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BLOG: Giving kids iPads won't solve the education challenge

Galen Gruman | Aug. 12, 2013
Los Angeles's program to supply iPads to 640,000 students is the latest example of confusing technology with teaching

In the United States, we've dumped a lot on teachers in the last several decades. Teachers are counselors, social workers, disability-development providers, coaches, and sometimes de facto parents. Oh, and they're supposed to teach and stay current in what they teach. Asking them to manage technology too is just wrong -- and it will ensure that over time the systems don't work well or at all.

That's just one issue. The ability to track students on their computers or tablets as they learn sounds great, but it forces the teacher to divide his or her attention across 30 or more students at the same time. It also puts the teacher more into a monitoring role, which competes for mind power with the teacher's teaching role. That juggling and duality are difficult to maintain all day, every day. I get the value of seeing the data on each student's activities and progress outside of class, when the teacher can concentrate on optimizing that aspect of the students' learning. But the push to real-time monitoring and real-time lesson personalization is not doable.

Maybe the notion of a classroom with 30 students learning largely the same thing is the root problem, so maybe we need self-directed learning that can best be deployed via computing devices and supervised by teacher-advisors. Or perhaps this could be a repeat of the New Math and phonics fiascos that made a generation of American kids innumerate and illiterate. I don't know. What I do know is that there's a fundamental mismatch between how education is organized and the theory behind these personalized-education-oriented classroom learning systems.

Technophiles see the world through the lens of technology, so of course they propose technology solutions to nearly every problem. Vendors are happy to profit from that, and frustrated parents and politicians are happy to stop thinking and just buy a silver bullet.

Education is a multivariant challenge. Throwing technology at the problem without redesigning the whole context just won't work. Some students and teachers will of course benefit from technology, and we'll read about them in vendor case studies. But most will continue to struggle and work around the newest complexity thrown into their environments.

We'll know we're smart about this when we stop seeing mainstream stories about how many technology widgets a school deployed and start seeing stories about how the world envies the quality of American-educated kids.


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