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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors, IPads in schools

Many US schools adding iPads, trimming textbooks

Many US public schools providing iPads to students, moving away from traditional textbooks 

This is one of those news stories where you have to ask what kind of unreflective and apparently untrained (in fact checking) journalists is the AP hiring. Some basic math tells a different story here.

According to the post (which you can read below):
At Burlington High in suburban Boston, principal Patrick Larkin calls the $500 iPads a better long-term investment than textbooks, though he said the school will still use traditional texts in some courses if suitable electronic programs aren't yet available. 
"I don't want to generalize because I don't want to insult people who are working hard to make those resources," Larkin said of textbooks, "but they're pretty much outdated the minute they're printed and certainly by the time they're delivered. The bottom line is that the iPads will give our kids a chance to use much more relevant materials."
There is nothing outdated about a literature textbook, even if it is 50 years old. The same can be said of Algebra, which, as a discipline, contains a discrete body of knowledge that does not change much from year to year.

iPads instead of books, while it sounds compelling is a waste of taxpayer money. A book costs a fraction of the price of an iPad and will be good for about five to ten years in most subjects. IPads, are breakable, valuable, and subject to "loss" (both real loss -- "oops, I left it on the bus" -- and fake loss "I lost it" when it is sold to someone or taken from from a younger student by a bully or criminal). iPads also require schools to instal and maintain wireless equipment and create infrastructure costs (lots of new places needed for kids to plug them in when they come to school with no charge or run down throughout the day are needed, relevant apps., etc.). The story also suggests that lots of stuff are free for the iPad like graphing calculators, etc. That is just not the case. A decent calculator for the iPad costs money. The free stuff is mostly junk (crashes a lot, bad interfaces, etc.), read the reviews, look at the apps yourself. I just paid for an HP calculator for my iPad because the free ones were so bad.

There is no upside to spending taxpayer money on this. A better model is simply to require kids to buy them when they enter school as "school equipment" like a calculator or sports equipment, and create funds for disadvantaged kids. Students need to own them for the devices to be taken care of and treated with respect.
The iPads generally cost districts between $500 and $600, depending on what accessories and service plans are purchased. 
By comparison, Brookfield High in Connecticut estimates it spends at least that much yearly on every student's textbooks, not including graphing calculators, dictionaries and other accessories they can get on the iPads.
The HMH Fuse online app is free and gives users an idea of how it works, and the content can be downloaded for $60. By comparison, the publisher's 950-page algebra text on which it was based is almost $73 per copy, and doesn't include the graphing calculators, interactive videos and other features. 
For a school that would buy 300 of the textbooks for its freshman class, for instance, the savings from using the online version would be almost $4,000.
Okay, let's unpack this: by not buying 300 textbooks they save 4,000 bucks. Hmm., 300 books means 300 students need them. Three hundred iPads at only $550 each is $165,000. Three hundred books at the estimated cost of $73 is $21,900. Divide that into 165,000 and we get 7.5, about the number of textbooks that a student might need per year, except, the books will last 5-10 years (depending on how much money the school has to buy new ones). Even if books were used only once (and they are not), it's a wash.

But no one will steal an algebra textbook, break one, or have it stolen from them. There are no service contracts needed, no extra costs for software and programs to monitor student use and block porn or prevent pedophiles from having easy access to them in a way that will be largely unmonitored by parents. Indeed, going to and from school, in school, over lunch, in their rooms at night, etc., children would have access to the internet (free wireless is everywhere and in many homes). No IT person to be hired for books, and every teacher teaches the same course content, so the learning experience is similar for everyone, and teachers spend more time actually teaching and not developing materials that do not yet exist, etc.

Additionally, how long, realistically, will an iPad last in the hands of school children, even vigilant ones? Most hardware is considered to be obsolete or nearly so in three years. The iPad is unlikely to take three years of 24/7 abuse anyway, but if it did, it would be nearly obsolete. The school that bought books can still use most of them them (literature, math, natural sciences, foreign languages, etc.) for a few (or several) more years. The math in the story just does not work out.

More impotently, U.S. children lag behind 32 other countries in the world in reading, including places like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, (all right above us). You can be sure that Finland and Canada (2 &3), aren't giving kids iPads to use in school. We are 27th in Math and 22nd in science. None of these scores will be improved by iPads.

This is smoke and mirrors. I love technology -- buy my ibooks -- but we should use it to make our lives better, not simply because it is the latest thing and we think it's cool.


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