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The iPad's Powerful Academic Potential

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 8, 2011 5:00 AM PT

My gut response when I heard that some school districts are rolling out iPads to elementary, middle and high school kids was, "Wow, lucky little goobers." And that reaction was quickly followed by, "Wait a minute, iPads? What's wrong with a good old fashioned textbook? Are schools going to start showing 30-second video clips as a teaching method now?"

The iPad's Powerful Academic Potential

I can imagine that a teacher saying, "Turn to chapter 6, page 218," would instead say something like, "OK, class, tap the Geometry in Action app and we'll start exactly where we left off yesterday."


Atrophied Imaginations?

Part of me wants to hold onto the act of reading, of opening a book, of smelling the pages, as an important part of the learning process, that somehow in order to learn well you need the activity of turning pages, holding books, and using your imagination to make the words come alive off of the page. Are the imaginations of our children going to be stunted if every difficult concept can be easily illustrated with an interactive information graphic with seamless video?

I don't know. Of the last dozen novels that I've read -- and I'm essentially an old man compared to these little digitally saturated pipsqueaks -- not one of the words came off of an old-school printed page. I read them all on my iPhone and/or iPad. Personally, I've never really needed physical bookmarks because I could usually just remember the last page I was on when I closed a book. But you know what? I do appreciate the instant nature of launching an iBook on my iPhone. Boom. It opens and I'm right back into the novel.

But that's just printed text.

When I was in high school and computers where just starting to hit the classrooms, I tried to take a self-directed physics class through the use of applications on our shiny new Macintosh all-in-one computers. I made it through several chapters, then washed out and failed to complete the class at all. It was way too hard. What was missing? An instructor, someone to see the confusion on my face and explain -- or re-explain -- what the heck was supposed to be going on. Since I didn't have an instructor anyway, I sure could have used one of today's shiny smart apps.

So when I extrapolate that down to flashcards and geography and the ability to move elements on a digital screen to illustrate tough concepts for little kids, I can see how an iPad could work well.

And it's not like iPads are purely passive -- good apps let you interact, touch, swipe and make decisions. These little actions, I believe, help you learn.

Heck, a few iPad-toting students could probably teach their working parents how to blow past the pretty graphics on their iPad-based executive dashboards and drill down into supply chain issues in Asia.

So, as a learning tool, I think anyone with an iPad can easily imagine how well-crafted applications could turn disaffected little munchkins into smart wizards. At the direction of a good teacher -- as well as many mediocre ones -- I can't imagine how iPads could hurt the learning process, at any age level.

But Is It Fair?

Will iPads only go to schools that snag educational grants or have a lot of money? Would rural or urban or otherwise "poor" school districts end up teaching the have-not kids?

No matter what, it'll take years before school districts can roll out iPads for everyone.

In the meantime, will a batch of kids end up with a huge disadvantage when it comes time to take the standardized SAT or ACT tests? If so, they'll get into better colleges, and with a better college education, they'll move ahead faster than their peers, and over the course of a lifetime, might the little leg up that came from the iPad result in even larger cultural divides?


But I believe you can't choose to educate based on the least-common denominator. Nor do I think you can argue that iPads are distracting, and that kids will use them to ignore teachers or bully each other on social networks. They might, but iPads have a certain edge going for them that can't be denied: They have shiny flickering light. Kids must pay attention to them.

When I was in college, one of my best professors was giving us an introduction to a video that we were going to watch. He was in the middle of the classroom and the big TV was off to the side, waiting to be wheeled into place. It was on, set to nothing, just flickering white noise, the volume turned down. And yet, repeatedly, our heads kept turning toward it even though we all knew it wasn't on yet. Animated professor in front of us vs. the flickering light of the TV. We might as well have been watching a tennis match.

iPads somehow manage to compel attention. Maybe not forever, but for now, they do. And as textbook publishers reinvest their wood-based dollars on "textbook" apps, I would expect their relevance to last for a long time. I'm on board. But then again, I've seen too many three-year-old kids in strollers operating iPod touches or refusing to give back their parents' iPhones.

I don't think the challenge lies in the pros and cons of the education benefits of iPads -- or tablets or e-books -- any longer. Our biggest challenge will simply be distribution.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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