The Apple iPad was introduced on April 3, 2010—less than three years ago. During that time, there have been five generations of iPad. The technology is new and quickly evolving, and there is no research on the educational benefits of iPads based on long-term studies of their use.
The Transformational Technology Proposal makes a candid acknowledgment of this lack of research into the impact of iPads on student achievement: “The District cannot promise an increase in student achievement as measured through standardized tests with any single initiative. While we believe there can be an impact on student scores,…there is not a definitive amount of research that leads us to guarantee this.” The proposal makes a set of assumptions (“we believe that tablet technology has the ability to help our students’ learning in a number of ways…”) that have not been thoroughly tested. At the same time, it has also been acknowledged from the beginning that cost savings to the District (e.g., reduced copying and textbook costs) cannot be guaranteed as a result of the iPad initiative. In the absence of research and guaranteed cost benefits, the iPad proposal is presented as visionary and aspirational.
Public education should aspire to transform the world, and to give students the best tools not only to meet the challenges of the future, but to shape that future for themselves. The iPad may be one such tool. Many students find iPads an engaging and versatile learning tool, and no doubt effective teachers will find many educational uses for iPads and their applications. At the same time, it still has to be acknowledged that there is no reliable research on the effectiveness of the iPad as a learning tool.
Are there any alternatives to the current proposal, which carries a price tag of $1.6 million over three years? Is it possible to scale down the proposal, while using it in a targeted way to investigate the most effective uses of iPads in the middle and high school classroom?
Many colleges and universities are piloting iPad programs by making limited numbers of the devices available to instructors who design a course-specific project and submit a proposal for review. Might such a pilot program be adapted to a public school setting? In the Roseville Area Schools, in fact, the district operates a grant program to provide iPads to teachers through a competitive application process. According to the application, the program is “explicitly tied to measuring the impact of giving staff and students the technological tools which can be used to accelerate student learning.” The district is using a pilot program to “determine how to scale up the implementation of personal digital devices (such as iPads or other related tools) in a coordinated, effective way.” Teachers participating in the program are also provided with a $500 stipend to compensate for time spent on the project outside of regular contract time.
In Northfield, such proposals might include SMART goals and meaningful and realistic strategies for assessment, and show progress toward Redefinition according to the SAMR model. In addition to self-reporting (class surveys, narrative, etc.), outside observation and assessment might also be included. Instructors whose proposals are successful would be assigned iPads for each student in the class. The success of these pilot projects would then be the grounds for leasing or purchasing more iPads in future years to support the continued effective use of iPads in the classroom. In this way, the transformational technology project could be scaled up in the most effective and responsible manner.
An initial lease of 200-300 devices for use in pilot projects in the middle school and high school, in addition to the limited “pod” programs in the elementary schools, would cost significantly less than an initial one-to-one rollout. The total number of iPads would be closer to 800 than 2,700, although the exact scale of the pilot program would be subject to further consideration.
We know that there are some teachers in the district who are enthusiastic about the technology, and who are already poised to leap into Redefinition. These are the teachers who can develop successful pilot project proposals and lead the process of transformation from within. But there are other teachers who are less enthusiastic about the integration of iPads into their classrooms. It would be unfair to stigmatize these knowledgeable, effective, and compassionate teachers as lacking vision, or resistant to change, simply because they prefer to focus on developing their existing strengths as teachers rather than on mastering a 34-month old technology. And finally, there are some teachers, although I’m sure the number is few, who have yet to achieve excellence. Simply handing every student an iPad will not improve the effectiveness of these teachers, and might even distract from efforts at improvement.
Even highly effective teachers are challenged by existing constraints on their time, and by pressures to address state standards, improve student performance on standardized tests, and complete required paperwork. Most also coach or advise sports teams or extracurricular activities, and the most effective teachers also want to keep up-to-date on developments in their field. Given all that is expected of teachers, it might be reasonable to give them a choice of whether or not they also want to integrate the use of iPads into their classrooms. It seems more likely that best practices and effective models will emerge from projects designed by teachers who choose to pilot iPads than from the initial adoption of a more expensive but less focused one-to-one program.
Would it be more responsible to allow the technology to mature, and for the research on its effectiveness to mature, before making a significant investment in tablet computers? We could learn from the experience of other schools whether integration of tablet computers into the classroom leads to a significant decrease in copying costs or a significant increase in student achievement. As the technology matures, it’s likely to become more affordable, and there is also likely to be more choice among tablet computing platforms. Meanwhile, on a smaller and less expensive scale, we could still be producing high-quality pilot projects that test the best uses of the technology.
It could be argued that students need exposure to new technology in the schools in order to prepare them to participate in the 21st century knowledge economy. It could also be argued that today’s students are, for the most part, already immersed in new technologies in their everyday lives. Many already have iPads, smartphones, and other new technologies, and are more proficient in their use than most of their teachers. These are not the skills that students need to acquire in school. Rather, they need to acquire critical thinking skills, close reading skills, and other core skills that are not dependent on technology for their acquisition, but which can be transferred to the use of technology. The technology is everywhere. Perhaps we should focus on the things, like highly-trained teachers and a rich curriculum, that are unique to our schools.
 For examples of such pilot programs in higher education, see, for example, Lehigh University, UMass-Boston, University of San Diego, or do a Google search with terms such as “iPad pilot project proposals.”
 A limited pilot program would not support the conversion to e-textbooks for all students in grades 6-12. But here again, the technology is still evolving, and the e-textbook business is still emerging and volatile. It seems premature at this point to make a commitment to e-textbooks. Meanwhile, there are currently less expensive platforms, such as Kindle (starting at $69) and Kobo (starting at $80), that support e-textbooks.
 We might consider the approach taken in Edina, where the plan appears to work toward a goal of having all ninth graders equipped with a tablet computer. Students are requested to provide their own devices, and the district is partnering with vendors (e.g. Best Buy) to make the technology accessible to all students. The district does not require that the devices be iPads, but provides minimum technical specifications for appropriate devices. It may be more appropriate to focus our efforts on providing infrastructure (e.g., internet access) and tablet technology to low SES students, rather than on duplicating technology to which many students already have access.