Sunday, March 23, 2014

iPads for Everyone, Part 2

One of the ways in which we plan to offset the cost of a 1:1 deployment of iPads to our students is by acquiring content in a different way than copyrighted textbooks.

Right now, electronic versions of many traditional textbooks cost nearly the same as the paper version. That's because the textbook industry hasn't yet been transformed in the way the music industry has (see my prior article on this subject). Few people pay $20 for a music album any more - we got very tired of albums with maybe two decent songs and a bunch of mediocre stuff. Now we expect the option to buy music by the song, with only a few artists having the market power to demand that their songs be bundled in albums any more.

Will we see something similar with textbooks?

Ask most teachers, and they'll tell you that a significant fraction of the material in their current textbooks is never used. In some cases, there just isn't time to cover every chapter. In other cases, most but not all of the contents match our evolving curriculum. So the teachers use what fits, and have to find other sources for everything else.

An evolving practice is for teachers to assemble much of their material from sources other than textbooks. It may be modules available from online sources, or material written by inhouse staff. And of course teachers have been writing some of their own lesson material for years.

With iPads in the hands of every student, we have a lot more flexibility as to how to assemble course material. What doesn't make sense is for every school district in America to write their own materials for every subject.

What I think will develop is a network of content developers, some embedded within school districts but mostly independent, each specializing on various subjects, or courses, or even particular units within courses. For example, maybe Hilliard schools becomes known as an excellent producer of American History content, and we start selling that to school districts across the country. Maybe Worthington becomes the Trigonometry experts. Maybe Bexley specializes in 17th Century French Literature. A school district in Boston becomes the go-to source for Physics curriculum.

If folks like Prentice Hall, one of the major textbook publishers, are smart, they'll start to nurture and develop these independent content producers. And they'll find a way to package and sell content in a manner like iTunes, where a school district can download a math unit for a couple bucks per student.

The competition will drive content producers to figure out more and more powerful ways to present concepts, using the full audiovisual capabilities of devices like the iPad. We already see some of this with the Khan Academy material for teaching math and science.

I think we'll also see a kind of publishing standardization develop such that a course is say American History can be assembled from modules acquired from many sources without subjecting students and teachers to jarring and distracting differences between authors. That in turn will drive the device manufacturers to build more and more capability into their devices. And drive down the price.

In the process of getting stuff organized for the upcoming move of our household (still within the school district), I came across a document from my 9th grade year explaining to our parents why our school was arranging a three day trip to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here's an excerpt:
Today, we desperately need more effective science instruction, for international competition is ever increasing. Our scientific and technical knowledge is increasing and changing at at such an accelerating rate, that to cram more facts into the heads of our children is certainly not the answer. Professional scientists tell us that 1/3 of what we are teaching today will be obsolete five years hence, and what replaces this knowledge has not yet been discovered.
I was in the 9th grade in 1968, forty-six years ago. Yet it's remarkable how much this educator's warning sounds like what we hear today. In those days, our personal calculating device was a slide rule, and we produced term papers on manual typewriters (footnotes were a pain!!). We had to find our information by actually going to a building called a library, looking through the card catalog (title, author, subject), checking out several promising books, searching those books for relevant information, and making dozens of note cards. "White-Out" was our best friend.

One of the casualties of our move is a set of very fine encyclopedias and a dictionary that my wife and I bought soon after we were married. Today, it's not worth making shelf space for these expensive books in our new, smaller home. Truthfully, we haven't cracked open one of these volumes for decades.

What does the future look like for today's 6th graders, the first of our students to be issued iPads?  We haven't a clue. We know that they'll be expected to locate and synthesize vast amounts of information, and they won't need to be trained on the Dewey Decimal system to find it. They won't be competing with peers who are armed with facts, even though we marvel at Aaron Craft's ability to recite Pi to 60 places.

I remember a physics professor once saying that in our working lives, we wouldn't be expected to pull the differential equations of thermodynamics from our heads, but we'll need to have internalized that there has been a method developed for addressing such problems, so that when we encounter one we'll know it can be solved, and what resources to use to proceed.

That's the kind of knowledge we need to impart to our kids, whether we're talking about science and math, or philosophy and history. They need to be able to call on the great thinkers who came before them and add their own insight (a function of knowledge) and creativity to help solve problems that we today don't know exist. And as much as many like to poo-poo the value of a liberal arts education, teaching kids how to think and reason is just as important as teaching them a trade.

These iPads are both a instructional learning devices, and a portal for access to the incomprehensible amount of information out there. Will they hold up as state-of-the-art for long?  No, of course not. The slide rule I mastered in high school was out of date and relegated to a drawer in my first couple of years of college. No one in my workplace used a slide rule - everyone had pocket calculators, expensive as they were.

But that doesn't mean my high school physics teacher shouldn't have taught us how to use a slide rule. In fact, I was at an advantage when I started engineering school at Ohio State - many of my classmates had never used one before.

