Friday, April 20, 2012

What is it about iPads?

When we first got iPads in our school district, I wasn’t entirely convinced that they were worth the investment.  We began with a small pilot.  After all, why not just get laptops? But I’m converted.   The hard part has been figuring out what makes them so spectacular.  After all, I am inclined to lean in to James McConville’s arguments about “why the iPad is bad for education.”  It seems simply flashy (without even the ability to use flash) and frankly commercial, rather than a more utilitarian school tool.

But still.  This is what I see.

iPads are really, really, really easy to use!
Everyone can just “get” iPads in a very short time.  (They are not easy to manage, but using them for learning is a cake walk.)  In our lesson today, students used the Explain Everything app – a screencasting tool that allowed pairs of grade 6 and 7 students to create a video explaining how to do a math word problem.  The task itself was complex, demanding first a sophisticated understanding of the math concepts, an idea of how to break the problem down to a grade four level (“We can’t use ratio,” one student argued, “because they won’t get it”), the ability to figure out the best sequence for explanation and the most effective method for illustrating the problem – and they had to negotiate all that thinking with a partner.  In addition, they had to figure out a complex application – taking photos, uploading, cropping and rotating, using a drawing tool, voice recording, adding and deleting slides, saving and converting to video.  In under an hour.

That kids learn quickly and with ease isn’t surprising.  We constantly speak about “digital natives” and their fearlessness.   (I admit to being taken aback, nonetheless, by the amazing things even our smallest learners can do with these tools.)  But here’s what surprising: the teachers who set up the lesson learned how to use the app the evening before.   And they were willing to teach with it the next day – not only teach with it, but demonstrate the lesson in front of a group of colleagues.  I have been teaching teachers about technology for years; I have never seen such rapid movement from teacher learning to classroom implementation.  

(An important caveat.  The iPad is not magical in any way.  The usual ingredients for successful new learning are needed:  someone on staff with some time to coordinate the project and help problem-solve along the way; and time set aside for staff to learn together, and better yet, teach together to build confidence and grow the skill to use the tool to transform learning.  As someone said yesterday, it can become just a very pretty – and expensive – toy that will sit on the shelf once the novelty wears off.)

iPads invite a learning stance.

“Teachers become a role model of learning,” Lori said as she watched the lessons today.  Teacher-leaders Tammy, Tricia and Val invited students to learn with them.  Deanna, whose school has just started the six-week project with iPads, said, “I was absolutely terrified when I got the iPads in my class for the first time.  But I told the kids that we were all learners together;  we experimented, the kids were a big help to me and to each other, and we all had fun.”  I still don’t entirely understand this willingness, but I think it’s related to what Deanna said – at the end of the hour, they were having fun.  The ease of use makes success almost inevitable.

Students find a comfortable space to create.
iPads foster community.
Perhaps it’s because learning together is modelled that I am constantly impressed, when observing iPad classrooms, by how much students help each other and share what they’ve learned with each other.   However, I’m beginning to think it’s also because iPads open a space for learning conversations.  Instead of isolating the learner behind a screen, iPads invite conversation:  heads lean together, students can talk without the tool standing as a barrier.  We deliberately send 15 iPads to the school. Teachers are disappointed at first; now they say they don’t want 30.  They notice that the students learn together in unexpected ways, that the conversation, the peer support, the ongoing modelling of shared learning creates a learning community.

iPads open the door to self-directed learning.
That doesn’t mean that student always partner.  Teachers begin to see the possibility of independent, self-directed learning.  15 students can be left to work independently (but still supporting each other; the space created by an iPad invites this), while the others work in guided ways, perhaps, with the teacher or with a different tool: reading a book, sketching, painting, dancing, listening to music – and the many, many other nontechnology things that fill our day and support student learning.  The teacher, instead of standing in front directing the learning, can truly become a guide on the side, a coach, a cheer-leader.

iPads inspire uniqueness.
Of course, what we all see quickly when we use any technology (but magnified in the iPad because of the ease of use) is the possibility for personalization, for just right learning, for our unique learners to move at a pace that makes sense, to show their learning in a variety of ways, and nonetheless to participate meaningfully in our collective experiences.  We are seeing the capacity for students to go deeper, to spread their learning wings, to engage in what matters to them, to create something beautiful, to have success and to realize, through that success, that learning is what they do best.

But why iPads?
And what about other tablets?  So far, the educational applications, the depth of global professional support, the continued extraordinary user experience make it the go-to tablet.  Interestingly, the key resistors to iPad are often people with the most technology experience, the long-time advocates for infusing technology into education.   For them, the PC meets their needs perfectly.   They have spent years bewailing the reluctance of colleagues to embrace technology.  What’s exciting is that now we have a tool that has ignited interest in technology across a broad range of educators.  Why do we answer that excitement with the one that so many of us for so many years:  “It’s just a fad.”

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