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The New York Times, “Math That Moves:  Schools Embrace the iPad,” by Winnie Hu: ,  discusses a move across the country to put iPads into high school classrooms in an attempt to improve math ability.   Since I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke in 2003 when we “embraced” the iPod experiment–giving free iPods to entering first-year students before iTunes even existed and no one had thought of one, single learning application for the very popular and coveted music-listening device–you probably think I’m jumping for joy about school districts spending 50K or even 400K on giving all the kids iPads.   Since I co-direct the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, you may even think I’m partly responsible for this trend.   Not so fast . . .

Here is the issue:   if you change the technology but not the method of learning, then you are throwing bad money after bad practice. You’re giving kids a very fancy toy with enormous educational potential and, being kids, they will find exciting things to do with it and many of those things will be beneficial, exciting, and will help them be more adept in the 21st century world of new forms of communication and interaction.  If you leave kids to their own devices (pun intended), they will find ways to learn.   It’s what young animals of all kinds do.   So from that point of view, the iPad distribution is just fine.   The user interface on tablet computers is appealing, the multidisciplinary possibilities inventive, and the potential for downloading lots and lots of apps for just about anything–and even for designing apps yourself–is fun.  That makes the iPad a flexible, smart device.   That is the upside.

The downside is that it is not a classroom learning tool unless you restructure the classroom.   By that I mean, there is no benefit in giving kids iPads in school if you don’t change school.   You might as well send them off with babysitters to play in the corner with their iPads for eight hours a day.   Without the right pedagogy, without a significant change in learning goals and practices, the iPad’s potential is as limited (and limitless) as the child’s imagination.   That’s great on one level–but it misses the real point of education as well as the full potential of the device.  What iPad and all forms of digital learning should do is help prepare kids for this moment of interactive, complex, changing communication that is our Information Age.  This is the historical moment  that these kids have inherited and will help to shape.  Are we preparing them for the challenges we all face together simply by spending our tax dollars on iPads?  Yes.  And no.

When we gave iPods to the incoming students, we made the cover of Newsweek (“iPod Therefore I Am”), made primetime on ABC News (PeterJennings scowled, “Shakespear on the iPod?  Calculus on the iPod?”), and were denounced in a long, harrowing editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“The University seems intent on transformin g the Pod into an academic device, when the simple fact is that iPods are made to listen to music.  It is an unnecessarily expensive toy that does not become an academic tool simply because it is thrown into a classroom.”)  Darn right!  And we didn’t.   Instead, we challenged students to tell us–to show us– how these devices could be transformed.   I tell all the details of what turned out to be a very exciting, even transformative experiment in  Now You See It but, for now, let’s just say:  voice archives, heart arrhythmias, citizen environmental research,  placing one’s cello into a famous orchestra, video, and, well, podcasting.  It wasn’t invented when we embarked on the experiment.  You turned on the iPod, you listened.  Done.  Communication was one way.  Duke held the world’s first academic “podcasting” conference (I found the poster recently and love those quotation marks:  no one knew what to call “podcasting” at the time) all came from that experiment in student-driven pedagogy.

Here’s one part of the experiment:  If you were a second, third, or fourth year student (business schools take note!), you were really mad that the first-years got iPods and you didn’t.   So we told those students if they could teach a prof to use the iPod in the classroom with a learning application, that class (and the prof) would get iPods too.    Talk about incentive!   (yeah, yeah . . . if you want to find out what happened, you have to read the book)

The ISIS program at Duke (Information Science + Information Studies) was the first program, to our knowledge, to make interactive learning pedagogies, crowdsourcing, peer learning, learning-by-doing a rigorous part of research and learning in higher education and the iPod experiment was planted atop that earlier (we began designing ISIS in 1998!!) pedagogical and research experiment. (HASTAC was the international version; it came along in 2002).   We had faculty and students already primed to think about the Information Age as a moment of new forms of interactive learning.   We became an Apple Digital Campus along with five other universities, each of whom was offered one technology to implement in the classroom.  We chose the iPod precisely because it fit our new model of learning:  that young people were learning more and more about customizing, interaction, self-designing, peer learning; they loved the iPod for music; why not reverse the usual pedagogical hierarchy and let them teach us how and why the iPod might have educational uses.   Last time I looked, there were over 300,000 downloadable free items (including, yes, Shakespeare and calculus) on iTunes U.  And from the iPod experiment, Apple got a lot of free  r and d (no one ever accused Steve Jobs of being a fool) even as some Duke students got a music listening device but many a gateway to a new way of learning the world.

So back to those iPads in K-12 schools.  If your school district has embraced student-centered learning, if it has redeveloped its curriculum, and if it no longer thinks that End of Grade testing measures what students today do learn and need to learn, then computer-aided learning and digital learning and learning as play are wonderful.   Embrace those iPads!   But the metrics, the methods, the goals and the assessments all need to change.   No Child Left Behind, our national educational policy,  is based on early twentieth-century concepts of efficient testing that was explicitly designed to make learning imitate the production of Model T’s on Ford’s assembly line.   We still have that institutional basis undergirding schools in an era where there is an app for anything.  Simply throwing iPads into the classroom cannot begin to educate kids to the world they are inheriting.

In another blog, I’ll talk about my concern about the closed nature of the iPad as the model we’re embracing.   That’s a more complicated argument for those who don’t know about open source and closed source devices and computing.   Let’s just say fantastic games and devices and learning tools–including elementary kids’ coding languages like Scratch–make STEM learning inspiring and fun and help us break down another invention of the Industrial Age:  the “two cultures” divide of science/technology versus arts/humanities.   New ways of learning (including with the iPad) blend these–and not a moment too soon.   Maybe those iPadding kids will demand art back in their classrooms because you’re shortchanged, really, if you don’t know how to create with such a fabulous tool for creativity.   But even more fabulous would be learning how to write the code so you could create your own device.

That, my friends, is Lesson #2.   Embrace new ways of learning–not just a marvelous (but closed) and very expensive tool.   Your kids have infinite potential to learn if we give them the chance.  That requires not a device but a pedagogy and a set of institutional practices that put energy, imagination, creativity, and inspiration–across those arbitrary and limiting “two cultures” divides–at the center of learning.   You cannot replace the Model T model of education with an iPad if you still believe learning can be produced by assembly line standards and standardization.  That’s what we have to change!   The iPads are a start, because they inspire . . . but we have a lot of work today to take down the 20th century apparatus that harnesses our 21st century imagination.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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