The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.

The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

Spray and Pray Technology

The cover story of today’s Washington Post magazine, one of their two or three times a year “education editions”, asks Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?.

Of course, the writer doesn’t really address that question since this is more of a big picture story about the one-to-one programs of two local districts and about how a few teachers are using devices in their instruction.

But the article does manage to highlight several major problems that have come with adding technology to the “normal” classroom. First, is the fact that there is little research showing that computers improved student learning.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance.

So, like Mr. Joyner, many tech advocates look past the lack of evidence, that direct line, and go with the anecdotal observation that students are “excited to learn” to justify buying all the devices.

Or you have the “preparing students for the tech world” argument.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Except most kids already live in that “world where technology is ubiquitous”. We just do very little to help teachers adjust their classroom practice to incorporate that world and to make good use of the power that comes from the devices and network connections.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices … you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

The lesson activity examples described in this article reflect that automating old practices. They are little different from those that teachers were using twenty years ago and really don’t require technology. Substituting Google for the reference section of the library and doing poster projects on iPads instead of chart paper does not justify giving a computer to every student.

However, the biggest problem with this article is that it ignores the fact that districts in the DC area (including Fairfax County, the largest and my former employer) have been using the “spray and pray approach” for decades. Spending lots of money on new devices, software, and websites while changing little or nothing about what and how students learn.

Replacing standard desktop and laptop machines with Chromebooks and iPads is no different.

Educational Gimmicks

Remember when the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District had big plans to give an iPad to all 640,000 of their students?

Well, they have a new superintendent.

“I don’t believe we can afford a device for every student,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times, “Education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.” Cortines added that LAUSD had never made a definitive plan for how teachers would have used the iPads during instruction, nor had it planned how it was going to pay for the tablets over time.

I’m not sure what he means by education “becoming” the gimmick of the year since, for as long as I can remember, we’ve had a new gimmick almost every year. Sometimes more than one.

And that gimmick was often some kind of technology, distributed with vague plans for instructional use, and no sustainable funding plan.

Don’t Blame the iPad. Blame Yourself.

2013 was the year of the iPad in education. Lost of posts and articles declared that the device was going to transform learning and completely alter classroom practice. Plus lists of 23 apps that you must have!

Last year came the backlash, as usually happens with edtech revolutions.

A good deal of it was driven by stories of the poorly designed plan to distribute iPads to all students in Los Angeles1 but there were plenty of other negative voices. Also, a new edtech miracle device was crowned: the Chromebook.

Among the many complaints about the iPad, one of the loudest around here is that the devices are difficult to manage. And by “manage”, of course, we mean control.

There’s a reason why Windows is so beloved by the enterprise, and by IT departments in overly-large school districts that love to use that “enterprise” designation. The machines are relatively easy to clone and lock down. Which also makes many teachers happy as well since every screen is identical and every student gets the same “experience”. Certainly if our head of IT had her way, every computing device in the system would be identical and controlled from HQ.

However, if you’re critical of the iPads you bought because they’re difficult to control, because it’s hard to use them to duplicate the lab experience you love so much, don’t blame Apple.

Blame yourself.

The iPad was always designed as a device for the individual. That’s the way it’s always been marketed, as the most personal of personal computers, for fun, creation, and personal learning. Sure some promotional material shows iPads being used in classrooms by happy kids and teachers, but there’s no reason the sales people would mislead us, right?

If you expect Apple to change the way iPads function just because so many schools are buying them (as I’ve heard more than one IT person declare they must, MUST!), then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s not the company philosophy. Apple decides how the device works and users accept that. They wouldn’t mind selling millions of them to businesses2 but they’re leaving the lockdown control part up to IBM (and who will charge “enterprises” big bucks for it).

Ok, so none of this is meant to be a criticism of the iPad. I know the device has it’s flaws but so does any other computing choice you can name. They just aren’t big enough to inhibit my enjoyment. I love mine and in the almost four years I’ve had one, it has become an essential part of my digital life.

However, if those flaws are insurmountable for you, if iPad doesn’t fit into your model of an instructional devices, just don’t buy them. Get one running one of the many variations of the Android OS. Kindles. Amplify. Windows 8. Try Chromebooks. Forget tablets altogether and stick with a generic Windows PC.3

But you’re looking for the ideal device for instructional computing, the one that will be super easy to manage (aka control), the miracle worker that will turn all of your students into creative, innovative, high-test-scoring, coding, data-generating wonder kids, right?

Just wait. The next revolutionary educational technology should be announced any day now.

Lacking Vision in LA

Last spring the Los Angeles County schools voted to buy an iPad for every child in their system. This fall they started handing them to students, confident that they were locked down and could only be used for the designated instructional purposes.


It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

I don’t know the details beyond what I’ve read on the LA Times site, but there are a couple aspects about this story that go beyond my original rant on this project.

First, it hardly rises to the level of “hacking” when all that was required was deleting the personal profile on the device. And I doubt 300 students discovered the process. More likely it was one or two who then spread the news.

But even worse than a few kids challenging a rather stupid attempt at “security” is the district leadership’s view of how they should be using a connected, powerful computing device. As little more than a very expensive means of delivering standard curriculum materials, stuff that’s probably little changed from the stuff currently on paper.

And that vision (or lack thereof) is driven home by their short term solution to the problem.

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district “action plan.”

Or to put it another way,

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In the end, LA could have paid Amplify to provide heavily locked-down tablets with canned curriculum materials and few worries about empowering children. And done it for far cheaper.