Should Maine give Apple iPads to all middle school students, or should it stay with a new but familiar model, such as the MacBook Air? Why not let students use the CTL Classmate PC Netbook, a laptop that can convert to a tablet?
Realistically, the state Department of Education can’t go wrong with any of the five technology options it’s currently considering for the next Maine Learning Technology Initiative contract, which will provide about 75,000 devices to all middle schoolers, more than half of high schoolers, and teachers. That’s because they would all allow students to complete their work and fill the overarching purpose of enhancing their education.
People might resist the idea of tablets in schools based on a fear of change or the unknown. But the question for the department, it turns out, is less about the equipment and more about the strength of the vendors’ overall proposals.
The devices being considered, which also include the Hewlett-Packard ProBook and the Hewlett-Packard ElitePad, would empower teachers to present information in creative ways, let students access tools for learning, permit feedback on schoolwork and allow students to take control of their learning in ways that will prepare them for life after school.
So a final decision should be based less on hardware — and preconceived notions about what “should” be used in school — and more on the many details contained in the proposals the Department of Education has received from vendors vying to equip Maine’s students with learning technology.
The department will have to weigh a number of factors: Would training be available to assist teachers through a transition? Beyond technical training, what kind of professional development would be available to teachers to help them make the technology an integral part of their students’ learning? What kind of technical support would be provided when devices need repair? Would there be an alternative for students who might forget their device at home, to ensure they can still participate in lessons? What software or apps come with each device, and how would they help educators teach to state learning standards?
The public might balk at the idea of students using an iPad, especially to write up reports. That concern is understandable because some adults may find it difficult to type on a touchscreen. But it’s not difficult for a lot of students, and the iPad proposal under consideration would provide an external keyboard for every 10 devices.
iPads are cheaper and smaller than laptops, hold their battery power for a long time and have a range of apps that can benefit learning. Students can shoot videos, create multimedia presentations and take notes in class on them. Do those benefits outweigh the fact that they don’t have a traditional keyboard? Or, since many people already know how to use laptops, would it be less costly and time-consuming in the long run to stick with them?
The department invited proposals and got 16; it’s now negotiating five of those options and should make a decision within weeks. To narrow down the decision, Jeff Mao, the department’s learning technology policy director, said his team will talk with providers and schools; it will compare costs and the physical and professional support structures already in place.
Students should already be using technology in ways to help them and their teachers spend time efficiently and enhance their ability to learn. For example, students are likely to write more if they can type quickly and get their ideas down. And it’s easier for classmates and teachers to mark up a research paper online than to go through sheets of paper with red ink.
For math, educators can use technological applications to not just make learning more fun but to improve how they teach. With one free online program called ASSISTments, for example, students can complete math problems and receive feedback when they make mistakes. The teacher is able to track where students are having trouble and modify instruction accordingly.
Any of the new devices currently being considered will be able to perform these tasks and many more. What we’re discussing boils down to a need for a cost-benefit analysis that exists separate from people’s fear of change. Perhaps a technologically savvy student could develop an app for that.