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Russo: No Magical Machine

Districts should exercise caution before giving tablets to kids and teachers.

Tablets have become a must-have item at schools these days, with districts hustling to put them into students’ hands. These efforts, usually dubbed 1:1, provide each teacher and student with her or his own device, usually starting with a particular grade or building and spreading out from there.

The enthusiasm for equipping everyone with a tablet (the iPad, in particular) is understandable, given how much software and content is being produced for them and how eager students are to use the devices. And if a district has the technology funds available, it can be hard to explain to parents and board members why it hasn’t happened already.

There’s also the media hype—like that TED Talk where the guy says that given a computer and Internet access, kids can pretty much learn on their own.

Let’s be absolutely clear, just in case it needs saying again: Tablets, like laptops and any other device, aren’t magic learning machines. Handing them to kids or teachers will likely not, on its own, make your school or district any better. Teachers don’t always know how to make good use of them, and students are more than happy to make unwise use if districts let them. In fact, bringing in tablets can result in unwanted distractions and budgetary constraints.

“Buying stuff is easy,” says Bror Saxberg, coauthor of Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age. Business Week goes further: Giving out tablets, they wrote in “The iPad Goes to School” (October 24, 2013), is like “installing candy machines on every desk.”

Some education experts, like Gary Stager, oppose tablets because they are passive “consumer” devices not geared toward getting students to produce their own work. (See “Laptop Vs. Tablet,” Scholastic Administrator, Winter 2013.) Others criticize Apple devices in particular because they operate via tightly controlled systems that limit adding or adjusting homegrown or open-source content, and lack “enterprise” software that allows easy district-wide updates and controls.

More than a handful of botched 1:1 district rollouts—among the best known are Los Angeles; Guilford County, North Carolina; Fort Bend, Texas; and Corvallis, Oregon—are already in the news. More are sure to trickle out during the rest of the 2013–14 school year.

In response to this Wild West environment, a number of districts are hitting the “pause” button, restricting tablet use to school hours and campus only (as in L.A.). Others are going the laptop route—though again, experience has shown that laptops aren’t magic learning machines, either.

But it can be done. There have been some successful 1:1 tablet deployments in districts across the country, including Roslyn, New York; Burlington, Massachusetts; and McAllen, Texas.

The trick isn’t picking the “right” manufacturer or device, however. It’s nothing as easy as that. Those brave souls forging ahead and having some success with tablet deployments all say that the keys are to choose specific or pragmatic goals, get really clear about how the devices are supposed to change classrooms, give teachers time to get used to using tablets for teaching, and make sure your schools have tons of bandwidth and Wi-Fi.

“The strongest tablet deployments we’ve seen are where districts have decided on certain goals and outcomes for students and mapped backward from there,” says Sara Schapiro, a director at Digital Promise, a federally funded nonprofit.

Still not sure? A good pilot might be the answer. Baltimore County recently announced a 10-school pilot, built around tablets with keyboards.

In fact, there’s nothing easy at all about a successful 1:1 tablet deployment, so if you’re looking for an “easy” win, you should probably look somewhere else.

Spring 2014—

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