Wellesley Schools Want Every Fifth-Grader to Have an iPad

Here's why they should slow down.

Photo credit: Brad Flickinger via Flickr

Tomorrow night Wellesley schools will host a parent forum to discuss a proposal requiring every fifth grader to bring his or her own iPad to school for use in the classroom. Aside from the obvious question of affordability (the school says it will find a way to get an iPad into the hands of students who can’t afford to buy one), the real concern should be what the iPads will add to the educational experience in the first place. While tech-happy schools around the country take to so-called 1:1 technology programs, where every kid has his or her own iPad or laptop, school districts should be asking if the technology truly adds anything to the learning experience—or even, if it’s taking something away.

A look at that Wellesley report from a pilot study at the Schofield school isn’t entirely convincing. A scene of kids sprawled out on the classroom floor, gazing into iPad screens in a quiet classroom reminds me of the way my own kids get lost in their gadgets, hardly hearing me when I call them to dinner. Even though I know my kids are using valuable educational programs, like Lexia and SCRATCH, there’s a lost-ness in their demeanor. While I’m glad they’re immersed—they look the way I feel when I’m reading a great book—there’s a limit to how long I want them, or myself, to stay in that faraway place. Were their teachers to propose replicating this screen-sucking state in their classrooms, I’d balk. I don’t want them to miss out on one of the most valuable parts of their schooling—the social interaction, the interpersonal give-and-take, the heated arguments, deemed most important to true learning, and invigorating discussion.

Social scientists have long known how important social learning is to academic achievement. In fact, non-cognitive skills matter just as much as cognitive skills in educational settings. I fear that more screen time in the classroom may mean less face-to-face social time with peers. Taken to the extreme, how is purely individualized screen-based learning all that different than home schooling? The teachers in the pilot report video do say that their students work collaboratively with their iPads to further their discussions, but the examples shown weren’t all that revolutionary. Seeing onion skin at greater magnifications, after all, is something you can do with a microscope. I didn’t see how the use of the iPad enhanced the learning experience.

The desire to get kids up to speed technologically in school to reflect the real world they will enter when they graduate is not a bad motive. But the hard empirical research on the effectiveness of 1:1 technology, or any technology in the classroom, is just not there yet. At a minimum, as parents and teachers in Wellesley debate the question of an iPad for every student, they should take a look at mistakes from the past, like the ones presented here.

And they should take a word of caution from experts like Lisa Guernsey, author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software Affects Your Young Child, who says: “If teachers are enthusiastic and feel empowered by the technology, their students will too. I once visited a Connecticut public elementary school with a smart approach to laptops that has stuck with me ever since: Give the technology to the teachers first. Let them play with and learn from it for at least a year. Then ask their advice on how best to integrate it into the classroom in the next year.”

In the same vein, Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use at the University of California at Irvine and Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network says, “It is not the device that will determine the educational effectiveness of the innovation, but the ways in which it is used. IPads can be used simply to replicate existing textbook-centered learning, or to deliver more progressive, interactive, or customized forms of education.”

Bottom line: The effectiveness of technology in the classroom will come down to the strength and vision of teachers. They will have to be more creative, not less, in order to understand what might be gained from an infusion of more screen time into their students’ days. But, even more importantly, they will have to understand what might be lost.