There seems to be a fair case for tablets in the enterprise, where any tool that offers a productivity benefit in excess of its cost has a place. Commercial enterprise is generally centered around cost and benefit, with the latter ultimately measured by profit, which is an obvious and easily identifiable gauge. If tablets make an employee more productive, and hence make the enterprise more profitable, that's an obvious benefit.
The benefit of tablets becomes far less clear when applied to education, a field traditionally fraught with difficulties when it comes to assessing the benefit of a particular tool. Even the metrics by which education should be measured, such as standardized tests, are the subject of frequent and passionate debate.
While I'm generally a believer in the benefits of carefully applied technology, when I read about each new school district that equips its students with a fleet of iPads, Androids, or Windows tablets, I feel a mixture of hope, bemusement, and skepticism. The first emotion is probably easiest to qualify. Tablets were the stuff of science fiction during my formative years, and I was captivated by the half dozen Apple II computers that would roam my elementary school's hallways. In fact, I remember spending the better part of my grade school recess periods indoors, creating rudimentary animations and BASIC programs, while my peers honed their athletic prowess and tetherball abilities. Clearly, access to technology affected and inspired me, and while I might have ended up in a technology-focused career without exposure to computers at school, it certainly helped nurture the seeds.
Despite being the beneficiary of technology at school, I'm not sold on the concept of equipping every student with a tablet, allowing Wikipedia to be used as a primary source, and YouTube videos of underwater life substituting for another high point of my elementary school career: donning rubber boots and netting tadpoles and water bugs under the auspices of science. Tablets and technology, in general, seem as if they should be an accelerator for competent instruction. However, in the United States, they're too often employed as a replacement for it.
Apple, in particular, seems to be borrowing a page from its past -- when it heavily subsidized the very Apple IIs on which I played Carmen Sandiego, in the hopes that parents would purchase what their kids used at school -- as it now showers schools with iPads. I'm no sociologist, but a family member who works in a school recently remarked that since the district issued iPads, the normally rambunctious cafeteria is now as silent as a monastery as the children peck away at glass screens. While a scene from Animal House is not helpful to anyone, a docile generation that would rather Tweet than talk is far scarier. Interestingly, the biggest fear in this same district is children being targeted by thieves for their iPads, their likely cargo easily identified due to the required public school uniforms mandated by an initiative to reduce gang violence.
Will a generation educated on tablets miss the benefits of experiential learning, dryly observing iTunes University classes on chemistry rather than inhaling the sulfuric odor of hair burnt by Bunsen burner-fueled antics? On the other hand, I wonder if perhaps there were someone like me three decades ago, lamenting the invasion -- in meticulous handwritten cursive, of course -- of noble institutions of learning by Apples, Commodores, Tandys, and the occasional IBM PC. I would have scoffed at this curmudgeon who felt I could learn logic without the crutch of GW-BASIC.
There's clearly a balance of employing technology appropriately and when it will engender the greatest benefit. This is especially true in the world of education, where otherwise basic metrics like performance-driven incentives, test scores, and peer evaluations have as many advocates as detractors. In the case of tablets in schools, I'm still not sold.
What is your opinion about tablet initiatives in schools for the sake of education? Are students missing out on the benefits of experiential learning? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.