It’s September, and time for my back-to-school column focusing on how we can support K-12 education. There’s a strong interest in technology in the classroom, but laptops and netbooks are “so 2010.”  Today, it’s the tablet (iPad and its Android brethren; sorry, HP TouchPad). Are tablets a breakthrough technology for education? Yes! Are there concerns that we must address first? Absolutely!

Why a breakthrough?

More than just hype, tablets offer amazing potential for K-12 learning:

  • More than just another type of computer, tablets are something different. Their simplicity and portability are perfect for increasingly mobile learners, even in public schools. They can easily go from home, to classroom, to the public library, and then to a study group at a friend’s house.
  • Although affordability (for families and schools) can be an issue, tablets are relatively inexpensive and prices will certainly come down (many lease and purchase options are becoming available). With fewer moving parts, they should be less costly to maintain.
  • Tablet design focuses on cloud computing. This allows schools to better control the software that’s available, monitor use (as appropriate), and install protections against the less positive aspects of the Web. Combined with controls on school-based Wi-Fi networks, tablets may provide a safer computing experience than was possible with full-fledged laptops.
  • Tablets can take advantage of social media to make learning a collaborative experience, and specialized Web sites bring the outside world to the student, anytime and anyplace. Their rich media capabilities are a boon for learning since they add global, digital library experiences to physical library resources.
  • Well positioned to take advantage of the K-12 eLearning explosion, tablet design takes us beyond online courses, simulations and games with sophisticated learning objectives in mind. Don’t be disdainful of video games; rather, look at the complexity of the decision-making and cognitive challenges they present. Done right, they can be powerful educational tools.
  • But most of all – and this is key – tablets have the capability to deliver an incredibly wide range of educational apps. Textbook publishers are looking at “e” versions of their very expensive hardcover books. The best of these publishers are not just putting words and pictures online; they are taking full advantage of the interactive, multimedia formats the tablet platform provides. Slowly but surely, the pedagogy of textbooks is being restructured to meet the learning needs of the digital generation and an increasingly Web-savvy teacher corps.

Concerns to address

Before we get to tablet nirvana, there are some concerns that we must address:

  • Tablets are great for content consumption and interactivity, but are less well suited for content creation. This is why computers with full-fledged word processors and other tools are still essential, at least for now. Nothing about tablets, or any other technology for that matter, replaces reading, writing, and research skills. Tablets can enable critical thinking and creativity, but the foundation abilities must be there first. Here is where the irreplaceable skills of a great teacher come into play.
  • Speaking of teaching, we must handle the introduction of technology carefully. When some teachers first got computers, they turned their chalk talks and overhead transparencies into PowerPoint slides, turned off the lights, and lectured as if nothing had changed. Many are past that now, but building true interactive and collaborative learning through technology takes time, commitment, and money. Re-writing curriculum, engaging in faculty development, and implementing new instructional design models are essential if we are to realize the promise of technology. Funding faculty workshops, developing master teachers who can teach others, and sharing content development costs regionally are just some of the ways we can approach this challenge.
  • Despite best efforts, tablets can still break, get lost or stolen, or disappear for other reasons that only a child could come up with (“my dog ate it”). How schools handle support issues will be important in the overall cost-benefit proposition. And tablets will evolve – quickly. Provisioning tablets for students in multiple grades, over multiple years, and making sure everything is compatible and interoperable is important, so be sure the school’s IT department is on-board.
  • Finally, like smartphones, tablets can be a distraction. It’s easy to move to move away from learning to tweet, visit Facebook or watch YouTube. Can you block these sites? In school, yes, but outside it gets more difficult. A better way to approach this is to provide students with such compelling content and learning activities that they will stay engaged in the right ways. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to making tablets an effective learning tool. But we can do it!

Tablets can be game-changing technology in schools. Try a pilot project in your school or community. Work with kids and teachers to experiment in ways that make the digital world come alive for them in and out of class. Learn from your first attempts, find out what works, and then move forward. The next generation of digital workers is in school now. Already technology-confident beyond their years, they are looking to us to match the learning environment to the world they will soon inherit.

Disclaimer:This article is my opinion alone and does not represent the position of the Hillsborough, N.J. Board of Education, where I am an elected member, or the Hillsborough, N.J. School District.