Thursday, September 1, 2011

Things I learned at school (yesterday): technology edition

Back to school night is the time when teachers and school administrators get to watch hundreds of parents wander aimlessly through the halls of their school looking for the right classroom, only to sit for five minutes and then get up and do it all over again.

Last night I got to attend one of these events thanks to my wife being called away for a company meeting at corporate headquarters, thanks dear. The experience wasn't too horrible and there were actually a few ideas I could take away from the evening.

For one thing, it is great to see teachers using websites and text messaging to remind students of homework assignments. But does each teacher have to use a different vendor? That makes for half a dozen website addresses to remember, and no one to go from one teacher to the other within the same website.

The other takeaway was how technology either is wasted in many classrooms, or else brings in a whole new set of skills.

The last class I visited last evening contained the most unique classroom set up I saw. rather than individual desks there were five or six larger desks where four students could gather around. On the desk was two iPad sitting on top of stands – they were most like NuGuard stands which you can see above-left.

The teacher didn't have much time to explain her class so she used a short video which she had created using iMovie – it wasn't impressive and the same thing information could have been conveyed with a couple of slides or even a few lines written with chalk on a board.

But the teacher was definitely using those iPads to advantage. Since it is impossible to require that each student bring in a laptop to class, the iPads are a way to allowing students to find information themselves, to teach them how to find information themselves.

This skill set is probably the most important thing students learn today. Is it really important to know what year Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo? Or is it more important to teach the student how to access this information quickly? (It was 1815, by the way. And that horrid Abba song of the same name came out in 1974.)

While tech people might see this little story as an example of how the iPad is winning the tablet wars (there is a war?), for me there is something more important going on. If that teacher was simply using new technology to teach the same lessons in the same way the iPad would be used essentially as a electronic text book. That would be a waste. Instead it is used to bring in new information, quicker and more interactively. Two iPads per desk, two students per iPad. It is easy to see the advantages here – no student can sit idly back and not participate, each student's pace of learning can be accelerated by joining with another student.

New technology, new methods of learning.

Now I know the same thing could be accomplished in other ways, and if money were no object every desk could have its own computer, but I don't live in Beverly Hills. No, those iPads were bought using a grant, but that grant needed be ridiculously large. How much does it cost to buy ten to twelve iPads? Unfortunately it doesn't appear that Apple is offering discounts on iPads for schools but my guess is that each iPad was the $499 model so the math is pretty easy to figure out. Those stands, too, were not bad: $15 a piece online.

One could go on and on about the advantages of iPads in education – no cords, long battery life, etc. – but that's not the point. New technology presents the opportunity for new ways of learning, new platforms, new products.

Or . . . one can simply continue down the same road with a new vehicle – like the farmer that buys a truck rather than a car because he can't figure out where the horse would go in the car. Publishers who only bring their products to tablets and mobile as replica editions are putting the horse in the passenger seat and end up wondering what the big deal is the new technology.

New technology, new platforms, new products.