Friday, December 11, 2015

iPads as Band Aids

I have mulled this post for a few days, having read an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post.  It was written by a teacher and bemoaned the appearance of iPads in her classroom.  You can find the article here:  I Gave My Students iPads - Then Wished I Could Take Them Back .

The educator, Launa Hall, had some strong points in her favor.  She spoke to the way iPads decrease social skills as kids bury their heads in electronics, the challenge of technological problems eating away at instruction time, and the decrease in creative play with concrete objects such as Legos.  

As someone who has used iPads in the "classroom" pretty much since Day 1 when we started to homeschool, I wanted to offer some thoughts as I now feel competent to speak of such things with that much experience under our belts.  We have found that iPads have greatly enhanced our learning, and we use them hourly, but they are not a magic potion or panacea.  They are strictly a tool, and when utilized well, they can be a fabulous addition to education.  However, when simply handed over to a child or teacher without planning or forethought, they can indeed be a distraction.

I honestly cannot imagine homeschooling well without each child having an iPad.  Was it an extravagance?  No, not in our case, though I am sure some might have thought so.  For our unique situation, it was a money saver and a necessary special education tool.  When we began homeschooling 6 years ago and eventually saw the need to get iPads for each child, we had two brand new English Language Learners, one highly special needs learner, one Dysgraphic learner, and little Joshie :-)  We clearly had a different situation on our hands than many families do.

Here is what I have learned, and how we used them (and computers, etc.) effectively:

1) Rules MUST be established immediately.  Ours were:  A)  You will never, EVER use a device when someone is speaking to you.  You will turn it off and look at them,  B)  You can only use them when given permission. C)  We have the right to look at anyone's search history at any time...and do actually do so.  D)  No Social Media until 18 years old.  We don't need the distraction in their lives and, due to the kids' circumstances we recognized a level of naivete that makes it quite unsafe.  I know others have different rules around social media for their kids, but since ours are not in school and "everyone else is doing it" this hasn't even proven to be a real issue at all in our house and we still have yet to be asked even once when they will be able to go on Facebook, Snap Chat, or other platforms.  We may elect to drop the age a little as maturity has developed, but we have been lucky and I admit we have exceptionally compliant kids.  We've never had a serious issue with misuse.  

2)  We view the iPads as having instant access to the world's largest library!  It has replaced our need to purchase dictionaries and encyclopedias, we have access to virtually any piece of information at any time.  It has also replaced the need for physical maps, folders, binders, planners, 

3)  The physical structure of an iPad versus a laptop makes a psychological difference...a huge one.  It sits flat on the table and takes up little space, and yet can be grabbed and information looked up instantly.  There is no barrier between teacher and learner with a screen, there is no hiding behind a screen, and we found it is literally ten times more likely to be used because access is instant, versus thumbing through a big dictionary or encyclopedia.  Do any of you know a kid (or adult!) who will actually stop what they are reading, run to grab the dictionary, find the word they need, and then go back to their book?  Not many.  But a kid will take 3 seconds to look it up online...or with Kindle versions simply TOUCH the word and have the definition pop up!  A book is only as good as how often it is used.  The accessibility of information, and the way it sits with no bulk on a desk helps, believe it or not, it really does.  Ours are used constantly throughout the day in highly appropriate ways.  

4)  The iPad brings the dictionary to life with audible pronunciations, which for ELL learners was hugely helpful.

5)  The cutesy projects are great, multimedia, etc. but in the long run, we found they were distracting and were along the lines of building dioramas... every kid ought to create one once in their school years but does that really lead to deep learning?  Not so much.  I feel like many folks who want to look at using iPads in classrooms want it to look flashy...maybe to justify the purchase price.  For some reason, perhaps because I am old school, I saw the potential of iPads as more than gaming devices and creating little Steven Spielbergs.  I wanted something to add to our class time, not detract from it.  

6)  Apps are cool.  Some are great.  Most are no better than flash cards...and yet it is time mom saves tediously working with those flash cards independently with 5 different children.  Most apps, I have found, really are just time savers or more convenient versions of workbooks, flash cards, etc.  They are not Magical Learning Tools...they virtually replace hard copies of things.  Sure, there are a few that are great...we found the speech ones super helpful for Kenny to visualize tongue placement for sounds.  

