Betamax Saved the World: iPads and Their Influence on Today’s Education - Small Screen Week on BTR


photo by Evan-Amos

There was a time when Laserdiscs were the next big thing. These optical discs that looked like giant CDs the size of 12’’ vinyls were the new way to watch movies and present information. Teachers throughout the country were excited to bring the disc-players into their schools and show their students the glory of futuristic technology. But, just as the Betamax, Crystal Clear Pepsi, and Freddie Prinze Jr. did, the Laserdisc disappeared.

iPads and other tablet technology are the next big thing to change the game in the world of education. Will they dominate the market? Will the also fall by the wayside? Research Associate Professor at Northwestern University, Steven McGee, offers some insight.

BreakThru Radio: So how are your Angry Birds skills?

Steven McGee: I haven’t played Angy Birds. The game that I play is Cut the Rope.  At some point I’ll get Angry Birds.

BTR: I see that you teach a course titled “Teaching with Technology.” In the class description, it states “The course starts with a reflection on the relationship between teaching philosophy and technology use.” Does the philosophy of teaching and it’s underlying values change as technology advances throughout the years?

SM: It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg problem. You expect that a person’s philosophy should influence how they teach, but then as you teach, you gain experience to alter your philosophy.

There’s a book by the historian Larry Cuban, titled Teachers and Machines: The Classroom of Technology Since 1920. He looked at technology at the early days of airplane flight. At that time, there was this notion that teachers could take kids up in an airplane and kids could learn geography by looking out of the windows and seeing the world below. The picture in the book to represent this scenario showed kids sitting in rows on the airplane with the teacher standing up front pointing at a map. So basically they took the kids up in the airplane to lecturing about geography, while completely missing the opportunity to have the kids look out the window. This picture was a metaphor of how it does not matter what the technology is, there is a constant problem where teachers shoehorn it into what they already know.

There is a constant cycle of new things coming along and a feeling of promise that it could change the world, but evolution is very slow. In the course I teach, I try to get people to ask themselves “What is my reflection of teaching? What is important?” and to use that as a filter for selecting the technologies that support that. It becomes a way for a teacher to be prepared and not get caught up in the fads. They can then evaluate any new technology in the perspective of “How does this support my philosophy? How does this support learning?”

BTR: My niece is 15 months old and she is already starting to grasp the usage of an iPhone/iPad. How do you think this type of technology will impact infants learning processes? Do they have an advantage over previous generations?

SM: The fact that these devices are available at younger and younger ages is going to change the game. There is a term titled “digital native.” Often times with new technology, it is the younger generations that are digital natives. This is their environment and this is how they grew up. The age-group that is currently in college are natives to things like the Internet and social media. Adults, on the other hand, are foreigners, or tourists. They have to come in and learn from the outside what these technologies consist of. For the up and coming generation of younger kids, they are not going to have any comprehension of life prior to the iPad

Kids at very young ages have been accessing computers and the Internet for the past 10 years. It will now be extremely accelerated with the iPad because it is more accessible, more portable, and easier to use than a computer.

BTR: What kind of applications are teachers using on the iPad to better interact with their students?

SM: A professor at the University of Michigan by the name of Chris Quintana has a project that he calls Zydeco. It consists of bridging the divide between informal and formal educational settings. So, as a student, I can engage in a science project that would span both the classroom and the informal environment. The iPad actually becomes the vehicle that allows you to bridge that gap.

For example, a teacher will pose an inquiry question. The student can then use the iPad camera to take pictures of artifacts at a museum and collect evidence. After taking the picture, they can make a voice note or type in their rationale as to why they think this is evidence. Thus becoming, in essence, a digital artifact. When they go back to the classroom, they can sort and organize their pieces of evidence from the museum and build their argument justifying their position on the inquiry question.

BTR: Do students lose out on certain physical interactions by strictly using iPads? For example, young students are now using applications to draw pictures straight onto the screen. Will they be getting just as good of an education as they would by actually grasping the art supplies and creating something?

SM: I don’t envision that it will be an either/or. Certainly, it would be a terrible education if there was a preschool classroom that has kids standing in front of an iPad for 6 hours a day. By the same token, not taking advantage of the technology is also creating a missed opportunity.

Teachers at the younger elementary ages need to think strategically about how they can use technology to enhance what they are doing. Kids could do their hand drawings the way they normally would, then they can scan the images into the device. They now have artifacts in an iPad setting and can enhance them with the technology. Or the kids could create a digital portfolio to compare with actual artistic styles of famous artwork online.

There are a lot of opportunities to connect the activities kids are doing through the normal hands-on experiences with the new technology that is out there. This creates opportunities to the larger world beyond the walls with the classroom.

BTR: Officials at Apple have recently said they know of at least 600 school districts that have began utilizing iPads in their curriculums. Many of these schools are using e-books in place of textbooks. Do you see the textbook becoming obsolete in the near future?

SM: I’m a big proponent of that (laughs). Several years ago when I was looking at the market statistics, I saw there are a handful of textbook publishing companies that own three-fourths or so of the marketplace. So, a very small number of textbook companies dominate the information that is provided to kids in the classrooms. The Internet has the real power to break that oligarchy of publishers that control all of the information.

BTR: Where do you see the use of tablets in schools in the next 5 to 10 years?

SM: It would be great if every kid had a tablet. As digital natives in their world outside of school, the Internet, mobile computing and iPhones have created the opportunity for kids to become producers as well as consumers. This creates much more of a communal group around specific topics. There’s a great report titled “Living and Learning with New Media: The Digital Youth Project,” funded by the MacArthur Foundation. For this report, they rigorously studied how kids use technology outside of the classroom. They came up with what they call “genres of participation.” I’m paraphrasing here, but the first genre is called “Social connections,” like texting and Facebook. These connections extend their face-to-face relationships in school and in their home. The second is called “Messing around.” This is where a person begins to explore how to use the technology. So, if a person wants to learn about podcasting, they immerse themselves to explore and develop expertise in that particular technology. The last one is called “Geeking out.” If a person is interested in research on Pluto, they go on the Internet and find out that there are other people interested in research on Pluto.

There is an expert community that’s centered around this topic. This community extends geographic boundaries and demographic boundaries, and allows everyone to come together around this topic. The technology in iPads help to support kids to move in the direction of “geeking out.” It’s not a way for a student to be presented information. It’s a way for a student to own a topic. Using mobile computing has ready access to all of this information.

Having been in this field for over 20 years and seeing some things come and go and other things come and stay, its always important to understand the context of how technology can be used powerfully in the classroom setting and not get caught up in the false utopia of “here’s this new technology, it’s going to save the world.”

Written By: Zachary Ehren