Federal “Race to the Top” funding in the US is supporting new iPad initiatives from New York to California in the latest rendition of one-to-one laptop programs. Will this cheaper, smaller, simpler device finally bring computer technology into the educational mainstream? The advocates predict big things, but the New York Times quotes Larry Cuban as saying that “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.”
If the idea is that technology will engage and motivate students, this will be a costly flash in the pan that fades and fails as the novelty wears off. However, the iPad (and the parade of rivals that will soon be introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week) clearly represents an new threshold and not just a smaller laptop like the netbook so perhaps this really is the time that technology finally takes hold and goes to scale in education. What will it take (other than money) for that to happen?
Whatever the technology horse, the educational cart remains the same. What it is carrying (the content) and the destination (the intended outcomes) may change but the task of engaging students and supporting learning remains the same. Research done by CEA (see the What Did You Do In School Today report on this web site) indicates that student engagement is generally low and that it drops off after elementary school with only a minor recovery in the last year of schooling.
Unless students are intellectually engaged, which is a purely voluntary matter over which they have complete control, their learning will at most be superficial. Once engaged, they will learn but they will learn in different ways and at different rates, and they will be developmentally ready to learn various things at different times.
A teacher’s most fundamental task is to meet the challenges of engagement for a diverse group of students within the batch-processing model of education that arose as a factory analog within the Industrial Age, and thus to enable and energize students’ learning. Computer technology, and the iPad in particular, have great potential for meeting these challenges, but only if used within curricular conceptions, and to support instructional approaches, that directly and intentionally address the challenge of engagement within diversity. Technological titillation alone will not do the job.
IPad projects, and the laptop initiatives that preceded them, face other challenges of course – for example, teacher training, technological infrastructure and sustainable funding to keep technology functioning and up to date – but how to engage students in ways that respond to and support their diverse interests, styles and abilities remains the fundamental issue. This is the question that the iPad must answer if it is to deliver its enormous promise.