Likewise, I have no doubt that the students of Hilliard City Schools will be advantaged by the incorporation of these devices into our methods for delivering instruction. Isn't that why most of us moved to Hilliard and continue to financially support our schools - so our kids will have a great start in life?


  1. Paul, is that you? Are you feeling OK? I've always known you to support your positions with facts and reason. Now this, "Isn't that why most of us moved to Hilliard and continue to financially support our schools - so our kids will have a great start in life?" Is that a joke?

    I've got to be straight with you. This entire article is nonsense. The foundation of a primary and secondary education have not changed in hundreds of years. I would argue the only change has been that it now serves a wider audience.

    About the only thing that I agree with is that the technology can help provide a higher quality, more consistent educational experience. But that's only due to the dismal state of the education profession.

    Just drawing from personal experience and using broad generalizations- By about 8th grade, I knew I had more intellectual capacity than all my teachers. In a district like Hilliard, I would guess this is true of the 70th percentile student and up. In college, it was widely acknowledged that education majors had one of the least rigorous programs. What's the expression- they know "how" to teach, but have nothing to teach. Now as an adult, my extended social circle includes several primary and secondary educators. Many of us curiously observe the arrested development the teachers display. It's just so obvious they've never worked in an adult, professional environment. To hear them discuss their students' behavior is true irony.

    Please don't shoot the messenger......

    1. I'll publish your comment, although I don't agree with your premise. The more time I spend in our classrooms, the more impressed I get with our team of teachers. Sure there's a bell curve, but I think our median is well above most districts. I'd suggest you get your volunteer badge and spend some time in our buildings - your perception might change.

      One of my concerns these days is how we get out of the industrial assembly line model of education. One often hears educators complain that "we're aren't making widgets" - and they're right. But then why do we have a system that shoves kids through on an assembly line in age cohorts, like age is the best determinate of ability.

      In my own case, my math comprehension was late coming on, but I was always ahead of my peers in science. And I never understood what the girls were talking about in English Literature class.

      If we go back hundreds of years as you suggest, the notion of "grades" wasn't part of education - the few kids that got to go to school were in mixed age classrooms or had private tutors, and they progressed at the pace the teacher sensed they could handle. Or the kids just dropped out. There was no expectation that all kids should graduate from high school, and college was a true rarity - right up until WWII and the GI Bill.

      I'm willing to take the bet that this move to iPads will have positive consequences, some in ways we've not even thought of yet.

      Interesting that no one seems too worked up about the money being spent to refurbish the running tracks at Davidson and Darby...

    2. Like I said, only drawing from personal experience, and none of that has been directly with the HCSD. And I respect that you spend your time in our buildings and also down on the west side. But I cannot use my leadership approach in an "official" capacity. And that's OK; it makes all the more effective to the kids who need it. With my criminal record, I'm not sure it's an option anyways (but with the gym teachers and bus drivers we hire, who knows).

      I spend a lot of time with kids of different ages and backgrounds. With many of them, there is such an obvious need for strong male leadership. And they need it from someone who they can relate to, but also acts like an adult. That's why I've seen a lot of churchy-type volunteers struggle to be effective. They simply can't relate to the alcohol, drugs, violence, etc that some of these kids witness on a day to day basis, no matter how empathetic they think they are.

      Just recently I was playing basketball with a group of 12-13 yo boys while being observed by an older, inactive, "liberal" (hate using this word, but you know the type), female, man-hating, do-gooder, volunteer type. She was aghast at my authoritarian approach, so she began to root for the kids to beat me. It clearly made the boys uncomfortable b/c they kept shooting my sideways glances and laughing at her. It was obvious to me that she was jealous she could never develop the sort of connection that comes naturally to me. In fact, she reported me for "bullying", without realizing that real bullying can only flourish in an environment that lacks the sort of presence like mine. It's a shame these days that strong male leadership is confused for "bullying".

      But these games almost always go the same way. At first they laugh at the goofy old [sometimes "white"] dude. There's a clear us vs him attitude. Then I start beating them and talking trash then they get a little more serious. Inevitably they end up wearing me out and winning. And by the end we're all laughing and high-fiving. They begin to realize even people who look like me can be cool and understanding. And that's when the real leadership opportunities begin.

      And I'm not referring to football coach or drill sergeant type leadership. I still get sick to my stomach thinking about the coaches and doctors administering cortisone shots into the knees of my teammates at halftime. Dublin has an athletic hall of fame (of which my wife is a member). It's definitely something to be proud of, but when I saw it I couldn't help but feel like they were re-writing history a bit. A lot of individual achievement on display, but when I was there, there was very little leadership, tradition, or camaraderie. I mean, I came from the same class as the coach who was convicted of "gloving" some freshman on the spring lacrosse trip. Those were the types of kids that the teachers and coaches brought back to be assistant coaches and "carry on the tradition". You'd stop me before I told you a tenth of the sick, perverted stuff that was generally accepted in that culture and the coaches turned a blind eye to, and in some cases encouraged.

