Education Reform: If It Can’t Fit into a Tablet PC, Forget It

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

There’s only one major trend in education, and that’s digital. The digital meter is all that really matters, and it’s running faster every second. The increments are in degrees of digitization. This process is transforming not only the classroom but the business of schooling. Paper and file cabinets are disappearing, just as books, bookshelves, and printers are. Increasingly, information is created, stored, and shared digitally. Landlines and faxes are being replaced by digital communications via computers and the internet.

Increasingly, offices are becoming dead zones. Educators are communicating more than ever before, but they’re no longer doing it from their offices. For example, students and colleagues are communicating with them via email and social media, and the interactions are no longer limited to weekdays, 8-to-4, in offices. The office is simply no match for 24-7, anytime, anywhere communications.

This digital sea change is not an isolated trend. It’s pervasive, happening everywhere on this planet, all at once. There’s no denying that there are and will be pockets that remain analog, like the payphone booth you sometimes see in an old neighborhood or out of the way location or an IBM selectric typewriter in a forgotten workroom or, even more rare, a desktop computer with disc drives and CRT monitor, connected to a printer with fanfold paper. Newspapers and TV news are going digital, too, just as books, movies, music, and sports are.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this change is the library, where shelves, books, and file cabinets are going the way of card catalogs, reference tomes, and twenty-pound dictionaries and encyclopedias. In today’s college libraries, students aren’t poring over books or lecture notes in paper tablets. Their attention is on notebook screens that link them to all their sources of learning. Given a choice of hardcopy or digital, they’d choose digital simply because books are heavy and take up space in their backpacks. Books are also more expensive. However, the greatest advantage of digital texts is that they’re searchable. Readers can quickly find all the sections that deal with a certain person, theory, event, or concept. They can copy and paste from digital texts.

Students submit papers digitally and no longer need to purchase a printer, cartridge, paper, etc. Desktop PCs are also disappearing, being replaced by notebooks that can be taken and used anywhere. Internet cables, too, are going fast, being replaced by wireless networks and hot zones, just as power cables are giving way to battery packs.

Elementary school students in South Korea are going digital, bypassing not only hardcopy books and paper but notebook computers with their clunky keyboards as well. Their schools are opting for tablet PCs similar to the iPad. Through their tablets, they can access all the information in the world and communicate with classmates and teachers 24-7.

Educators who are planning for the future really need to look at what this trend toward increased digitization implies. The iPad, in its current form, isn’t going to replace the notebook computer, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that, in every incarnation, the tablet becomes more like a notebook. Just as the desktop PC finally gave way to the notebook, so shall the notebook succumb to the tablet.

If a person needs a theory to explain this trend, one that might do is that efficiency and sustainabilty will always win out. The tablet is smaller and lighter than a notebook while also providing personal communications, social networking, and live video sharing features. It’s as “simple” as that.

So where should the smart education dollar go?  On the one hand, a simple rule is that if it’s not going to fit into the tablet PC environment, don’t put money into it. On the other, if it seems to be in sync with tablets or their projected development, then go for it. If the investment is in digital resources, then it’ll be tablet-oriented. Investment in face-to-face, lecture-based technology runs counter to the tablet so these should probably be avoided. There are numerous digital alternatives to the lecture, and these are already being used in innovative, exciting, and effective ways.

Some will stand in the middle of the digital surge and try to stop it, arguing that this technological change doesn’t necessarily mean that test scores will improve. And they’re right. But they’re not getting it. The point isn’t higher test scores. It’s ease. Going digital makes the business of education, teaching, and learning easier. And easier, in and of itself, is a good enough reason to go with the flow.

But I’m an optimist. I believe that anything that makes teaching or learning easier, i.e., more efficient and sustainable, is good for education. Our current tests may not be suitable for the evolving digital world, and low test scores may be a symptom of this mismatch. Perhaps it’s time for us to develop tests that are in sync with how students are actually learning. This might mean tests that no longer rely on memory but on the ability to find and apply information from the web or to work collaboratively with others in solving real-world problems.

