iPads as Education Placebo

The Washington Post has a depressing op-ed written by a teacher whose third grade class was issued Apple iPads. I don't need to tell you that the ending is unhappy. As it turns out, if you give $500 gaming devices to children, they tune out and play games. Here's a heartbreaking passage:

One of my saddest days in my digital classroom was when the children rushed in from the lunchroom one rainy recess and dashed for their iPads. Wait, I implored, we play with Legos on rainy days! I dumped out the huge container of Legos that were pure magic just a couple of weeks ago, that prompted so much collaboration and conversation, but the delight was gone. My students looked at me with disdain. Some crossed their arms and pouted. We aren’t kids who just play anymore, their crossed arms implied. We’re iPad users. We’re tech-savvy. Later, when I allowed their devices to hum to glowing life, conversation shut down altogether.

The Internet didn't begin rolling out to schools in any meaningful way until my last years of high school, and I was spared the worst of the technology jihad mounted by people who were just certain that "a computer in every classroom" (that was the rally cry) would Change Everything, and that Our Children Need Computers, and so on.

(N.b. that now that computers have ruined schools across America, the new demand is for students to learn how to code, which, writing as someone with a B.S. in computer science, is about as hilarious and pointless an endeavor as anything ever attempted ever. Only a very tiny percentage of people will ever or should ever need to touch a compiler, and of them, only an infinitesimal number will be any good at it. The argument is that students need to learn coding because it's the "job of the future," but it really isn't. Plumbing, carpentry, auto repair—those are jobs of the future. Computer science is a field that's only existed since, oh yeah, 1822, but because someone with an education major and a clipboard doesn't know how to do it, it's new and critical and that somehow kids who were otherwise destined to work middle management at the local factory are going to be swept away in the magic of parsing algorithms and fixing buffer overflows. The mentality seems to be "Well if we only help one..." (which suggests right away that we're dealing with a religious cause an not an intellectual one), but the question is why you'd want to waste the time and energy of the other 99%. I get pushing STEM on students, and largely support the effort, which is why I'd be fine with a high school course like Practical Chemistry and Biology. (How to read a medicine bottle. Why that magic weight loss cure doesn't work. Why does hydrogen peroxide  disinfect an abrasion? Why does gasoline make your car run? Why do you need to change the oil?) But "coding" has limited value at best, and considering the quality of most high school "computer science" teachers, is a waste of time if not poison being poured into the STEM well. The best thing I can say about coding in schools is that casual observation suggests the only thing schools are really teaching is HTML, which, while a colossal waste of time, at least isn't actively harmful.)

The problem with iPads in every classroom is that they (i.e. the iPads) give the illusion of innovative learning without actually teaching students anything. In the writing world, there's this whole psychotic fascination among amateur writers with finding the perfect computer software. The thinking goes like this: I can't seem to write my book, but if I had [whatever], I would be a great writer! And so would-be writers buy new laptops, download programs like Scrivener and elaborate Word templates, and research the best brightness for their screens, and look for the best online dictionary and scour the Internet in search of productivity apps and sites, and maybe something that's cross-platform so they can work on their iPad, iPhone, AND computer, and they "build platforms" on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr—you get the idea. These people always buy Moleskine notebooks. Hundreds of hours go into these prodigies of activity, and these writers have the best literary command centers money can buy, and they go to their graves without having written a single word.

Writing is hard, just as teaching is hard and engaging students is hard. And this obsession with writing apps is a way to seem very productive—look at all I'm doing to make my career a success!—without actually doing the one thing guaranteed to make your writing a career a success: writing. Likewise, look at this wonderful tool I've given my classroom! Let's spend the next month learning how to use our iPads! Let's test new apps! Let's attempt cooperative noncompetitive group learning using digital [whatever]...

All this, when months, and by the time students graduate, years, could have been better spent practicing math with a pencil and reading a play by Shakespeare in a book.

What is perhaps most infuriating about the efforts by schools to infest their classrooms with iPads is that, on a very basic level, I think teachers, administrators, and students know that computers and tablets don't help, and oftentimes actually hinder, the learning process. But man, no ambitious school administrator's resume is complete without a bullet-point that says: "Wrote successful grant for 500 tablet computers."

The New York Times reported a few years ago on the habit of computer executives in Silicon Valley to send their children to technology-free schools. As one blog explained, "The tech-free teaching methods are designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and teach students how to concentrate deeply and master human interaction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills."

You'll find none of those benefits while smearing your finger on a glass screen. But everyone knows those benefits aren't really the point.