A report in Die Spiegel notes that late Apple CEO Steve Jobs upended the computer industry, the music industry and the world of mobile phones, and his next plan was to bring radical change to schools and textbook publishers, but he died of cancer before he could do it. However, now the Netherlands will fulfill Jobs’s vision with the launch of 11 new “Steve Jobs Schools” in August, Amsterdam among the cities that will be hosting such a facility. Some 1,000 children aged four to 12 will attend the schools, without notebooks, books or backpacks. Each of them, however, will have his or her own iPad.
Die Spiegel notes that the “Steve Jobs schools” will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 on every workday. The children will come and go as they please, as long as they are present during the core period between 10:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The building will only be closed for Christmas and New Year’s. The children’s families will be able to go on vacation when they please, and no child will have to be worried about missing class as a result, since classes in the traditional sense will be nonexistent. Only in exceptional cases will a teacher direct classes in groups. Normally, students will learn by calling up a learning app on their iPad — which will be turned into a sort of interactive, multimedia schoolbook — whenever they want, turning turns learning into a game-like experience.
There will be no blackboards, chalk or classrooms, homeroom teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, seating charts, pens, teachers teaching from the front of the room, schedules, parent-teacher meetings, grades, recess bells, fixed school days and school vacations. If a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it’ll be okay. And the children will choose what they wish to learn based on what they happen to be curious about.
And tablet schools are not just a Netherlands innovation. For example, some schools in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Nova Scotia have recently announced that they will require students to be equipped with iPads. A much more ambitious and comprehensive tablet schools project is underway in South Korea, where, Korean newspaper Chosun News Chosunilbo reported June 30, the country”s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has announced that it will will invest invest 2.2 trillion won (about $2 billion) over the next two years to first provide all elementary school children with free, Internet-connected tablets and customized e-learning programs. The plan is scheduled to be extended to high schools by 2015 with development of digital textbooks for all subjects and all the country’s schools, although in the early stage of transition, both paperback and digital textbooks will be used.
The report says Korea’s digital textbooks will incorporate the contents of ordinary textbooks plus various reference resources such as multimedia and FAQs to help students better understand the course materials. The South Korean government also wants to build a Cloud computing system in all schools, so that users will be able to access a database of all digital textbooks, and choose a la carte what they want to appear on their tablet PCs.
This project will require a massive server on which digital textbooks can be set up at the Korea Education and Research Information Service, as well as installation of fast WiFi networks in schools. The ministry plans to provide free tablets for students from low-income families, and according to a ministry official cited “It will be up to schools to decide which digital textbooks to choose for students in what year in what subject. We don’t expect the shift to digital textbooks to be difficult as students today are very accustomed to the digital environment.” The ministry also wants to establish online classes for some subjects that would allow students who miss classes or need long-term hospital care due to serious illness to be able to catch up, with their online hours recognized as attendance in a system whose school year runs 216 days per year instead of a typical 180 days in the U.S., and students spend 12 hours or more a day studying in school and at home, and rank number two in the world in reading comprehension after Shanghai, China.
But is all this really a good idea? Canadian education critic and reformer Michael Zwaagstra thinks not. Mr. Zwaagstra, the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) Fellow in http://www.aims.ca/en/home/library/details.aspx/3520Common Sense Education, a high school social studies teacher, and co-author (with Rodney A. Clifton and John C. Long) of the book, “What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them,” (ironically available as an e-book as well as hard copy) and a research fellow with the Frontier Centre, advocates that before rushing to equip schools with the latest technological gadgets, it would be prudent to ask whether this will improve student learning, and that considering the significant cost of purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading technological devices such as iPads, we need to ensure it’s not simply another expensive fad.
