Wednesday, September 5, 2012
In January 2012, I wrote a post called iPad 3C's: Some Planning Questions. It holds up nine months later. For some schools, however, my warnings came too late. Burlington (MA) High School, for example, began a 1:1 iPad program in the fall, funding it within budget largely by closing computer labs and not purchasing textbooks or a new language lab. According to the article, Principal Patrick Larkin commented that "they didn’t throw away the old books, but no longer need to buy new ones, since students and teachers can find everything they need online."
This is a commonly believed myth, especially among educators who have themselves been participating only viscerally in the evolution of digital tools.
It is true that eBooks and eTexts can be found online - or created in-house and put online. But these need to be fully vetted by subject specialists. One would not, for example, teach an eBook explication of an expurgated classic or a text that asked few if any higher level questions. On the other hand, most literature written before 1950 or so is in the public domain and it can be read as-is digitally. And perhaps Burlington HS is taking advantage of the growing number of freely open university courses, which at least have quality control based upon the institution. But is there a university or college course freely open and appropriate for the 9th grader reading at the 5th grade level?
The internet is, of course, a vast information storage center, but it is very hard to search efficiently and effectively. Most students and teachers just touch the surface of what they could find if they did an expert search. I don't suggest that students be subjected to long-winded search strategy lessons - boring! Check out the infographic Get More Out of Google to see what I mean - and that infographic is solely focused on one search tool and one database. But students do need to learn the basic literacy of using the Internet as a source. Nope - it is not inherent to question the validity or bias of a source.
Articles such as 12 Ways to Be More Search Savvy and The Times' Just Google It promulgate the myth by simplifying the problem; they are still viewing internet research as a linear search, the goal of a search being to find an answer. That is the old way of thinking about learning. While educators are stuck at this level, students certainly can find everything they need online. Learning becomes equated with the collection of content, whether it be information (70% or more) or literature (30% or less).
But some teachers are - or at least should be - asking more convoluted, complex questions. These questions require problem-solving. The problem is that when students are required to learn - to understand - something about content, when questions become creative, individualized and complex (higher level Bloom's questions), students can not find what they need on the Internet. Moreover, as will discussed in Myths #2 and #3, searching for answers on the Internet becomes itself an anti-learning task. Everything is anything.
The acceptance of anything as something is a large step toward educational mediocrity.
What's more, where it is believed that teachers can find everything they need online, the future of education becomes truly dismaying. A teacher approaching a new topic in a 1:1 environment should be reforming learning goals, and thus redrawing what is still called "the lesson plan." Too often I find requests for canned lessons in online educator discussions. Too often these requests are answered with digital versions of the worksheet. For example, I did a quick look for a short story that I had taught successfully and which two years ago was available only in anthologies, Bradbury's "The Sound of Summer Running." I found online not only the story (in .pdf file - perfect for use in an iPad classroom - and probably in violation of Bradbury's copyright), but also several sets of comprehension questions that I didn't know I needed. Immediately, I needed them. But here is the thing: the questions were all level 1 comprehension and a few were just plain poor. I did not find a single deep reading question. I did not find a single textual or stylistic question. What does the internet offer to a teacher of this story or to a student reading the story? Nothing they need in order to question or create (except the story itself).
The essence of good teaching is deep thought about the core content on the part of the teacher, not time-filling, interactive, digital activities.
Teachers can not find everything they need online. They need deep education, experience, and insight into the learning needs, interests, and styles of their students. They need time to access a multiplicity of print, media and experiential resources to extend their own learning - and to incorporate these resources into classroom activities for their students. To expect less of a teacher is to encourage mediocrity in the classroom.
The iPad is NOT all about collecting information. Deep learning requires collaboration (and its subset communication), reflection, and creation. These can not be found - they must be made.
Perhaps Principal Larkin is not just trying to be trendy and save money; perhaps he has well-deserved confidence in the intellectual abilities and academic backgrounds of his teachers and students. I hope this is true. Most of all, I hope he does not believe also in Myths #2 - #8.