First, some data.
(1) According to data collected by 9th grade teachers at Northfield High School, failure rates in ninth grade, after several years of decline, jumped from about 5% to about 8% in the first year of the one-to-one (1:1) iPad program at the high school.
(2) Below is a graph from the Minnesota Department of Education that shows, based on various measures, the percentage of students at Northfield High School “on track for success.” Notice the sharp decline between 2013 and 2014, which corresponds to the first year of the 1:1 iPad program.
Now, a question: Does this data reflect the impact of the 1:1 iPad program? Are iPads responsible for a higher failure rate in 9th grade and fewer students “on track for success”?
There is currently no way to answer this question. The 1:1 iPad program currently includes no objective means of collecting and analyzing data on the impact of iPads on student achievement.
Instead, we have aspirational statements: statements of what we hope iPads will do for our students.
Aspirational Statement #1: “iPads will help students develop the 21st-century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking (the 4 C’s).”
It bothers me when communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are referred to as “21st century skills,” as they so often are. They are skills that have always been needed to succeed. But if these skills are invoked to support the 1:1 iPad program, I need to know specifically the impact of iPads on the development of these skills.
I could ask, facetiously perhaps, how focusing on the screen of a personal handheld device enhances communication and collaboration. From talking to some teachers, students, and parents, I might conclude that this forced exposure to screen time in the schools has eroded interpersonal relationships and interfered with effective communication.
In any case, if “the 4 C’s” are invoked to argue for the educational efficacy of iPads, I need solid evidence—data—to support that claim.
Aspirational Statement #2: “Students need to develop the technological skills to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.”
Yes, the 21st-century workplace is full of technology. But I need to be convinced that iPads prepare students more effectively for the realities of that workplace than, for example, laptops or other devices. Even in the education market, iPads have begun to lose market share to Chromebooks. So why are we so heavily invested in iPads as the device of the future?
More importantly, I think students will be better prepared for the technological future if we help them develop flexibility and adaptablity than if we focus their technological education on a single device like an iPad.
I am not opposed either to technology or the development of so-called 21st-century skills. I’m opposed to making claims without any plan to back up those claims with research and assessment.
At the same time, I do have serious concerns about the impact of the 1:1 iPad program on lower achieving students, and about the possibility that iPads could actually be widening, rather than narrowing, the achievement gap. In my experience, higher achieving students have generally expressed satisfaction with their iPads. Lower achieving students often tell a different story.
I have spoken to a number of struggling students and their teachers, and most of them have told me that iPads make it harder to learn, adding new distractions, complications, and levels of stress. Some reported to me that their grades have slipped. We need to track that data, and figure out how to connect the dots between iPads and student achievement.
We need to ask ourselves if iPads are the most effective use of our resources if our goal is to enable all students to succeed.
In the past nine years, the TORCH Program has had demonstrable success in raising the academic achievement and enhancing the life prospects of at-risk students. The TORCH Program currently receives minimal funding from the district, and each year struggles to find the funds to continue its work. Meanwhile, half a million dollars a year is spent on iPads, without any effort to assess the impact of iPads on student achievement.
The current strategy seems to be to “problem solve” or troubleshoot, to help teachers and students overcome technical problems with the use of iPads. This addresses the “how” of using iPads, but not the “why.” It doesn’t address the question of whether iPads are making teachers more effective or students more successful.
Until we can move from aspiration to confirmation, I will continue to have serious reservations about the Northfield Public Schools’ investment in iPads.
Updates to the School Board on Transformational Technology
The latest update on the Transformational Technology program by the district’s Director of Technology (January 26, 2015), can be found here.
A presentation on the Transformational Technology program given in September 2014 can be found here.