Some Thoughts on iPads and One-to-One Initiatives

In my experience, there’s broadly three ways to relate to any kind of educational technology: 1) Technological — decide on the technology (for whatever reason) and that determines what you do pedagogically; 2) Pedagogical — settle upon the pedagogy and then look for a technology that fits; 3) Ecological — combine pedagogies and technologies to promote certain kinds of behaviours.

I’d like to think that most of what I’ve done so far in my career, from training teachers to implementing multi-site learning systems to evangelising Open Badges, has been focused upon evangelising this ‘third way’ of approaching educational technology. In order for this to be successful, however, educators have to have a large enough ‘toolkit’ of both pedagogical and technological approaches to promote desired behaviours. After all, when all you’ve got is a hammer (so the saying goes) all you see are nails.

Since Nick Dennis introduced me to it a few years ago I’ve been a big fan of Ruben Puentedura‘s SAMR model:

What I like about this model is that it is clearly and unambiguously focused upon learning activities with the technology as an enabler toward that end. Unfortunately, most of what I’ve seen when it comes to iPad and other 1:1 initiatives doesn’t even make it onto the SAMR model. It’s not even Substitution, it’s ‘look at these shiny devices: what shall we do with them?’

When it comes to educational technology, academics often talk about affordances. An affordance is “a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action.” Mobile devices have many affordances lending themselves to new forms of learning. Unfortunately, many people tend to consider these affordances in a vacuum, as if their effective use wasn’t context-dependent. So we get slogans along the lines of ‘iPads improve learning’ — as though they were some kind of glistening panacea for learning.

I’ve got nothing against iPads. In fact our family owns one and I encourage my five year-old son to do everything from update his blog to play Minecraft on it. But there are no ‘best technologies’ for learning. In fact, I’d argue that, Pragmatically-speaking, there are no ‘best pedagogies’ for learning: everything is both bounded and catalysed by context. A learning theory or a device in one context is not the same thing as in another. There are many, many other things to consider — infrastructure, motivation, personalities…the list is pretty much endless.

One of the few really thoughtful and balanced books about technology I’ve read over the last few years is Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. It’s a short, fairly cheap book which you should go and purchase right after finishing reading this post. What I really like about Rushkoff’s work is that he talks lucidly and concisely about the biases inherent in technologies:

A bias is simply a leaning—a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another. All media and all technologies have biases. It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radios. Televisions are biased toward people sitting still in couches and watching. Automobiles are biased toward motion, individuality, and living in the suburbs. Oral culture is biased toward communicating in person, while written culture is biased toward communication that doesn’t happen between people in the same time and place. Film photography and its expensive processes were biased toward scarcity, while digital photography is biased toward immediate and widespread distribution.

There’s no doubt that Apple (iOS), Google (Android), and Microsoft (Windows Phone) are creating ‘verticals’ across which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. It’s much easier to deploy, for example, a single type of device across an institution rather than take a ‘mixed economy’ approach. But to do so, in my opinion, would be to repeat the mistakes we made around Microsoft Office in the last 15 years or so. Locking yourself into one vendor may lead to a short-term gain but I can almost guarantee it will be a long-term loss.

Choosing which tablet devices to deploy — or indeed whether to deploy them is more than a hardware and/or software decision. It’s a series of decisions about pedagogy, about learning, about how we want to relate to each other as human beings. Particularly in a school environment we’re promoting and encouraging behaviours not just for now but for the future.

Diversity is a good thing. You don’t have to be a cheerleader for the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) agenda to recognise that giving young people a range of tools (with their different affordances and biases) more closely resembles the world they will inhabit when they leave your walled garden. This may be a less shiny approach. It might make educational technology more boring. But at the end of the day an ecological approach, taking into account the behaviours we want to promote, not the technology we want to paw, might be a better way forward. Don’t you think?

Banner image credit: Sean MacEntee