Mr. Zwaagstra cites a recently conducted a metanalysis of the research literature about the impact of technology on student achievement by Peter Reiman and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, whose findings were published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013), noting that Reiman and Aditomo conclude that most studies show only a moderate academic benefit from technology, and that the effect of computer technology seems to be particularly small in studies that use either large samples or randomized control groups, and that introduction of computer technology in classrooms has had, at best, only a limited positive impact on student achievement.
Mr. Zwaagstra’s definition of education reform isn’t the purchase of more electronic gadgetry and turning the purported learning process into a video game, but a return to the traditional basics of education. He contends that if schools really want to improve academic achievement, they should focus on the three classic essentials of learning: a focused and coherent curriculum (what we teach); clear, prioritized lessons (how we teach); and purposeful reading and writing — authentic literacy in every discipline, citing Mike Schmoker’s 2011 book “Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning,” in which Mr. Schmoker demonstrates that schools focusing on these three elements substantially outperform schools that do not, and argues that not only is technology unnecessary in the context of improving student achievement — too much emphasis on technology can obstruct and eclipse the essentials of learning.
Conversely, Mr. Schmoker contends that reading properly written textbooks is the type of reading students need to do more often. and that along with other carefully selected nonfiction documents, traditional hard-copy textbooks provide students the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that they need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge, and while students may read some non-fiction on their iPads, it’s unlikely they will read the same amount of dense, complex prose they would normally encounter in a course textbook, and that by adopting a “less is more” philosophy, educators can help students learn content at a deeper level, develop greater critical thinking skills, and discover more clearly how content-area concepts affect their lives and the world around them.
According to the Die Spiegel report, arithmetic, reading skills and text comprehension will the core subject focus in the Dutch Steve Jobs elementary schools, while good handwriting has been downgraded to a secondary skill, “nice for industrious pupils but not truly relevant.”
Possibly so. My handwriting has always been horrible, even though I was taught the “MacLean Method” of longhand writing in school back in the ’50s and ’60s. Formal instruction didn’t help, and my handwriting, at its best ugly and scrawly, has deteriorated so badly over the 20-odd years I’ve been using computers, that I have trouble reading it myself. However, not a major impediment these days, so the iPad schools advocates may be right about that.
However, in other contexts, I think Mssrs. Zwaagstra and Schmoker make some persuasive points. Expressing oneself and communicating via the written word involves about a lot more than an aesthetically attractive cursive hand, and a real education much more than virtually instant access to information ( as handy as that is), and the medium upon which it’s delivered. iPads are at best indifferent writing tools (he says, while drafting this blog on one). I average around five hours a day on my iPad, doing research online, accessing information, scanning the latest, news banking, checking the weather, email, and some writing, although I do more of that on laptops, which get about the same amount of screen time as the iPad. I love my iPad as a tool for doing the things it does well with.
However, I don’t like reading anything longer than short articles on the tablet, even less on the laptops, and can’t imagine ever reading a novel or work of non-fiction other than reference books on either. Perhaps on a Kindle with its gentler E-Ink display, but the bright (glaring, eyestrain-inducing) backlit screens of the iPad and notebooks are not conducive to reading enjoyment and relaxation IMHO, nor is the tactile sensation of holding a hard metal, glass, and plastic device in hand compared with the pleasurable feel of bookbindings and printed pages. It’s why I still subscribe to a daily broadsheet newspaper, and maintain three hard copy magazine subscriptions, even though all of those publications are available in electronic versions on the iPad at cheaper prices. If I drift off as I frequently do reading a magazine or book in bed, and it falls on the floor, no harm done. With an iPad there’s potential for expensive damage.
I feel badly for generations present and to come, more and more of whom will never have the opportunity to develop an appreciation of real books, even in school. And I definitely share Zwaagstra and Schmoker’s skepticism that educational quality and outcomes will be enhanced in any substantive way by the use of iPads in the classroom (or wherever). hard copy books may be doomed to become museum artifacts, but I’m profoundly thankful to have experienced an era before computers and even before television (my family got its first TV when I was 10) when the ink on.paper printed word was king.