A Siren Song: The Promises of Digital Technology in the Classroom

Steven Breedlove examines the claims about how the iPad enhances education and finds them wanting.

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly common for schools to provide a computer (or access to a computer) to every student. The invention of the iPad has taken this growing trend and, through excellent marketing, turned it into a flood. The number of public and private schools that issue an iPad to some or all of their students seemingly grows every month. In fact, we would be hard-pressed to find schools wherein the students do not have access to a computer or an iPad on a near daily basis. It might be difficult to find an innovation in education that has moved more quickly than the introduction of digital technology into the classroom. This makes sense, though, as digital technology arguably has caused one of the swiftest sweeping cultural changes ever. That schools have been caught in this wind of change should not surprise anyone.

Because of the prevalence of the trend, more and more schools are compelled to and are choosing to adopt technologies that they cannot afford and do not need. The iPad, it seems, has become the king of student computing in the classroom, and over time, it will no doubt become so ubiquitous that explaining why a school does not offer or allow iPads will become as difficult as it is now to try to justify why a school does not have or use computers. Such a stance on computers currently would be met with shock and derision, just as the future argument (that students should not have an iPad) will be.

Whether or not it is the iPad does not matter. If it fades in popularity, some other device will take its place, offering the same siren song as the iPad does now. The iPad merely serves as a useful lightning rod
for this discussion, because it does what all of the digital technology is trying to do, only more successfully. The allure of this technology is great, for it offers and promises much, too much to be ignored, and yet what it delivers is hardly what we might want for ourselves or for our students.

The promises of the iPad in the classroom are multifaceted and attractive. A few minutes of browsing the “iPad in Education” section of the Apple website reveals beautiful pictures and alluring descriptions of just how easy teaching will be if only all students had this device. If we ignore the brutish ad populum fallacy that currently defends the use of computers in education and generalize about the remaining arguments, it seems that the following claims are being made. First, an iPad offers a student-tailored approach to school because each student can work at his own speed. Second, endless examples and illustrations are available through the internet, and thus the students will achieve greater understanding. Third, technology engages the students because gadgets are exciting, particularly to those who are struggling to pay attention. Fourth, because of the possibility of student-created apps and programs that solve classroom problems, learning becomes exponential as students both solve the problem and build the process that solves it. Fifth, the students suddenly can have all of their books in a searchable format on their iPad, making the access to material easier.

Undergirding all of these arguments is the nebulous notion that the iPad offers endless possibilities by broadening the scope of what people can imagine and do. These arguments are not unique to iPads. If we were to examine the advertisements for all digital technologies, we would find that the general argument is that these technologies will make us smarter, brighter, and more able to solve the problems of the world.

The irony of the matter, however, is that iPads have absolutely nothing to do with education. They are a popular trend without substance. Education is about the growth and transformation of the human heart, mind, and soul through contact with truth, and iPads cannot accomplish this growth. For all of its sophistication and allure, the iPad is no provoker of the heart, soul, or mind. Only ideas and people can do this.

The idea that an iPad offers a student-tailored approach to education is frequently encountered and widely accepted. In fact, whole curricula have been developed and marketed based on the premise that a student, through the computer, can work at his own pace. In home-school networks and low performing public schools (who use computer programs to increase standardized test scores) this practice is particularly prevalent. What is interesting is that few people notice the obvious – that books and teachers can provide the exact same student-tailored approach. Books clearly can be read at the pace appropriate for any individual student.

Workbooks can be given and exercises accomplished at any pace needed. Likewise, decent teachers have always been able (and been forced by necessity) to tailor the material to individual students. Whatever the reason for using an iPad in the classroom, it must be something other than a student-tailored approach.

That an iPad or computer offers a myriad of examples and illustrations through the internet is perhaps its strongest feature. Clearly the vivid image of a painting available online is preferable to the grainy image photocopied by the teacher, just as listening to a good recording of music is preferable to listening to a bad recording. Digital technology certainly makes maps, paintings, music, and other such sensory objects pleasantly accessible, and it is also true that sensing the objects referenced in class provides an opportunity for deeper engagement with the subject, which could in turn produce understanding and altered affections. It is worth noting, however, that the image or music alone is not sufficient; the student must engage his own imagination, and the iPad cannot accomplish this. But there is a danger in the easy accessibility of images and music. Easy accessibility quickly replaces difficult accessibility, and if iPads and their kin keep students from actual museums and live concerts, a great disservice has been done. For the real painting is more enlivening than the vivid digital image just as the digital image is more enlivening than the grainy photocopy.