10 Responses

  1. Just as the printing press made possible the invention of traditional schools the digital world will create new schools. No matter what happens digital information will open up new and unlimited learning opportunities for the world’s children as well as adult learners. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back. Therefore, educators must work to incorporate the digital world into our daily learning experiences. The learning ship has left the port and we are best advised to think of how best to use it.

    • It’s funny how so many educators have boarded the ship but refuse to release the mooring lines, believing that being on board is the same as actually setting sail.

  2. Aaron Academy uses technology as an integral part of the educational process. Our UDL instruction is based in the belief that unless we engage students in their ‘native’ digital culture we are missing tremendous opportunities for advancing education. Our students use iPods and Macbooks, not as adjuncts to learning but components of learning. Critical thinking and problem solving are priorities over rote learning at Aaron Academy. I welcome you to visit usour facebook page – Aaron Academy NYC.

  3. Inline with the trend of going digital, I think a social layer is eminent.

    In thinking about the future of textbooks, I blogged about a collaborative textbook idea. Would appreciate input

  4. Great post, Jim. However “from the web” in your last sentence is crucial. One big problem with the iPad and other devices is that content is offered via device-specific apps. As Tim Berners-Lee pointed out during his conversation with Gordon Brown about How Can the Web Accelerate Social and Economic Change? (Geneva, April 6, 2011 – from 1:23:40 ca):

    …a phone app is off the web. And you put something on a phone app, you can’t bookmark it, you can’t send me the URL, I can’t tweet about it.
    It’s not part of the discourse, it’s not part of this web of links, so it’s not part of life on the web. In a way, it’s a loss.
    So my message is: if you have someone else ask you to make a phone app, first make him a web app. Point out that it’ll work on every phone, it’ll work … in the future, it’s interoperable. And if they want a phone app, then do one after you’ve done the Web app. But do the Web app first, because that’s what posterity will see, that’s what will be indexed by the search engines, and that’s what will be tweeted about and facebooked about, and IRC’d about.

    Isn’t the same true of tablet apps?

  5. Good point, Claude. Problems are always opportunities for innovation, and digitized phone communications could be easily recorded as best practice for our digital world — making possible all the interoperability (love this word) that Berners-Lee mentions. Also, iPad and similar tablets are still evolving. The kinks will be worked out in later models.

  6. […] Education Reform: If It Can’t Fit into a Tablet PC, Forget It « Educational Technology and Change… […]

  7. “opting for tablet PCs similar to the iPad”

    A tablet PC is very different from an iPad. You’re wanting an iPad to be ‘the’ device for education, perhaps, but it still falls short of a tablet PC, which has a keyboard, a touch screen with digitizer, a stylus, and can run full software programs.

    A tablet PC (like the HP tm2t) is essentially a laptop (or notebook) PLUS a stylus and touchscreen w/digitizer for the stylus input, too.

    Then there are the slates (HP Slate, Asus Slate), which are all of the above, minus the keyboard (although bluetooth keyboards still work).

    Then you have dual-booting hybrids, like the dell inspiron duo, that has a rotating screen for tablet and laptop mode.

    Then there are android tablets with keyboards, regular android tablets, and ipads.

    “in every incarnation, the tablet becomes more like a notebook.”

    “so shall the notebook succumb to the tablet.”

    Those two quotes are saying the exact opposite things.

    I agree with your sentiments, but you sound like you are wanting the iPad to be the device for education too much. Without a stylus, college students or K12 students can’t write their math equations, for example, or do drawings.

    And without Windows or a full OS, unfortunately, there is still too much software that can’t be run on android or an ipad. I surveyed engineering students at our school, for example, and they all preferred tablet pcs over android tablets or ipads.

  8. Update 8.20.11: See Jeffrey S. Solochek’s “Students will learn from iPad 2s instead of textbooks at Pasco school” (St. Petersburg Times, 19 Aug. 2011).

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