There is growing backlash against iPads in the classroom, as there remains no evidence that they help learning, and some experts even argue they could have a negative effect.

iPads arrived with a bang in 2010, and before long, were being heralded across the world as a game-changer for education. Schools from Kindergartens to colleges became voracious consumers of these beautifully designed and ingenious devices: some chose to roll out 1:1 programs (where all students are given an iPad) whereas others were implementing BYOD programs (Bring Your Own Device) in order to avoid the costly expense of purchasing and upgrading iPads for the school. But is the unalloyed enthusiasm for iPads in classrooms justified? Here are five reasons to think again.

1. There is no evidence they improve learning

There is no long-term, large-scale, scientific study assessing the iPad as a tool for learning.1 This seductive new technology pervades classrooms all over the Western world without us first establishing the benefits and risks to students. Research has nonetheless attempted to play catch-up with the roll-out of iPads, and there are a handful of small-scale studies coming up with mixed results for whether iPads affect learning outcomes (for better or worse). Investigations have found that whilst students are enthusiastic about iPads, overall, there was no link between iPad use and either positive or negative effects on academic performance. The review concluded that impact of the iPad on learning outcomes remains inconclusive.1 Shouldn’t education policy be built on pedagogy, not popularity?

2. iPads only add to the financial problems of our education system

In much of the Western world, a fundamental problem is that teachers are underpaid and overworked for what is arguably one of the most important jobs in society. Many of us remember a particular inspirational teacher who at a critical time believed in you more than you believed in yourself. It is hard to envisage an iPad performing the same role. Nonetheless, tools that make a teacher’s job easier should be embraced: yet iPads have been adopted without consultation with the very people who will be using them as tools in the classroom. Research shows that educators are more skeptical of iPads then their students, and they are deeply concerned about how the iPad in the classroom fundamentally changes their role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”.2 When schools are tasked with purchasing iPads, a costly exercise once the initial outlay and the ongoing maintenance are taken into account, finances are either diverted away from other resources or could be better invested- say in teachers’ salaries. Alternatively, when the funding for iPads is shifted onto parents, such as with BYOD programs, the socio-economic inequity inherent in the schooling system only deepens.3

3. iPads are distracting

There are great features of iPads that can be highly useful to teachers and students alike. Research shows that students are positive and excited about iPads which motivates their learning: they have rated the iPad highly as an information-seeking tool, as they are now able to access instantly other learning materials and Internet resources.2 Moreover, iPads are valuable as tools for communication and collaboration with peers and academics as well as for self-management through apps such as calendar, reminders, notes, emails and so on. However, a consistent finding across several studies was that the iPad could potentially be a distraction as it is associated more with entertainment then education.1,2 The ability to connect to the Internet is another big potential source of temptation away from the learning job in hand. Multitasking is highly prevalent with screen technology,4and evidence is clear that multitasking during study or learning hinders academic performance.

4. Onscreen reading is NOT comparable to traditional reading

Even if we disable Wifi on the iPads in classrooms to remove the potential for Internet distraction, iPads as an education tool differ dramatically from print books. Experts argue that reading text on screen is changing the very meaning of reading.2 When we read a traditional book, we do so continuously, slowly, closely, linearly. We might annotate the page and flip back and forth between pages to absorb what is being read.2 In comparison, when we read a book onscreen, we can instantly search for certain passages or key pieces of information. Experts argue this means when we read on screen, we are reading “on the prowl”- skimming and scanning and clicking hyper links to get the gist of the information. The worry is that reading onscreen is incompatible with traditional reading: “deep reading is a child of print.”2pg. 168 Research has shown that the distracting nature of reading on an iPad makes it more awkward to read on and harder to following narrative and be transported into the story.5 Unsurprisingly, students vastly prefer the comfort and legibility of reading print.2

5. Children need less screen time, not more

Advocates of iPads in classrooms as young as Kindergarten rightly argue that children need to be taught 21st century skills to prepare them for adult life. This is certainly true, yet every single study is showing that children are consuming far too much technology already- up to 18 hours per day for teenagers aged 13 - 18.6 This much screen time is displacing important face-to-face social interactions, physical activity, time spent outdoors, and time spent being forced to entertain oneself (i.e. boredom). Children enter the schooling system already heavily tech savvy- nearly all children by the age of 2 have used a tablet computer or smartphone.

Neurologists are concerned that screens overtax our limited attentional resources and cause mental fatigue.7 What also prepares you for adult life is the ability to pay attention for long periods of time, possess self-control, and think in a deep and meaningful way about issues. Without iPads, classrooms remain a sanctuary for deep thought: what’s more, removing iPads from a classroom does not mean going completely tech-free at school.

In the five short years since the iPad was invented, it has shaken up the education system- for better or worse. As journalist H.L. Mencken once quipped, ‘for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.’ There is no simple game plan for such a multifaceted and diverse agenda as an education system, where one size can never fit all cultures, ages and abilities. Perhaps however, before a parent or teacher hands over an iPad to improve or accelerate learning, they should ask first what precisely the outcomes are that they wish to achieve.

References

1. Nguyen, L., Barton, S. M., & Nguyen, L. T. (2015). iPads in higher education - Hype and hope. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 190-203
2. Baron, N. S. (2015). Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. Oxford University Press
3. DeWitt, P. (2013). Are schools prepared to let students BYOD? Education Week.
4. Cardoso-Leite, P., Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2015). On the impact of new technologies on multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 98-112
5. Mangen, A., & Kuiken, D. (2014). Lost in an iPad: Narrative engagement on paper and tablet. Scientific Study of Literature, 4(2), 150-177
6. Rosen, L. D., Lim, A. F., Felt, J., Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Lara-Ruiz, J. M., ... & Rokkum, J. (2014). Media and technology use predicts ill-being among children, preteens and teenagers independent of the negative health impacts of exercise and eating habits. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 364-375

7. Cytowic, R.E. (2015). Your brain on screens. . The American Interest, 10(6), 53-61

About the Author

Susan Greenfield Ph.D.

Susan Greenfield, Ph.D., is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords.

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