“What I hope for you … [is] that you think of technology as a verb, not a noun;
that poetry drives you, not hardware.” – Red Burns

Setting the Scene
In January 2010, the iPad was born and its birth instantaneously ignited a craze within K12 schools around the county. The iPad’s invasion of Minnesota’s classrooms continues to be heralded by schools, districts, and news outlets (1) with no signs of slowing down. In a long history of financial, pedagogical, and philosophical debates, the iPad is dominating the latest chapter about technology’s role in education.

Since the introduction of computers into schools during the mid-1970s, technological fixes for education in the form of new tools (i.e., television, interactive whiteboards, clickers) have promised to solve educational challenges and new concepts (i.e., flipped classrooms, online learning) have claimed to help students learn or teachers teach more effectively and efficiently. Tyack and Cuban refer to these fads as “fireflies” due to how they appear so frequently, shine brightly for a few moments, and then disappear again.

Similar to the technologies that have come before them, the iPads’ status as an educational fad or revolution remains to be determined. In what ways can English educators respond to and participate in this craze? How can we deal with this dumping of iPads into our English classrooms? Is the iPad the technological tool that will be the tipping point for educational institutions and educators to disrupt, re-imagine, and engage in the continuously changing definitions and expectations of reading and writing, teaching and learning (Gladwell)?

While there are certainly more questions than answers at this point in time, perhaps the best advice is shared in the Red Burn’s quote above; “let poetry drive us, not hardware.” Let us honor our expertise in the teaching and learning of English, and not be distracted by the seductive iPads that have landed in our classrooms.

Tool Talk
Unlike its cousins, laptop computers, the iPad (its aesthetics in tandem with its capabilities) appears to have won over educators around the country as schools and districts scurry to be the next pioneers participating in its foray into the world of education. The iPad is a strikingly beautiful technological tool, and its beauty captivates both gadget-geeks and non-techies alike. To turn it on, you press its one button. To use it, you intimately touch the screen with your fingers instead of using a mouse. The screen itself is big and bright encased by a sleek black or white shell. The accessories are unlimited and equally as stunning (cases and covers in bright colors as well as leather).

Similar to laptop computers, iPads complement school-based activities such as notetaking, annotating, research, assignment and calendar scheduling and organizing, as well as listening to, reading, and composing print-based and digital texts. Compared to Apple’s line of laptops, iPads are less expensive and offer features attractive to education. First, they are smaller and lighter than laptops (or textbooks), which makes them backpack friendly. Next, battery length is typically superior to laptops, which is important in a typical K12 school day. iPads also have built in cameras allowing them to serve double duty as digital still and video cameras. Finally, there are thousands of educational apps available for use on iPads that can aid in engaging learners. Despite these cool and convenient technical affordances of iPads, the verdict is still out about the ways in which using iPads can positively impact teaching and learning other than its bewitching motivational potential.

Troublesome for English classrooms are the iPad’s lack of a proper keyboard and native word processing program. Writing (in text) is a main component of English curricula, so teachers and students need to problem-solve the physical act of typing (the iPad’s onscreen keyboard is a bit small for most hands and takes up important screen real estate, so many users opt to purchase an external keyboard) as well as the “housing” for the text-based documents via available apps (for example, the app Pages allows users to create and annotate Word and Mac documents) or cloud-based solutions such as Google Apps for Education (http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/education/). Educators should contemplate both of these considerations seriously as they help convert the iPad from a consumption tool into a creation tool.

As those of us who work in the area of educational technology integration understand and advocate for, the key concept to the “transformational” nature of many educational technologies that is missing in most current conversations is the importance of content and pedagogy in synergy with technology. It is the synergy of these three things within educational contexts that can transform teaching and learning, not simply the technology itself (Mishra and Koehler). Often, technology fads simply encourage the same approaches to teaching and learning that have been used for centuries rather than make possible and facilitate a re-imagination of what teaching and learning can be within 21st century English classrooms.

One-size-fits-all approaches regarding anything, especially in education, are concerning (e.g., standards, professional development, textbooks, iPads). Why not have different tools available inside each classroom, for different content areas, for different levels of schooling? I often look to successful technology-infused schools to see what I can learn from them. For example, the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) high school in Philadelphia (http://scienceleadership.org) is a national leader in technology-infused learning. SLA recently announced that it is switching from Mac laptops to Dell’s Chromebook 11 (not iPads!) (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2013/12/switch_from_mac_chromebook.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW). It will also utilize desktop computer stations to provide students with the ability to do video production (which is not possible on the Chromebooks) in addition to cameras, video equipment, and other technological tools. SLA’s decision to switch to Chromebooks was financially motivated as well as instructionally motivated – it is unwavering in its dedication to inquiry-driven, project-based learning.

Notably, most schools, like SLA, that are successful with technology integration are not tool-focused; rather, they are value-driven and culture-focused. For these schools, technological tools are simply aids in striving toward a vision of education. As English educators inundated with iPads, it is paramount for us to remain dedicated to philosophies of teaching and learning and contemporary definitions of literacy rather than to the latest-and-greatest seductive technological tool.

Why Technology in Education?
It is my challenge as a former English teacher and current teacher educator to help reframe the conversation about educational technology integration. Despite the newspaper splashes, this conversation should not be about the latest and greatest tool. Rather, the conversation should be about the ways in which technology can help teachers and students navigate and engage in the changing landscapes of literacies, developing both the current and yet unimagined literate practices that the world needs today.