      I guess my only point is that there is no right and wrong in situations like this. Everyone has there own experiences to draw from. But oftentimes there isn't room for opinions like mine, no matter how valid, because it make people feel uncomfortable. perhaps these experiences shine a little light on why I have such little esteem for some educators.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. I've deleted T's comment because it contained criticism of individuals. However, he made some points that deserve to be aired:

      Paul, I also want to express my apologies for hijacking your forum here for a bit. And also to all of the excellent teachers that my comments do not apply to.

      The district should be rightfully proud of the recognition teachers like Ginny Faulkner receive. But I'm always hyper-aware that there may also be [deleted]

      That is why someone like me reacts so strongly to what I perceive as unconditional, emotional cheerleading on behalf of the district. There is so much of that going on that it squelches out any counter-balancing perspectives. Then people like me are forced to resort to using extreme arguments and turning up the volume and looking like the bad guy.

      I feel like this is exactly what's going on with the iPad decision- a false consensus b/c no one wants to be the bad guy. Oftentimes it feel like reverse bullying, where going against the group is not permitted.

      There is a scene in the moving Training Day where Denzel Washington explains to Ethan Hawke that "it takes a wolf to catch a wolf". Now, all wolves are dangerous, and no wolf can suppress his natural predatory instincts. But there are good wolves and bad wolves. And I'm only prey on the bad wolves...

      I appreciate and respect you allowing my opinion...

  2. Paul,

    I vote for a board to hire a leader and run the school. This ipad use is Dr M's approach to deal with making our youth ready for the future. If it works good if not we will see how it is addressed. There is risk with every program. This approach looks good to me. The big risk deals with teachers ability to use this innovative approach to the highest level. In business the use of new tech always leaves some behind. Will be see what happens to the teachers who fail to raise the bar in the use of tech? We will just see how that works.

    I have the faith in our leader, period. He is the real deal and has a plan. I feel he believes in accountability starting with himself.

    My issue is not where we are going, it is where we are starting from. Our past leader had a focus on brick and mortar our new leader tilts to learning.

    I feel we have a new leader so let him lead us in a new levels of education.

  3. Well I'm not sure that simply citing the name of the teacher (a 17 year district employee who had as far back as 1984 been accused of several sexual misconducts as a boy scouts volunteer) that was convicted of distributing child pornography or the janitor who was convicted of statutory rape amounts to criticism so much as just "stating the facts".

    Paul, I hope you can respect the fact that I've been lurking around your comments section for almost five years now and although I've often been critical of the district, I have never taken the discourse in this direction before. There wasn't a need to. I've always considered you objective and more importantly thoughtful.

    I have serious problem with any organization that lacks the leadership and controls to identify and terminate these sorts of individuals. I mean, if we cant even fire child abusers, I have zero confidence that any of our teachers are held accountable for being just "ineffective".

    Buying iPads does nothing to fix that. And as someone who now has a $10k property tax bill, I'm saying enough is enough.

    I expect to hear the self-promotion from the HEA; that's their job. And I believe this district does an excellent job for the vast majority of its students. But as a Board member, I expect more of you. It's a slap in the face to people like me who hear all the time about how great and perfect everything is. B/c there is also a segment of your constituency that disagrees and if often too intimidated/embarrassed/ashamed/weak to speak up for themselves. Those are the people who deserve representation.

    1. T - I published your comment in its entirety except for the two names. I don't know those individuals, or anything about them, and won't let this blog become a forum for personal attacks.

      I'm a life long computer geek, and so have a natural inclination to want to see devices like iPads show up in the classroom. But it also has to make economic sense to me, and in this case it does - there is no doubt that the days of paper textbooks are waning. I rarely buy a book on paper any more, preferring to have access to my growing library of ebooks via my Kindle, my iPhone, and my PC. If iPad minis had existed when I got my Kindle, that's what I have - as the iPad delivers tons more functionality than a first generation Kindle, which I rarely power up any more.

      I also have a brother-in-law who is a highly respected public school superintendent in another state. I admire him greatly as both an educator and a fiscally conservative public official. It is from him that I've learned much about Apple's approach to the educational market. In a community of much lower income than ours, suffering the loss of a major industrial employer, they found compelling reasons to be rolling out iPads as well.

      Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, had a great response when someone asked him if America was a good place any more. He said that it was his observation that more people were still trying to get in than to get out.

      That seems to be the case in Hilliard as well.

    2. We'll have to agree to disagree.

      The cost offset is doubtful. The need, at this point, is highly questionable. The "plan" is non-existent. The uses are undefined. And the idea that the taxpayer should foot the bill is outrageous.

      This will be one of those lightning rod issues that, once the voters are aware, will kill the next levy by itself. And we'll just be $3M further in the hole...