7)  Unlike computers, iPads are easier to work with...far easier.  For Kenny and his learning challenges, and even the girls sometimes, computer are complicated,  difficult to understand file sharing, etc., and harder to use.  An iPad, for kids like Kenny, allows them to interact with computer technology in ways that are far simpler.  The clean, uncomplicated interface and intuitive workings of the iPad make it all so easy.  Kenny has a computer and can use the word processor, but that is it.  He uses his iPad for all kinds of things, and it has been a blessing for him in all kinds of ways.  The visual nature of file storage there helps him tremendously.

8)  The social aspect can be enhanced if one works at it.  We look up and share news stories every morning, when games are played online they are often played together and the conversation flows no differently than if over a board game...teasing and joking are always present.  Videos are watched together and displayed on a larger TV screen we have just for school, then discussed.  

9)  The author of the article complains about issues that we might not have to worry about at home, or anticipated ahead of time...things such as usernames and passwords not working (we elected to have a common format for usernames and the exact same password for all), not enough bandwidght (thanks to Matthew we increased our bandwidth and added wi-fi repeaters to ensure good signal throughout the "school"), alarms going off all the time (it happens once in awhile, but not regularly, and we are glad they have learned to set alarms to schedule their time)

10)  They replace things only after they have been learned in traditional ways first.  We replaced hard copies of dictionaries only after skills had been learned with them.  We replaced Encyclopedias only after they had been used a few times in hard copy form.  We replaced planners and calendars only after hard copy forms had been used.  The understanding of the virtual formats is not full, we learned, until the non-virtual format had been touched, felt, played with, and worked with.  In other words, we introduced certain usages of the iPad just as adults would be introduced...after having a non-virtual tool to work with, then moving it into a virtual platform.

When it comes down to it, iPads don't teach a darned thing.  Sometimes I think this is forgotten.  They are tools that enhance teaching, no better or worse than a stack full of books, a typewriter, a calculator, videos, word processors, musical selections, maps and more.  It just gives you access to those things.  A TEACHER teaches, and turns to the iPad to supplement and explain a concept, to help a learner better visualize a concept.  When we are disappointed with outcomes of iPads in classrooms, perhaps it is because we have no clue how best to use them, or we view them as yet another way to "fix" education.  No tool is going to fix education.  Better instruction, better curricula, deeper rather than shallow learning will fix education.  

When we think iPads will cause kids to be more engaged because they are more entertained, we have totally blown it.  Kids are entertained by being intellectually stimulated by great conversation, excellent assignments that make them think, well written literature that transports them...not rote filling in of worksheets.  Great teaching and fixing education doesn't take iPads.

However, iPads can make a big difference if viewed appropriately.  They can help carry a conversation further and deeper with images that explain and maps that show.  They can immediately bring answers to questions that might be otherwise bypassed.  They can allow for "drill and kill" that IS important work for things like math facts, spelling practice, etc, and free up teachers for other tasks. For special education purposes, iPads can be invaluable for certain tasks and brain training.

America is obviously in an education crisis.  More and more kids are graduating high school being unable to read, write, or compute at even a 9th or 10th grade level.  They graduate though, we push 'em through.  Throwing technology at them to "fix" the problem IS half the problem.  There is no antidote to poor teaching practices...and I don't blame teachers one iota.  Teachers today are retiring or changing careers in droves because they can't truly teach in a classroom, there are prescribed lessons to be taught in only one way, and they already know it doesn't work well.  They are dictated to by a system that is continuing to fail egregiously, and if they want to keep their jobs they are powerless to change it.  

Let's hope that eventually the classroom environment can bring in technology to enhance rich and diverse learning experiences, rather than be expected to be the Band Aid which ultimately disappoints.  

1 comment:

B.A. said...

Our school district distributed ipads to all 3rd-6th graders this year. I have been surprised by how useful it has been for my 3rd grader. She works every day on a program called Xtramath and can do addition on sight now (subtraction is still not that easy), and she has memorized the times tables. She is also practicing her cursive letters with a cursive program. The ipad is completely locked down, so she can install any new programs and can't surf the web or go to youtube. So far I would say its been a win.