The Future of Education: Tablets vs. Textbooks
The federal government, book publishers and the technology industry are considering a large-scale effort to push tablets into public schools, raising questions about hidden costs to implement such a program.
Apple, Intel and McGraw Hill representatives joined other technology and publishing heavy hitters to meet with Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week to discuss a FCC report indicating tablets can save $3 billion a year, garnering discussion about most effective ways to introduce digital technology into the emerging classroom.
The proposed savings made headlines, but infrastructure issues and the effects of tablets upon learning deserve weighty consideration as well.
Tablets Offer Savings for Schools
According to the FCC, the U.S. spends about $7 billion per year on textbooks, but many of them are seven to 10 years out of date. Advocates believe using tablets instead will save money and improve learning.
The FCC based its $3 billion cost savings estimate on the assumption that today's tablet cost of $250 each will drop to $150 as schools buy tablets in bulk, hardware gets cheaper and technology advances.
Based on these parameters, the future savings would result in saving $60 per student, which considering there are more than 49 million students in public schools equates to nearly $3 billion in savings -- nearly half the price of traditional textbooks today. Still, how can a price reduction of $100 in tablets only result in a $60 savings? Other factors besides the fixed price of the tablets account for the difference.
Hidden Costs of Tablets: Can Schools' Tech Infrastructure Handle It?
Late last year, the New York City public schools banned new iPads and other mobile devices from using schools' Wi-Fi. Widespread iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone and Android phone use maxed out IT departments' Exchange servers, said Tom Kambouras, deputy CTO of the New York City school system.
New York City spent more than $1 million on iPads for teachers earlier this year, possibly taking on more technology than its infrastructure was ready to handle. Even if public school systems can offset the cost of mobile devices with federal grants and other programs, they will still need dollars for network improvements to accommodate them.
Still, educators are betting big that the transition is worth it. Tablets are especially suited for today's fast-paced, modern learning environments and tablet versions of textbooks, with interactive and visual tools for teachers, appeal to the changing preferences of increasingly plugged-in young students.
The picture is rosy, but is there scientific evidence to back up the benefits of learning on tablets? Some early studies reveal mixed and interesting results.
Do Tablets Really Improve Learning?
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt tested an interactive, digital version of an Algebra 1 textbook for Apple's iPad in California's Riverside Unified School District. Students who used the iPad version scored 20 percent higher on standardized tests versus students who learned with traditional textbooks.
The program, which replaced worn textbooks with interactive, digital versions with video, graphics and built-in quizzes that invited students to participate and give instant feedback, spurred positive comments that students using the iPad version were "more motivated, attentive, and engaged" than those with the paper algebra books.
This pilot program reveals when it comes to engaging today's students, it's not the content that matters, but the format. Students in the California experiment accessed the same content on the iPad as in a traditional book, but those who used the digital version tested higher. That may not be true for all subjects and over time.
A small but growing number of researchers are uncovering evidence that readers are better able to remember what they read in printed books long-term when compared to materials read via an electronic screen, raising questions about tablets in the classroom.
For example, Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, conducted a study on the effects of e-books on memory, "bombarding" psychology students with questions on economics on digital and printed versions of texts, and found learning differences.
Students using digital versions of the unfamiliar material had to read the same information several times to gain the same level of knowledge as print readers. Students reading printed books seemed to more fully digest and understand the material.
Tablets' success in replacing text books will also come down to educational apps. Between them, Apple and Google offer over a millions apps, and educators will be challenged to curate the best and most appropriate for schools.
Students with special learning needs may offer the most concrete evidence of the benefits of tablets in the classroom. Advocates, desperate to bridge the educational gaps in children with learning issues, are ahead of traditional educational leaders, since children with special learning needs used tablets and apps early on.
Apps help autistic children develop skills, for example, but experts believe the wide spectrum of the disorder and the novelty of the technology needs to be tightly integrated and supported by sound educational research to more completely address the challenges facing children with special needs.
Some tablet apps help give those with language delays a voice, while others help kids learn to navigate often bewildering social situations and reduce their stress. Yet some more apps improve fine-motor skills to help children write and manipulate small objects, offering evidence that tablets do have concrete benefits in the classroom, at least for some students.
Tablets are here and will come to classrooms, either through parents who can afford them or by school districts who take the plunge. A joint report by McKinsey and the GSMA predict the m-Education market could be worth $70 billion globally by 2020 and predicts demand for m-education devices, like smartphones and tablets, may be worth another $32 billion by the same timeframe.
Educators can point to many positives of digital books. Tablets can easily update information and assignments, high-resolution audio and video illustrate and reinforce concepts, and with online assignments, students gain the ability to interact with the material they're learning.
Still, beyond the actual tablets themselves, other components of digital learning, such as infrastructure, specific benefits, education apps and even security should also play a key role in developing a comprehensive plan for the nation's public schools.
What are successful tablet programs in schools doing to integrate new technology in the classroom? To learn more about the evolving "digital classroom" and how students benefit from smart technology use in schools, read "Smarter Kids: Hello Tablet, Meet Laptop" and "The Digital Classroom: Replacing Textbooks with Tablets." ♦
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