Schools and Tech: A Long-Running Tragedy

Classroom photo (© Tom Wang -

Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District had a great idea: Provide all 640,000 students in the system with iPads equipped with custom software from Pearson Education at a cost of $1 billion. Today after 47,000 tablets have been distributed, the project is looking shaky. According to the Los Angeles Times, The LAUSD has ordered students at two of the pilot high schools to turn their iPads in. The problem:  The students, entirely predictably, have figured out how to load apps, play games, and get to Facebook, circumventing the school district’s controls.

The LA iPad fiasco is the latest act in the never-ending drama of technology in K-12 education. A quarter-century after forward looking schools got their first Apple ][s, Commodore PETs, and Ohio Scientifics, educators are still trying to figure out how to use them as something other than glorified typewriters and calculators and as a substitute for spending money on real libraries.

The use of computers in schools has been hobbled by risk-averse educators who apply a particularly repressive version of the precautionary principle: The top priority in any technology deployment is making certain that it is not misused (i.e., used in ways other than what is officially sanctioned) even if that means it cannot be used effectively. The result is a heavy emphasis on potential risks, while little thought is given to potential benefits, especially those that might arise serendipitously–say, by students figuring out something clever that teachers and administrators hadn’t thought of. Hence, LAUSD was ready to go back to square one at the first sign of trouble although it is far from clear to me there much danger of real harm. (The problem with students using Facebook or Twitter on their school iPads while at home is?)

My local district, the Montgomery County Public Schools, in the prosperous and tech-savvy Maryland suburbs of Washington, is a depressing example. Six years after the introduction of the iPhone and three years after the release of the iPad,  MCPS policy states:

High school and middle school students may have cell phones or other portable communication devices on school property and at school-sponsored activities, but may not turn them on or use the devices during class time. These devices must be kept out of sight. Students should be reminded that setting the device to “vibrate” is not the same as turning the device off. ((Although the policy statement was last updated this year, there is no mention of either tablets or laptops. This replaced an earlier policy that ineffectually banned students from bringing mobile phones or pagers to school, period.))

This was probably a sensible policy in 2005, when there was no benefit to students having phones in class. That was before the proliferation of apps, many of them potentially useful in class. How many times have you been in an adult conversation where someone added a useful insight gained by looking something up on a smartphone or tablet? Any chance that might happen in school, too? Students might even learn some useful research skills along the way.

MCPS is spending millions of dollars to finally set up wireless networking in schools. But students are theoretically prohibited from using their own devices on the school Wi-Fi (of course, access is controlled by WPA passwords it took them maybe 30 seconds to find the key.) Of course, wireless networking is useful to teachers and administrators, but it would be at least as beneficial to students.[pullquote]The top priority in any technology deployment is making certain that it is not misused (i.e., used in ways other than what is officially sanctioned) even if that means it cannot be used effectively.[/pullquote]

Allowing students to use personal wireless devices in schools does raise a variety of problems. Phones and tablets are powerful distractors and you don’t want students sitting in the back of the room tweeting. But students have found ways to be distracted in class since the Neanderthals set up the first cave schools. And good teachers can be as effective as catching the tweeters and texters as they were at catching note-passers in my day.

The use of the devices as aids to cheating is a more serious issue. But again, they are simply the latest tool for which cheaters have found ingenious uses. One solution is more effective  proctoring; a teacher who would let a student get away with looking something up on the internet in the middle of a test probably shouldn’t be in a classroom. Another is swift, certain, and effective punishment for students who get caught (something schools are all too reluctant to do today with students caught at more prosaic forms of cheating.) In some cases, teaching approaches and evaluations will have to be modified to cope with students having wireless access. But an obsessive focus on potential harms, such as cheating, must be measured against the potential benefits.

Higher education has far fewer qualms about the use of technology and seems to be reaping greater benefits. At Hood College in Frederick, Md., introductory calculus is taught entirely on iPads (video). Students complete worksheets inking in their answers using Notability (entering math from a keyboard on any sort of computer remains daunting) and turning in their work and sharing materials through Dropbox. It can be done.