Technology tools (past, present, and future) must be understood for their impact on definitions of and expectations for literacy. A literacy orientation and philosophy grounds historical, contemporary, and future understandings and reimaginings of education. Fostering literate practices is the reason why we should use technology in school — technology is continually (re)defining how we communicate, interact, create, write, and read. Today, literacy is “no longer an end point to be achieved but rather a process of continuously learning how to be literate” (Leu 568). The challenge is that this shift is not about technologies themselves, but rather the affordances many technologies offer teaching and learning including fostering collaborative learning, decentering teachers, and embracing new concepts of texts – multimodal and multigenre. A literacy focus prompts all of us to reimagine what schooling can look like. The Internet and its tools have changed the way the world interacts, communicates, banks, reads, etc. How we “do” teaching and learning should be different than we did it twenty years ago.

What is unique about the current iPad craze is that unlike the scrutiny that swirled around its predecessor, 1-to-1 laptop initiatives (one laptop per student), there seems to be a diminished need for schools to justify to its stakeholders and the public why they are spending money on iPads. Buried and often absent in the iPad conversations are references to cost, access, or impact on test scores. Rather, the pessimistic questioning that surrounded 1-to-1 laptop programs has been replaced by overt enthusiasm for iPads in schools. We seem to be at a tipping point in time where the infusion of technologies into schools is not questioned and is actually embraced. Similar to the technologies that have come before them, the iPads’ status as an educational fad or revolution remains to be determined. However, the confluence of current political, social, educational, and technological timing may be perfectly ripe for enacting expanded concepts of teaching and learning, reading and writing.

Moving Forward
At the TIES Educational Technology conference in December 2013 (http://ties2013.ties.k12.mn.us), I had the pleasure of attending presentations by many local educators and students who are currently using iPads and other tools in their learning spaces. A presentation by two talented English educators from Westonka Public Schoools, Julie Thomas and Kristin Wallace, drew a large crowd with attendees taking seats on the floor. Their presentation, “To Be or Not To Be … A Techie English Teacher” (http://goo.gl/69K8Db) was filled with resources and advice for specific tools that can be leveraged in English classrooms. During their presentation, I was awed by depth of their integration, the degree of their enthusiasm, and their dedication to technology-infused teaching and learning.

Simultaneously, I wondered how many other educators in the room were as panicked as I was about the amount of time, energy, and knowledge involved in creating English classrooms like their classrooms. In my moment of panic, I was reminded of a blog entry that I read in the Washington Post earlier this year entitled, “Teacher’s resignation letter: ‘My profession … no longer exists’” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/04/06/teachers-resignation-letter-my-profession-no-longer-exists/), written by Gerald Conti. Here is an excerpt:

With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that ‘Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

Gerald Conti taught social studies for 27 years in New York. While I do not know Mr. Conti, I imagine that his resignation is a loss for our profession as well as for our students. Technologies and their integration into education are another one of the reforms, the “fixes” that are thrown into the world of education with little thought, explanation, or support. Technology integration can be yet another reason for teachers to feel underappreciated, defeated, and overwhelmed in this difficult job, making our moments in classrooms more complicated, more stressful. Teachers continue to be subject to public scrutiny and ridicule, and this invasion of iPads may provide yet another opportunity for criticism. By all means, use those iPads, but do so because of literacy, not because you and your students have shiny new tools. Honor your pedagogical and content knowledge, and trust in your dual identities as educator and learner. Let “evolution not revolution” by your mantra. There will be another tool, another fad in a few years. The iPads will soon go quietly into the good night, and we teachers will continue to rage, rage against the dying of the light (Thomas).

Works Cited

Gladwell, M. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2000. Print.

Leu, D. “Emerging Literacy on the Internet.” The Reading Teacher 54.6 (2001): 568-572. Print.

Mishra, P. & Koehler, M. J. “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge.” Teachers College Record 108.6 (2006): 1017-1054. Print.

Thomas, D. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-1952. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2003. 122. Print.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.

(1) “Hopkins School Board OKs Plan to Fill Schools with iPads” (Hopkins Patch, 3/17/12)

“Northfield Public Schools iPad Pick-Up Dates Approaching” (Northfield News, 7/30/13)

“Farmington: iPad Lease Deal Gets School Board’s Approval” (Pioneer Press, 5/15/12)

“Steele County Students Get iPads”(Owatonna People’s Press, 8/24/12)

“iPads For All, Western MN School District Says” (WCCO/CBS local, 8/17/12)

“Little Falls Schools to Give iPads to Students” (Minnesota Public Radio, 3/25/11)

“High School Gives All Students iPads and Somehow It All Works Out” [Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop High School] (Marketplace, American Public Media, 9/5/11)

“Farmington: An iPad for Every Student? That’s the Plan” (Pioneer Press, 4/28/12)

“Minnetonka Schools’ iPad Program to Expand Next Fall” (Star Tribune, 5/5/12)

“iPads for All, Western MN School District Says” (WCCO/CBS local, 8/17/12)

“Hopkins 7th Graders Get iPads” (WCCO/CBS local, 8/23/12)

Learn more about Cassandra Scharber on our Contributors page

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