Homogenizing Tablets

Here in the overly large school district we are buying lots of iPads.

Nothing particularly unusual about that. While the brand of the tablet may vary1, many educational institutions are trying to figure out if this new format could be a good classroom tool.

And I think most of our schools don’t understand what they have purchased.

Most iPad owners probably realized very quickly that it’s not a computer. There really isn’t a good, short generic label for it, but everything in this relatively new category of mobile communications devices2 was designed to be for individual use and to be easily customizable.

Schools on the other hand want to use these devices in the same way they’ve used “standard” computers for the past twenty years: very clone-able and offering the exact same experience for every person who sits down at it.

In some ways this dichotomy mirrors the disconnect between our traditional factory model of education and the growing personalization of learning out there in the real world. We continue to try and maintain an homogenized approach to schooling while the opportunities for individual and high social learning is exploding.

Ok, maybe stretching things a bit, but the point is that these can and should be highly individualized learning devices if we were thinking in those terms for school as a whole.

In the meantime, there are more than a few companies trying to build a “school tablet”, one that does allow for the tight controls our IT department lusts after (and those in other districts, I’m guessing). The latest example is the Amplify Tablet, announced this week at the South by Southwest Education conference (aka sxswedu).

According to the company, Amplify is designed to give “teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device”.

Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to “raise their hands” virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an “Eyes on Teacher” button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.

In other words, Amplify is really no different from what we have now, both in terms of computing devices and how we use them. The purpose of this table is to foster the same nice, neat, uniform, teacher-directed instruction that has been the centerpiece of schooling for more than a century. If it’s not there already, I fully expect Amplify to come with an app for taking standardized tests since the whole package is designed to address the holy grail of American education: higher scores.

One of the reasons I’m such a big advocate for bring-your-own-devices programs is that I hope it will force a change in the way we use technology in schools by making it more individual and personal. Unfortunately, it will take more than allowing kids to use cell phones and tablets inside the building to force the kind of major changes in the traditional school structure we need.

By the way, all the press on the Amplify announcement calls this a “start up” company but it’s hardly in the same class with other small tech groups scrambling to make a name for themselves. Amplify Education Inc. was formed following the purchase of education start-up Wireless Generation by News Corp., and its CEO is former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Klein is very wedded to a traditional, test-driven vision of education while News Corp is very driven by making money any way it can. Not a good combination.

1 Not a fan of Apple? From this point on, feel free to substitute your favorite tablet brand for iPad. My point won’t change.

2 MCD? Nope, that doesn’t work.