Why tablets are not going to make education any better (unless we innovate on content)

Although tablets have been thoroughly embraced for personal and business uses, touch screen technology still has an element of magic to it. Recently, there has been an explosion in educational and kid-centric application development, leaving us questioning the tablet’s role in schools and in the hands of children. A video of a baby treating print magazines like touch screens went viral on Youtube. Children, even toddlers, can use iPads even before learning to talk, and schools are applying for grants to provide their students one tablet each.

Application developers are responding accordingly to this growing market, leading to a huge variety of apps that help toddlers learn everything from the alphabet, to numbers, to animals’ names. Elementary school kids can practice reading and spelling in a huge selection of linguistic apps. Teachers and parents are excited about apps, about tablets, and about the hope that thanks to these devices, they’ll win back their students’ and children’s attention, curiosity and interest. Of course students will embrace this technology, as they already have, but are tablets really going to save education? Uploading homework on Dropbox for iPad and playing games to learn STEM skills may be easier and more fun than traditional means, but are students really going to be more motivated by these technologies?

Of course, K-12 kids are going to respond with enthusiasm if their schools provide them each with iPads, but what happens when the initial excitement wears off? Touch screen devices are just part of a child’s landscape. In the same way that our generation takes email and digital photography for granted, by the time today’s 2 year-old gets to elementary school, touchscreen devices are going to be considered standard.

There is also the issue of children from certain socioeconomic backgrounds being left out. Many parents are required to buy an iPad for their kids in order for them to attend a certain school. In this case, the digital divide is going to be even more painful for kids. iPads are designed to be more personal than personal computers, and for schools it’s going to be hard to keep up with the expenses; how long will the tablets last before becoming outdated? How many iPads will go broken while used by the kids? With whose money schools are going to replace them, and how will schools in less well-funded districts stay included?

“It’s an expensive program to run,” said Dr. Joselyn Todd, who directs the Cary Academy instructional technology outreach program. “Schools may have the initial investment but don’t always have funds to continue long-term.”

The answer is, while the technology opens up many exciting opportunities for learning, tablets themselves are not going to improve education. The schools that had better results after having adopted tablets in their curricula are the ones who have designed a revolutionary curricula, radically different from the one they used to have. They embraced interactive cooperative learning as their only strategy. If iPads are simply replacing textbooks and notebooks, yet the educational philosophy stays the same, one cannot expect real change.

Tech enthusiasts may protest that schools need to remain up to date, particularly with a technology that is increasingly becoming a part of children’s daily lives. Again, this is not the heart of the issue. There is a greater problem in education demanding our attention.

Let me share with you a brief chunk of my high school memories.
When I was in high school, I took German. I loved the language, but there was something I couldn’t stand. To engage us, our German teacher used to take us to the video lab (yay!) to watch videos of horrific actors, dressed cheaply, exchanging inaudible conversations about irrelevant topics. The teacher considered it be cool and engaging, something our parents didn’t have. It wasn’t cool at all in our eyes; and it didn’t make any difference in our perception of German. I much preferred talking directly to the teacher, in the class (she was a great and really fun teacher) rather then watching those lame videos.

There’s an elephant in our multimedia classrooms, and it’s about time we look it in the eye. Educational materials are often weak from an editorial standpoint. How are these materials supposed to compare with the games these kids play on the X-Box? The common attitude is that they shouldn’t compare, because their value is precisely that those are educational materials, not necessarily meant to be aesthetically pleasing.

This is the elephant in the room. Tablets are not going to magically make school relevant to kids, if the content we distribute through iPads refuses to compare with the quality of entertainment industry. We as educators, as developers, and as parents have continued to make this mistake despite the fact that we can no longer hide behind the idea that educational materials lack the funding that the entertainment industry has. Although this fact may be true, technology has closed this gap. Education needs to be as appealing as entertainment.  Do we really believe that school is some kind of necessary evil and that all we can do to make kids swallow this uncomfortable truth is to have them do their homework on a tablet?

School should be an amazing adventure. Knowledge is one of life’s most precious gifts. Shouldn’t we figure out how to communicate this to children?

Here there are four goals that could massively improve school relevancy and make a giant leap forward in the way society considers K-12 education, not as a necessary evil, but as an incredible opportunity and a gift.

1) Make schools a truly cooperative learning environment.

School should be a place where students and teachers learn to share resources and experiences, and where the focus is on creating in a mutually supportive environment. Making kids responsible for the place where they study, and for the tools that they use, is one of the basic principles of many forward-thinking educational methods of the last century (from Montessori to Waldorf).

2) Shift towards liquid learning

After liquid modernity, it’s now time to start talking about liquid learning. In the Internet era, hermetically sealed subjects are nonsensical. It’s to be taken for granted that subjects are interconnected, and we need to find ways to teach them with unexpected overlaps. In this way, we may even incidentally solve the problem of diversity within industries: if grammar is mixed with math, we won’t discourage aspiring writers to dream of an engineering career.

3) Use the power of storytelling

It’s about time we raise the bar of the editorial quality of what we offer our students. Stories have to be engaging in order to pass on lessons to children. Great stories can have a dramatic impact on kids, and can kindle their passion for learning, making them feel part of a great adventure. Why shouldn’t we expect a great editorial quality from a character that helps our kid learn math? Why shouldn’t that character be as fun as Spongebob? And why should we expect kids to keep associating studying with something that’s *essentially* less fun than the cartoons and books they love?

4) Involve parents and create bridges between scholastic and domestic life

Again, we can’t expect parents to be involved and present just out of sense of duty. We need to measure how much the materials we publish engage them, retain them, and make them feel part of their kids’ learning journey.

We have metrics: we can measure almost anything that happens on tablets. Let’s use these metrics the way the entertainment industry uses them, and let’s get abandon the snobbish attitude that children don’t deserve good taste in the visuals and content of learning materials. Kids need us to change our perspective to improve their learning. We can’t pass on this opportunity.