IPads to the Rescue! Not Really

With the release of the iPad, a number of technologically influential people whom I read are blathering that tablets (i.e. iPad type of devices) are the future and the touch screen is sounding the death knell of the mouse. Along similar lines, I recently had a district technology director send me an e-mail stating that his curriculum and instruction counterpart wanted to purchase iPads for the kids and asked me my opinion on the concept. I have to admit that at the time I had not spent much effort thinking about the subject, but had a nagging feeling that tablet devices have a limited impact on schools.

Obviously, I am not someone who is out on the leading edge of the nation’s attention, and I doubt that I am the first or last person to work through this, but here are my thoughts.

When I look at the smart phones and iPad/tablets people use today, I see devices that enable us to easily connect with people we know and to things we are interested in with a level of immediacy that we find personally fulfilling. As an example, my wife is on Facebook and I am on Classmates.com. Between those two, we are reconnecting and communicating with people from our past. That would not happen otherwise, and we are using our Smart phones and laptops to do that.

From my personal viewpoint, it’s really fun to reconnect. We also use our smart phones to stay in touch with each other. Therefore, those devices are great for creating connections. Our culture/society finds this engaging and of value, which means there will be a lot more of these devices, with even more features coming in the next few generation of devices.

So, what is the value of those types of devices to a school and its instructional goals?

Connecting students to information is a good thing and, if that information is in a format that engages the students, even better. I think our students would agree that Web-browser-based information is more engaging than a textbook. Additionally, provided that someone is verifying the accuracy of the content, it will be much more current than a textbook or the maps on your wall — things can change very quickly.

However, that only gets us halfway through the instructional process where we also need the students to demonstrate that they have obtained the skill or knowledge we expect them to have after receiving the prescribed content. So, in addition to enabling students to receive content, we need devices that can be used to generate content.

This is where my hesitancy starts rearing its head. I would suggest that tablet and smart phone devices are really great devices for receiving and consuming information, but they are not very good at enabling a person to generate content. Simple and concise responses work for connecting to others where we do not need to generate complex content for connecting. Sending a 140-character tweet is radically different from generating a paragraph for a creative writing class.

My second point is that the touch screen, without a mouse, also falls short of enabling generation of content. Have you ever tried to use your finger to generate a drawing or manipulate graphics? I do not know about you, but I have fat, short fingers that do not lend themselves to fine motor movements needed for precise drawing of a line on a screen. Any type of precise movements, placement of graphics on screen or insertion of graphics into text documents requires some type of “mouse” (whether that is an actual mouse or touch screen stylus).

There is a third point I need to bring forward. The applications available on any of these devices are not entirely compatible with the applications that are most likely running on teacher workstations and desktop computers. Don’t get me wrong, they are great applications, but you cannot simply export a paper written in Google Docs or the simple applications on the IPad and expect the format and layout of the written paper or graphics presentations to look the same when you export it to another program. Even between Microsoft products — Works and MS Office — there are major problems with compatibility.

Tablets like the iPad are extremely useful to individual members of our society and are really cool devices. However, it seems they fall short of providing both the receiving and generation of content capabilities required in an educational environment.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at gmeeks@meeksgeeks.com.