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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 09/12/2011

What the iPad (and other technology) can’t replace in education

This was written by Karim Kai Ani, founder of Mathalicious, which is rewriting the middle school math curriculum around real-world topics.

By Karim Kai Ani

A recent article in The New York Times explains how after investing $33 million in technology, a school district in Arizona has seen almost no improvement in test scores.

Duh.

It’s no surprise that we as a society have a kind of blind faith that technology is able to solve all of our problems. Yet while the iPad can and should replace textbooks, it can’t replace common sense.

Unfortunately that’s exactly what’s happening in education reform. We’re focused so much on the device that we’re ignoring what’s on it.

Take math. Students dislike it and perform badly in it. Each year they ask, “What does this mean?” and “When will I use this?”

And what’s our answer? A new platform. This is like reading a novel, hating it, and concluding it would be better on the Kindle. Students find the book disengaging and irrelevant, but instead of rewriting it, we simply reformat it.

So what can explain this? I’d argue there are a few factors:

Evaluating quality content is harder than evaluating quality technology.

Try this. Which is better: Connected Math or Everyday Math? How about: the iPhone/iOS or Android?

We often confuse the platform for the content itself. Houghton Mifflin made news when it announced that it was creating iPad versions of its textbooks, and a host of websites now promise students a “revolutionary” new way to access education.

Yet in each of these cases the material — the content that’s actually being taught — is exactly the same as its always been. The media may herald these as dramatic steps forward, but crtl-v is by definition not innovation. Hormel can design all the cans it wants but it’s still SPAM.

Much of the funding for education reform comes from large foundations, many of whom view their role as to push the envelope in public education.

Organizations such as NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation tend to support initiatives like alternative teacher preparation programs, technology platforms and charter schools. Because their entrepreneurial emphasis is to reshape the future rather than build upon the present, there’s often an unavoidable disconnect between what teachers want today and what foundations want them to want tomorrow.

Ask a teacher what they’d rather have: a dynamic learning management system that tracks students by individual skill, or an engaging lesson on percents. Then ask what a foundation would rather fund.

(Incidentally, we were recently contacted by a school district which had been awarded a $30,000 grant to buy iPads but had no money leftover for content. It’s not the district’s fault: surely the grant was only for the tablets themselves. But if a funder is going to spend that much money on devices, wouldn’t it make sense to also ensure that the schools can put something good on them? There’s a reason Apple advertises apps: without the App Store the iPad is useless. Just ask HP.)

Just as there’s a disconnect between foundations and teachers, there’s often a disconnect between administrators and teachers as well. Teachers answer to principals who answer to the superintendent who answers to the school board, many of whom have never taught. When they say they want schools to look different, the easiest way to do that is to dress the schools up with projectors, interactive white boards, laptops, tablets, etc. School boards have elections and there’s no easier sound bite than “technology.”

As a country, we seem to care more about style than substance. Want proof? Two words: Jersey Shore .

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is the sixth one: we humans are very good at seeing only what we want to see, finding only what we’re looking for.

You believe the world is flat? You’ll find evidence for that.

You don’t believe in global warming? There’s a scientist somewhere who will back you up.

You think technology will fix education? The high school in my town is failing despite its laptop-for-every-student program, but that’s okay: try the next town over.
I’m sure The New York Times will be happy to reprint the same article next year … and the next … and the next.

Technology is great. I love my iPhone. It can do all sorts of things, but making me a better dancer isn’t one of them. Every day parents ask their kids, “What did you learn today?” It’s never “How did you learn it?” or “On what device did you learn it?” but always, “What?” Yet so long as the answer to that doesn’t change, neither will educational outcomes.

We need to stop pretending that technology can fix problems that aren’t technological in nature. Kids are bored. They don’t know why they’re learning what they’re learning. The solution isn’t asking the question better. The solution is asking a better question.

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