"Humanity, it was nice knowing you. Please don't cry. We'll always have our memories. Really. (Well, so long as the next 'cool' gizmo doesn't hog all those too.) It's not you. You're great. It's this Luke fella I'm trapped in. He's like a toothless zombie at a Star Trek convention."
Ever since I first drooled over a shiny iPad, this is the kind of one-way conversation my inner Luddite has been having. I call him Jeremiah. And with all the talk lately about iPad textbooks ushering in some kind of glorious education revolution, he's been gnashing his teeth, wiping the corners of his eyes, and sounding more depressingly nostalgic than ever.
Jeremiah annoys the hell out of me. For one thing, I'm about as big an Apple fanboy as you're ever likely to encounter. For another, my iPad is like my baby. Many nights, it even sleeps next to me. Still, the humble rants of Jeremiah haunt me. I'm forced to hear them. But more and more, I'm listening to the guy. I'm even beginning to think he's got a point.
Replacing paper textbooks with electronic textbooks on iPads or other tablet devices may not actually be as big a deal as everyone wants to believe.
But with all the gung-ho enthusiasm over the promise of digital textbooks, I'm sure the decision-makers know what they're doing. Surely, giving all students an iPad (or similar device) will make them learn better. Just think about the many rich interactive capabilities they provide! I mean, even a thoughtful politician like President Obama wouldn't be trying to speed up our schools' adoption of this technology unless he had ample evidence to back up its effectiveness. Right?
Well, there's the rub. On his science and education blog, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham points out:
A decade of research (much of it by Rich Mayer and his collaborators and students) show[s] that multimedia learning is more complex than one would think. Videos, illustrative simulations, hyperlinked definitions—all these can aid comprehension OR hurt comprehension, depending on sometimes subtle differences in how they are placed in the text, the specifics of the visuals, the individual abilities of readers, and so on.
He cautions that most publishers of electronic textbooks haven't yet exploited "the rich research literature on multimedia learning." He also notes that the few studies that have been carried out on the use of digital textbooks show mixed findings. One discovery, however, is this: students consistently tend to prefer traditional textbooks to electronic ones when given the choice.
Ultimately, a textbook is just a tool. It's a learning aid. That's true whether it exists in paper form or on the screen of an iPad. And, so far, the electronic versions of this tool have not proven conclusively better.
Bells and Whistles in a Rusted-Out Factory
The idea that technology is going to save education is getting a little out of hand. Most schools are still set up in a way that tries to push learning upon students. They conduct education as forced feeding. They deliver knowledge in pre-determined chunks rather than fostering an environment where students are instilled with self-motivation and taught how to learn on their own terms.
This is the great disconnect. We keep looking for magic bullets (like technology) to fix the status quo instead of rolling up our sleeves and figuring out a way to transform public education from an outdated one-approach-fits-all factory model to a system that is highly customizable at the individual level.
Where proven effective, new technology deserves a role in that transformation. But shiny new tools alone do not make a revolution. We've got to do better than simply replacing paper textbooks with electronic ones and then congratulating ourselves on the great progress we've made.
It's curious to note that many Silicon Valley executives send their kids to private schools where technology is explicitly banned from the classroom and discouraged at home. Do they know something we don't?
(Shut up Jeremiah. I wasn't asking you.) In any case, I've got to go. My iPad is chirping.