It is tempting to believe that a gadget or computer program will engage the disengaged student, and perhaps this is because it seems to. When the teacher walks the students to the computer lab, the disinterested freshman is suddenly engaged. This is usually because he sees the computer lab as a break from work and learning, which, unfortunately, it usually is. If what goes on in the computer lab is the same pressure upon his mind to truly understand and be changed by truth, the mechanics of playing with the gadget loses its luster. Maybe not in the first day or week, because novelties will last a little while, but once the novelty is gone and what remains is the awareness of the necessity of difficult thought, the gadget is no longer enough. The only hope is that in the period of novelty the student actually engages the material in a way that changes him, and this change sustains further inquiry regardless of the absence of fun. In this sense, an iPad could be used effectively, just as a new book or a trip to a museum or a class project could. Unfortunately, the iPad is rarely the best of these catalysts because it attracts the attention of the student, rather than diverting the student’s attention to the subject. A museum, book, or play rarely does this. After all, any decent teacher will recognize thatsome catalysts are catalysts, and some merely diversions. A good teacher needs to notice whether the ideas behind the fun are the object of affection rather than the fun itself.

Student-created apps and programs are a trendy way of claiming that learning is becoming exponential through the use of computers. The makers of calculators and computers are selling their products based on the fact that they are not static, claiming that if the students learn how to develop the software, they will have learned twice. Certainly this can be true, although whether it is good for the average student is a different matter. For the fact remains that most students either use the apps or formulas to solve the problems for them, rather than learning to solve these problems themselves. To make matters worse, most students don’t even write the formulas in their calculators or iPads; they rely upon the expertise of the few future programmers in their midst. Clearly it is dangerous for a student to use a formula to solve problems without knowing how to solve the problem himself, but this is exactly what happens. Human nature nearly always falls into the trap of finding the easiest course, which means that most students would rather plug numbers into a program than learn to do the problem themselves. Even if a student learns to do the problem and creates the formula to perform the operations for each future iteration, the loss of practice because of the use of the software will usually ensure forgetfulness of the process.

The fact that iPads enable us to carry all of our books with us in a searchable format is tantalizing. The prevalence and growth of the e-reader industry suggests it will be more and more difficult to argue against this advantage of the iPad over traditional books. After all, who would choose a backpack laden with numerous books and binders when one small tablet suffices, especially considering that all of last year’s books are still available for reference on it? Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of the computer screen is how it has changed our reading, and yet the seeming advantages, plus the lust
for new and wonderful technologies, have rendered any statement against e-reading as the cry of a Luddite. And yet the fact remains that, as a digital culture, we read less carefully on the screen than we do on the page. We skim, surf, and browse, rather than sink into the depths of a work and let it speak to us. Perhaps it is possible to read well on a computer screen, but it does not seem to be the normal tendency, and offering students a device that they understand as a vessel for skimming is a poor choice if we want them to dig and ponder.

Beyond the fact that the primary promises of the iPad in education do not deliver, and perhaps even cause harm, there are deeper reasons why heeding this siren call will lead to the destruction of our goals. For no matter how well we use these devices, we (and certainly our students) have the tendency to use the internet as our repository of knowledge, rather than do the difficult work of memorizing ourselves. But understanding and transformed affections necessarily depend on having the facts of the matter deep within us rather than without
us, and thus our understanding and transformation are stilted by the paucity of our knowledge. Additionally, technologies of all sorts cause us to trust the understanding of another, rather than seek it ourselves. After all, why learn when you can google?

Another danger exists in digital technology, which is the tendency to reduce education to the accumulation of facts and the acquisition of skills sets, because these are the two things that computers do wonderfully. Unfortunately, this is not what education is. Education is about the change of a mind, heart, and soul, and when we overuse (or even perhaps use at all!) digital technologies, we reinforce in our students’ minds a terrible and menacing utilitarian view of education. Lastly, the more we depend upon and supplement with the computer, the more we make education a solitary event. The fact is that education only matters because of relationships. We learn facts and skills that come from others so that we can serve others with them. Ultimately, we hope to be changed by truth so that we might know the One who is Truth. Training our students to view education as an individualistic event harms their souls in ways that are deeper than we can imagine.

And so we would do well to reject the siren call that leads to the destruction of our vision. Education is about, after all, nothing more than a teacher, a student, and an idea.

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