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Why most K-12 schools aren’t ready for the iPad revolution

A student plays with an iPad while an older man looks on

Mike Reiners is the co-founder and CEO of NOMAD.

As of February 2013, 4.5 million iPads had been purchased for use in the U.S. K-12 academic environment. One million of these purchases happened in Q2 of 2012 alone, which represented more than the total number of K-12 iPads purchased up to that point. The growth rate is staggering, and doesn’t show signs of slowing anytime soon. But are our schools ready for the iSwarm?

They think they are. Nearly every day, you see another story about a school making a large iPad purchase. First, it was schools testing the waters by buying a class set of 30 to be usable by multiple teachers or assigned to one tech-forward pilot classroom. That quickly became full school rollouts, 1:1 iPad programs, private school recruiting tools, and even rolling kindergarten implementations. But keeping up with the Joneses does not constitute preparedness.

Now, this might seem like a self-defeating premise coming from a guy who makes his living building and selling apps, most of them with some kind of educational bent. Don’t get me wrong: I’d love it if even 10 percent of iPad-active elementary classrooms used my company’s apps, AWEsum! or AWEsum Plus, to build our children’s core abstract reasoning skills.

Furthermore, be assured that I don’t have anything against the iPad as a product, nor am I opposed to its use in schools. I’m simply imploring that we resist our very American tendency to rush to action, at least long enough to consider the following points:

1. Teaching requires planning. And planning requires time. Poll 100 teachers, and 99 of them will tell you they don’t have the time available to do their jobs as well as they’d like. (And save the cracks about “done at 3 pm” and “3 months vacation”; between undercompensated supervision of extracurricular activities, faculty committees, late nights spent correcting papers and summers of planning & fundraising, the average teacher makes less than $15/hour.)

When schools/districts are considering adopting a new textbook series, the curriculum committee may meet for a year or more to evaluate, decide, plan, and implement. The iPad isn’t just new curriculum for one subject; it’s an entirely new educational content delivery method. Yet we’re making snap purchase decisions, often coming from the administration level where the political/PR splash value is greatest, and not spending the time necessary to evaluate the overwhelming library of apps, iTunes U content, and iBooks.

Consider this: the most common iPad implementation plan (term used loosely) that I’ve encountered is to give each teacher a $X-per-student annual app budget, with virtually no oversight or coordinated collaboration.

2. Consider where we’re spending our education dollars. I have a number of good friends who were teachers, but have left the classroom for corporate positions. Oftentimes, these positions still have some connection to academic roots (e.g. educational sales, textbook curriculum development, or education consulting), but they carry two to three times the salary. Many of these friends were considered among the best teachers at their schools, and this is the point: We’re losing our best teachers.

For all the money that’s been spent on education reform in this country, the solution is not going to come from Santa showing up with a bag full of shiny new hardware, nor from tax referenda that rescue a few sports and activities. You want the best students? Make sure they’re being taught by the best.

Let’s say a high school of 1,000 students decides to purchase an iPad for each of its students. That’s a minimum of a half-million-dollar investment. Suppose instead the school invested $100,000 apiece in salary and benefits to retain (or recruit!) five outstanding teachers, who probably love the art of teaching, as they weigh their options and their future ability to support a family.

Think of what happens to an NFL football team and its surrounding fan base when it signs five high-powered free agents, all of whom are instantly among the team’s top ten overall players. Isn’t the successful education of our children at least as important?

3. The iPad is primarily a consumption device. A major buzzword in US education circles for the past few years has been STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). We lament that we are losing so many prominent U.S. tech jobs to foreign-born scientists, engineers, and programmers. There is essentially universal agreement that we need to invest heavily in STEM education, particularly from a human resource standpoint. Well, guess what: Handing a student an iPad won’t inspire them to build it or program it. You’d be better off giving them a graphing calculator or a cheap computer and teaching them to code.

If you think the device is inspirational in and of itself, walk into a school that has a BYOD policy, then lift any content or usage restrictions and see how students spend their time. A few exceptional kids might surprise you, but for the most part, you’ll find a gaggle of Facebook and Twitter posts and some really high Temple Run scores.

Teach a man to fish, eh? Give a kid an app and you inspire her for a day; teach a kid to make apps and you inspire her for a lifetime.

4. Our students should be mobile multilingual. Android device sales now outpace iOS device sales by 8 percentage points in our country, and the gap is growing. Who decided Apple should be the sole delivery platform? Personally, I’ve been a Mac-vs.-PC agnostic for years, and I currently own an Android phone, Android tablet, and iPad as my everyday mobile devices.

We all know that the Apple ecosystem is designed to work well within itself, and struggles (intentionally?) to support multi-platform users. We’re potentially doing our children a great disservice by forcing them into mastery of only one OS environment and its support of learning structures – and I’d say the same thing about Android if it were the beneficiary of a crowd mentality artificial monopoly.

In summary, let’s think about what we’re doing. Blind, quick-trigger actions in education, especially expensive and invasive ones, have historically disastrous results. What’s needed now is a lot of conversation across sectors, a lot of focused training, and a commitment to keeping the teacher-student educational relationship at the forefront.

Mike Reiners is the co-founder and CEO of NOMAD, an app development startup based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also a 17-year veteran high school mathematics teacher (still actively teaching). Mike lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and three young beta testers.

Photo credit: Northern Ireland Executive/Flickr


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