Giving kids iPads won't solve the education challenge

Los Angeles's program to supply iPads to 640,000 students is the latest example of confusing technology with teaching

You've no doubt read the news that Los Angeles is distributing 640,000 iPads to K-12 students, which is a big win for Apple and yet another sign that the PC is in decline. At the same time, Dell touts the wonders of its Windows 8 tablets for schooling. It's great that students are getting current technology. However, technology doesn't teach -- and it often doesn't help teach, either.

I've been in the business of covering technology since 1982, back when the IBM PC was new and the Apple IIe was the great hope for schools. Yes, our schools are always struggling (at least that's the perpetually popular wisdom). Apple focused on the education market out of a mixture of belief in technology as an educational aid and to indoctrinate kids into the Apple brand. Early in the IBM PC era, IBM did the same. Ever since then, Apple, IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and so on have touted educational use of their computers to save students from poor schooling.

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Regardless of the device or platform, it hasn't worked, has it? In fact, a ton of research shows the lack of correlation between computers and learning.

Along for the ride came all sorts of education software, from the Logo turtle-based programming language to the cornucopia of courseware that was supposed to help reading, science, and other lesson areas. Some were grounded in education theory -- which, as any classroom teacher will tell you, often bears little resemblance to reality -- and others in, well, naïveté or carpetbagging. In other words, like most software, some is really good, but a lot is not.

I don't mean to suggest that using technology in education is bad. To the contrary, it can be quite helpful both for students and for teachers. Just think of how useful search engines and websites are for not only finding information, but also for teaching how to make the critical distinction that just because something is published (whether digitally or on paper) doesn't mean it's true, unbiased, or relevant.

The problem with technology in education is that it is often poorly applied. Managing a classroom full of PCs or tablets, for example, means someone has to set up, administer, and maintain them. Dell has all sorts of wares it hopes to sell to school districts to do this, as do other PC vendors and software sellers. Apple sells its inexpensive Server application to manage Macs in such settings.

But these are designed for IT admins, not teachers. Even if they were designed for teachers, do we really want our teachers doing IT administration instead of teaching? Teachers already have a lot of administrative, grading, planning, and development work to do on top of the classroom time.

In the United States, we've dumped a lot on teachers in the last several decades. Teachers are counselors, social workers, disability-development providers, coaches, and sometimes de facto parents. Oh, and they're supposed to teach and stay current in what they teach. Asking them to manage technology too is just wrong -- and it will ensure that over time the systems don't work well or at all.

That's just one issue. The ability to track students on their computers or tablets as they learn sounds great, but it forces the teacher to divide his or her attention across 30 or more students at the same time. It also puts the teacher more into a monitoring role, which competes for mind power with the teacher's teaching role. That juggling and duality are difficult to maintain all day, every day. I get the value of seeing the data on each student's activities and progress outside of class, when the teacher can concentrate on optimizing that aspect of the students' learning. But the push to real-time monitoring and real-time lesson personalization is not doable.

Maybe the notion of a classroom with 30 students learning largely the same thing is the root problem, so maybe we need self-directed learning that can best be deployed via computing devices and supervised by teacher-advisors. Or perhaps this could be a repeat of the New Math and phonics fiascos that made a generation of American kids innumerate and illiterate. I don't know. What I do know is that there's a fundamental mismatch between how education is organized and the theory behind these personalized-education-oriented classroom learning systems.

Technophiles see the world through the lens of technology, so of course they propose technology solutions to nearly every problem. Vendors are happy to profit from that, and frustrated parents and politicians are happy to stop thinking and just buy a silver bullet.

Education is a multivariant challenge. Throwing technology at the problem without redesigning the whole context just won't work. Some students and teachers will of course benefit from technology, and we'll read about them in vendor case studies. But most will continue to struggle and work around the newest complexity thrown into their environments.

We'll know we're smart about this when we stop seeing mainstream stories about how many technology widgets a school deployed and start seeing stories about how the world envies the quality of American-educated kids.

This article, "Giving kids iPads won't solve the education challenge," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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