Massive district buying of tablets and other devices for students across the nation is an unvarnished fact. So too are the claims that access to tablets transform teaching and learning (see here, here, here, and here).
Amid all of this hullabaloo, not many teachers raise their voices to either question the expenditures or see pitfalls that administrators and policymakers either ignore or fail to see in their adoring distribution of tablets and laptops. Occasional stories do emerge from individual teachers and administrators who do, indeed, question the large expenditures of limited resources and what is gained and lost by putting tablets in the hands of individual students. Such pieces get easily drowned out by the roar of approval from parents, school board members, administrators and technology funders and organizations that have dominated print, visual, and social media.
Launa Hall is an elementary school teacher in Arlington (VA) public schools and is collecting her essays for a book. This op-ed appeared in the Washington Post, December 2, 2015.
I placed an iPad into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, tech-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “digital citizenship” and “online safety” and “our school district bought us these iPads to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own iPads to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never touched a tablet before, and I watched them cradle the sleek devices in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at their shining screens.
That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the iPads back.
Some adult ears might welcome a room of hushed 8-year-olds, but teachers of young children know that the chatter in a typical elementary classroom is what makes it a good place to learn. Yes, it’s sometimes too loud. These young humans are not great conversationalists. They are often hurting someone’s feelings or getting hurt, misunderstanding or overreacting or completely missing the point. They need time to learn communication skills — how to hold your own and how to get along with others. They need to talk and listen and talk some more at school, both with peers and with adults who can model conversation skills.
The iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.
Our planning helped, but there was so much we didn’t anticipate: alarms going off randomly throughout the day, bandwidth issues that slowed our lessons to a crawl, username issues followed by password issues followed by hundreds of selfies. All these things sucked instructional time. This at a school serving many students new to English or otherwise behind in their communication skills. They couldn’t afford to lose a single minute of learning. So I wrote lessons two ways: one in case enough iPads were working and one if too many weren’t. I tried to harness the benefits and overcome the avalanche of distracting minutiae the devices brought.
Veteran teachers of tablet-friendly classrooms will tell you that these were simply rollout problems. They may mention how tablets can help teachers tailor lessons to each child, or how they can provide an instant snapshot into whether a child understood a concept. They talk about apps that connect classmates to one another and to students across the globe, that foster creativity and a sense of newness that makes over a stale classroom.
Those early-adopter teachers are right: Tablets are portals to a million possibilities. Even with my rookie stumbles, my students did wonderful things. They made faux commercials that aired on our school’s morning news; they recorded themselves explaining math problems; they produced movies about explorers, complete with soundtracks. I recorded mini-lessons for my students to watch at home, so we could “flip our classroom” and discuss the information in small groups the next day. And I knew we were just getting started.
But did the benefits offset what was lost?
Sherry Turkle, the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” writes about how we are sacrificing connections, one quick check of our screens at a time. Her research finds that college students, with their ubiquitous phones, “are having a hard time with the give-and-take of face-to-face conversation.” Eight-year-olds with iPads have the same struggles, minus any filters or perspective people might gain as they age. At the same time I was trying to encourage my students to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction, the iPads I gave them threatened to overwhelm their understanding.