college graduates. I can’t understand why we would want to move any students away from writing. It makes no sense. Laptops can be purchased at the same price as an iPad. Given the choice, laptops make so much more sense. The only problem is that we couldn’t buy Apple computers for the same price as an iPad, so Steve Jobs wouldn’t get paid. And I’m afraid that, my friends, is the real issue here.

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