Wednesday, April 27, 2011

why our district should lift the ban on tablets

A teacher recently posed a question in a local tech forum, related to emerging tablet technology and our school district's ban on tablet purchase, starting with ipads:
... and that's why we need to wait to see which device fits the bill the best (and for the best price). I really don't believe that we have to pay $400 per device. When tablets get down to half that, then we'll have something. Acer did it with their netbooks - previous to the Aspire One, Asus, Sony, HP, and Panasonic all wanted $600 for a portable computer - now, a few revisions later, with a larger screen, and a respectable hard drive, the prices of most netbooks are around the $250-$300 mark - where they should be. I don't particularly care whether it be Apple or Android, but I do want whatever device to be decently priced, be built to last and have lots of features. As for right now, with class sizes maxxed out the way they are (next year I'm looking at a grade 4/5/6 split with 30), I'd rather see students get teachers than over priced expensive shiney tech gadgets.
My response: 
As you are I'm sure aware the discussion about peripherals and mobile devices is not just speculative and not simply about adding toys to the tech array at school. There were at least 5 mobile learning proposals put together by teachers this year, all involving so-called "21st-century Learning" and all seemingly right off the page from the recent District "vision" presentation on Tech Enhancement. All of these proposals were rejected. While no official response has ever been given as to why (despite teacher efforts to find out), five reasons have been suggested by board office staff or school administration -- some of which are mutually exclusive:
  1. No peripherals devices of any kind have been approved for purchase (although are necessary for the fulfillment of the "district vision") and no opinion has been considered as to specific devices -- this is still to come 
  2. pc-compatible ipods/ipads are made by Apple are restricted as they are associated with Macs -- lumps peripherals in with operating systems 
  3. The proposal decisions were site-based and it is a coincidence or mistake that the message to reject seems to have gone district-wide -- the only district-wide restrictions are on hotmail 
  4. iPads and other devices are not peripherals but actually computers and thus need to conform to district tech standards which have not evolved to take on new technology 
  5. Communication breakdown -- the source of the rejection shuffles between principal, tech support, senior admin, trustees, purchasing, senior learning team... the cutbacks of the last year have left some doubt as to whose responsibility it is to make these kind of decisions -- it used to be site-based (e.g. like buying a screen projector) with a oversight role played by the DTT (e.g. tech standards) 
At least two of the proposals were designed to reduce tech costs at schools -- supplying partial sets of $250-$500 devices to round out student technology as an alternative to new lab purchase. The rejected district projects looked to be in the $2000 to $9,000 range and aimed at supplying better access and function that teachers were getting from $24000-$30000 labs. Other schools have inquired about allocating existing funds (e.g. greening grant) for portable devices vs fixed computers. These fit the "vision" but falls short somehow in the eyes of the board office. I understand that teachers can use whatever they want if they buy it themselves and don't expect system access or tech support, but this represents a serious erosion in the responsibility of the school system to supply learning resources and support learning conditions. And shy of fundraising or third-party grants, teachers can't afford to buy 15 iPads or Xooms. So, if the "vision" is to become reality we have to exchange some restrictions for some "can-do."

I understand the reasons given for caution and debate when buying the latest gadget, but there is something to be said for saying yes to teachers who are enthusiastic to actually move the district's vision from theory to practice. These are teachers who have successfully put energy and knowledge into past tech projects involving learning, and usually the ones who help spread ideas, skills, and habits among staff and students. The projects I've seen relate to student use of tech for research, reflection & assessment, special needs adaptation, communication, and presentation (aka learning).

The tech gadget-du-jour is not the issue in my mind, but rather the commodity of the teacher using something relevant and ubiquitous to affect learning and pull student habits from distraction to purpose. Educators don't need to agree on the best product or price, just let the desire of project-ready teachers guide the process. At the cost of a few thousand at a few sites, the district can learn all it needs to about a variety of devices, and will simultaneously save costs on computers, increase morale, and enhance learning. Meet enthusiasm, careful planning, and vision with a "yes" and stand back to see what happens.

I'm reminded of what a big deal it was to buy two digital cameras for a Socials dep't back around 1998 -- open-the-floodgates controversy and all -- as you can imagine it ended up being a regular part of teaching and learning and didn't break the bank. Schools are now tossing out the old 2 megapixel cameras. Same with video cameras, digital projectors, smartboards, and now mobile devices -- they don't need regulation or standardization, especially at the pilot level. Very few require any kind of support and very few became decadent mass-purchases that are now obsolete (unlike the rows of business ed texts in our bookroom). It astounds me that there are still roadblocks for incorporating elegant, affordable tech in to classrooms, especially when it is the very tech that forms the backdrop for the district's "vision."  The "no" has got to go.  In the very least, the "no response" has got to go.