What iPads Can’t Do

“A child starting school today has to be prepared for the world of 2030 and after, a world even more digitized than today’s world,” says Maurice De Hond, a Dutch entrepreneur and an Education For A New World initiator. “But most schools are preparing their students for yesterday’s world.” [source]

Do you remember your first computer? I do. When I was a kid, my family had an Atari system that plugged into our TV and allowed my older brother and I to play “educational” games. Many of the games we started with involved familiarizing us with the keyboard. Letters would float down the screen at increasing speeds and we would have to strike the correct key on the keyboard before it landed at the bottom. I remember the experience being both somewhat mindless and somehow rewarding (I now know that each correct key strike was stimulating the reward center in my young brain). Even then, it was surprising how much time could be lost to the machine. My parents, skeptical of the educational value of anything with a screen, set strict limits on how much time we could spend with the computer. They were smart to do so, not only because we now have the research to show how important it is to limit screen time, but also because keeping the games out of reach much of the time kept them appealing for a longer amount of time than the games themselves seemed to warrant.

I wouldn’t have imagined then the world that we live in today, where computers ride in our pockets and double as phones and video devices and cameras. We saw glimpses of the future all along the way to where we are, in science fiction novels and movies and in the imaginings of technical visionaries, but none of these glimpses could prepare us fully for the complexities of our plugged in lives. The computers that I interacted with as a child didn’t truly “prepare” me for the computers of my adult life because new devices necessitate new skills, new understandings. As a child, in awe of technology and how things worked, plugging simple programs into a simple computer to prompt it to say “Hello, World!”, I would not have been able to fathom how easy the technology of today has become. The children of today don’t even need to know how to point-and-click to navigate an iPad, so it’s absurd for us to think that the use of these intuitive devices is somehow “preparing” them for a future we haven’t yet seen.

It’s a waste of our time here and now to attempt to think of the challenges our children will face in this faceless future. What history shows us, however, is what skills have always been of value and so will most likely continue to be needed in the future, no matter what that future looks like. Skills like problem-solving, creative thinking, cooperation, persistence, and engagement. We know that screen media actively interferes with the development of many of these skills in young brains, but we continue to tell ourselves that what kids need is tablet computers, e-learning, and a steady drip of technology. We seem to make the mistake of thinking that “smarter” technology (that is, technology that does more for us) makes for smarter people, but it’s quite the opposite. If we’re not careful about what skills we truly focus on passing to the next generations, we may plateau technologically, without great creative minds to take us to the next level. Our glassy-eyed little iPad navigators may not be capable of, nor engaged in, creating a future different from what they see on a screen, having been raised to consume rather than construct.

The article quoted above is about “tablets replacing teachers” in Dutch schools. The article states that “multiple studies” have indicated “iPad–based learning is correlated with higher performance and comprehension,” but a few of the studies are a bit suspect (one in particular being funded by Apple). In thinking critically about iPads as teachers, I would ask where children are practicing the real world application of the information and skills they’re soaking up via apps. One of the studies looked at students’ use of an Algebra I app. Students often wonder when they will ever apply Algebra in the “real world” (the answer being, of course, all the time in figuring out everyday equations like how much gas you can afford to put into your car or how many pounds of apples you could purchase at the grocery store), so it seems that it may be of value to our understanding of what learning has transpired to provide students an opportunity for real world application. The studies speak of the children’s “engagement” with the devices and their performance on standard tests. If the world of tomorrow centers on filling in all the correct digital bubbles, we may be okay after all.

We know that learning is a lot more than digestion and regurgitation, so we have to question what the incorporation of the latest technology really gives to students. Could there be a place for an iPad in a learning environment? Absolutely. Can an iPad be a tool that helps to improve performance in a classroom centered around test results? No doubt. But can an iPad understand and connect with your child? Can an iPad celebrate their accomplishments, bolster their spirits in defeat, or change its teaching style based on their learning style? Perhaps not. An iPad won’t advocate for your child. An iPad won’t hug them. An iPad can teach, in a limited, closed-ended capacity, but an iPad can’t be a teacher.

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