iPads in Schools

Our local school board has been attempting to deploy iPads to every public school student in the district for over a year. Its feasibility has been called into question more than once.

Today our local paper ran a headline article entitled “iPad program to cost $4M a year”.[1] The article details the various funding mechanisms proposed by the Board but overlooks the key question about efficacy.

The Board members, like those of other schools systems, appear to have succumbed to a form of “technological solutionism” as writer Evgeny Morozov terms it. That is, they assume, without sufficient evidence that any problem can be solved by bringing sufficient technology to bear on it. In the case of public education this may be a flawed assumption. Some of the best-performing public education systems in the world make little use of technology. It would be presumptious to conclude without evidence that our national or local systems have needs that are so unique that they can only be fulfilled with iPads in every student’s hands.

Any discussion of the affordability of technology in education must depend first on answering questions about the effectiveness of the tool in achieving some educational goal. In the case of iPads, what evidence suggests that student iPad users are more likely to achieve certain educational outcomes than their tech-less peers? Do such studies exist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are the outcome measures relevant? What is the effect size of the intervention?

It would surprise me if our local students were tech-deficient by any legitimate definition of the term. Free-access internet-capable computers are widely available; and in a metropolitan school district such as ours, I doubt that the so-called “digital divide” is very large.

More importantly, I’m concerned that consigning more education to glowing rectangles of any sort actually decreases educational attainment. Heavy internet and cell phone users have lower reading efficiency. They tend to skim content in a telegraphic fashion that matches the on-screen layout. It is rare to see a teenager whose attention is not riveted to a screen at least half of the time. The constant barrage of interactivity causes kids to expect that everything will interact with them. They are noticeably uncomfortable with moments in which they can’t interact with media.

I’m deeply skeptical that whatever performance issues exist in our public education systems, they can be solved by giving students iPads.

  1. Rochester Post Bulletin, March 6, 2014