The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school district in the United States, has approved a plan that will provide every K-12 student and teacher in Los Angeles with an iPad by fall 2014. With more than 650,000 students and almost 26,000 teachers, this initiative represents a huge and risky investment that’s quickly growing from an initial estimate of $500 million to close to $1 billion. The initiative is being financed from monies in a bond fund that had been earmarked for school infrastructure.
Is it worth it?
As someone who has, literally, written the book on iPad use in the classroom, I can answer with a definitive: It depends.
Incorporating technology into learning can potentially enhance the quality of education — but only if such an initiative has clear objectives, is well planned and properly managed. The quality of a school’s education can’t be validated with a simple tally of the devices being used on campus. The iPad isn’t a magic pill that will cure the ailments of outdated educational models — not unless its use is integrated into holistic educational approaches that address the needs of 21st century learners entering adulthood in a technology-rich, unpredictable and exponentially changing society.
As a parent deciding between educational alternatives for my child, I would ask several key questions in deciding whether the new LAUSD initiative will improve public education:
How will technology use change the educational dynamics at the school?
We’ve all experienced the depth of “learning by doing.” In contrast to the traditional “sage on the stage” classroom lecturing model, technology can be used to empower learners to research, discover, create and connect within more student-centered, experiential processes. Given opportunity and support, students can analyze and work toward solutions of real-world problems. Student-centered educational models develop independent, lifelong learners that can thrive in a climate of societal change. As examples of student-centered models, consider the school in Culver City where students polled residents about their water usage in order to create public service videos as part of their campaign to promote water conservation. The students in a middle school class in Texas took it upon themselves to research and design cafeteria menus and school programs for healthier eating and increased fitness. When deciding to rebuild their outdoor play areas, one elementary school turned to its students and gave them the chance to debate and offer design suggestions.
We all get caught up in assessments and academic results. Remember, however, that preparing students for “the test” can often come at the expense of building important skills that prepare them for life. Education needs to focus on preparing children for the journey ahead and not for some arbitrary destination.
Will technology be used to break down classroom walls?
The traditional school design gathered students together in a walled-off, physical space, giving them access to a single content source (textbook) and a subject expert (teacher). That model remained largely unchanged for more than a century — and then along came the Internet. All of a sudden, huge libraries of content and teams of experts are available anywhere and at any time. We can steadfastly hold on to our old pedagogical models or embrace the opportunity to help our students connect, analyze, evaluate and utilize the incredible amount of information they have at their fingertips.
Access and connection — that’s the magic of technology. Imagine their awe when a class of fifth-grade science students in Ohio had a Skype video call with famed international astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to discuss their interplanetary travel project. Consider the ninth-grade class I worked with that searched Twitter and found the author of the novel they were reading, then arranged a video conference to discuss how he developed the characters and plot. Think of all the classrooms where students can work collaboratively in groups, sharing their work online with others while developing the teamwork and collaborative skills demanded by employers in the workplace. An amazing transformation occurs when you go from “Refer to your textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter” to “How and with whom can I connect to develop the answers I’m seeking?”
How will teachers make the adjustment?
Deploying iPads effectively involves a major change in educational outlook and school culture. This requires ongoing training, mentoring and continual support. Will the teachers at your school receive training on integrating multimedia into lessons, screencasting presentations, creating and publishing class e-books and more … or will they be expected to continue lecturing and use technology for projecting and word processing? Without constant training and reinforcement, not only will technology fail to reform education but it will become a very expensive Band-Aid on an old educational model that isn’t working.
Will classes have a virtual learning environment?
Learning is occurring in both physical and virtual environments. Schools require a well-designed and implemented online presence that helps students engage in interactive communications and learning practices both before and after the afternoon bell rings. Does your school have an effective online presence that always communicates clear expectations for classes and students? More importantly, can students collaborate and interact with teachers and other students outside of class? Does the school’s online presence encourage and facilitate collaboration with teachers and students in other locations around the world?
The LAUSD plan is a brave and bold first step that recognizes the need to reform our schools. The key question is how schools will use technology to create a 21st century learning environment for students. Answer that question correctly and we’ll be doing our children a great service.
Sam Gliksman is an educational technology consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of “iPads in Education for Dummies” and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.