September 11, 2012

iPads Are Like Hammers – From Greg on Edudemic

With School underway & iPad programs and pilots in progress, I think it is important to reflect on and carefully consider why and how iPads can be used in the classroom.  In a recent piece written for Edudemic, I made the analogy that iPads are like Hammers.  Inspired by a shelf that my brother built for my daughter’s room and the realization that iPads are little more than tools or means to achieve an end goal, here are a few excerpts from the piece.

My brother recently built a shelf for my daughter’s room. It is in the likeness of a boat that she will one day spend sunny afternoons on, cruising around Plymouth harbor. He used a saw, a hammer, glue and other assorted tools that I couldn’t explain or name. I am not a carpenter nor am I skilled at building anything with my hands.

However, I do know this. When my brother started the project, he did not pick up his hammer and get inspired, engaged or motivated. What was motivating was the final concept, the vision, the challenge and the knowledge that he would eventually create something that could be shared with another person.

What do hammers have to do with iPads? iPads are exactly like hammers, they are simply a tool. While the screen may shine and the intuitive nature of the device impress even the most cynical user, they are little more than tools in the classroom.

Granted, if we were to offer a set of 30 hammers and 30 iPads to a classroom full of students, we all know which tool they would choose. And while an iPad may be more fun to use at first, may have more possible applications and can provide hours of mindless use, without and end goal, challenge or obstacle to overcome, the shine quickly wears off.

Tools are not inspiring, engaging or motivating. Challenges, new obstacles and knowing that you can impact some else’s thinking, perspective or understanding is inspiring, engaging and motivating.

Collaborating with ones peers, problem solving and ultimately creating something to demonstrate ones capabilities or unique understanding, that is engaging.

Later on in the piece, I addressed the perception or misconception that ipads increase engagement.  This may be the most costly mistake, both in terms of monetary expenditure and impact on the learning process in the classroom.  As I wrote in the piece for Edudemic:

Unfortunately, a good deal of discussion and justification for iPad use in the classroom revolves around the dreaded phrase, “increased engagement.” I wonder what exactly students will be engaged in if there isn’t a particular end goal or challenge in mind.

Certain they will be engaged with the options that an iPad presents to them. They can email their friends, update their social networking status, take a few pictures and browse the web, they are clearly engaged in something, but I would argue they are not at all engaged with a challenging process to create and demonstrate their understanding.

Do iPads teach?  Along with engagement and lack of end goal focus, there is often a request for content specific apps that cover or teacher a very narrow sliver of content.  We wouldn’t expect our students to sit in front of any other tool and be taught, just as we should not place iPads in the hands of our students and expect an iPad to teach them content.  I went on to explain this concept in detail in the Edudemic piece.

Along with the myth of increased engagement, there is an unfortunate misconception that an iPad can teach our students. Throughout the summer I ran and instructed a number of workshops on integrating iPads in the classroom with EdTechTeacher. A typical request was for a list of apps to teach history or apps to teach science. While there are content specific apps that can potentially aid in the process of introducing, reinforcing and reviewing new content, iPads don’t teach.

What iPads do provide is a unique ability to have students create content in a mobile environment. While creating content is not unique to an iPad, it provides unique capabilities that otherwise would be extremely challenging or nearly impossible to achieve in a traditional classroom setting without these devices. Create podcasts and video by recording, editing and publishing to the web, check. Create blog posts anywhere, without being confined to a computer lab, check. Create screencasts to demonstrate understanding and publish them to the web to share with peers, check. Create, edit, share and collaborate on documents (with the latest update to the Google Drive iOS app), check.

What can iPads be used for in the classroom?  After a great deal of hands on experience in instruction this summer, here is the conclusion that I have drawn about these devices.

What has become evident is that the greatest benefit of using iPads in the classroom is not use see them as a teaching tool, but instead as a tool for students to demonstrate their understanding in many different ways. It is not that iPads are good or bad, they are simply iPads. However, they can unfortunately be used in ways that at best wastes the money that was used to buy the devices and at worst degrades the learning experience for the student.

If we can agree that an iPad is a tool, we can also then agree that it isn’t the best tool for every situation. Back to the “iPad is like a Hammer” analogy. When my brother created the boat inspired bookshelf, he likely used the hammer to pound in the railings and nail together a few pieces. He did not however, use his hammer to paint the hull blue. I would argue that iPads should be used in the same fashion, as a tool that can help students solve specific problems, overcome certain obstacles and create content to demonstrate their understanding.

So what is the take-away from the piece and what should we keep in mind when using iPads in the classroom?

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a carpenter and struggle to build things with my hands. However, I am fairly certain that a carpenter does not start the day by looking at a hammer to figure out what he is going to create. The same should be said for iPads in the classroom. Start with the end goal in mind, the inspiration, the challenge and then determine if an iPad can be used to effectively, not to teach new content to students, but to allow them to achieve the end goal. To demonstrate their learning and share that understanding with their peers, a broader audience and even potentially the world.