iPads do not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent

“The iPad is just a neat tablet computer, it does not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent” was a tweet I sent yesterday and which I wanted to follow up with a more substantive post. Being an avid twitter kind-of person, I read quite a few tweets about the iPad in education and teachers eager to introduce these to their classrooms, and it was one of these which pushed me into the mini-rant you see encapsulated above.

This is in no way an anti-iPad posting (although I imagine some will interpret it as such), it is simply a request that as educators we assess the potential of the iPad in an objective manner and learn some lessons from great education technologies of the past which promised a great deal and delivered somewhat less.

First of all, let’s start by praising the iPad and Apple’s legendary focus on usability to create iOS (the operating system which powers the iPad and the iPhone). I grew up programming in basic (I’m looking at you Clive Sinclair), graduated to strange prompt based operating system and strange winking cursors at DOS prompts, before beholding the first colour computers (an RM Nimbus in my mum’s classroom) and then machines running Windows (but never forgetting those DOS skills, because Windows was always a huge pack of cards built on top of DOS), a breath of wind in the wrong direction and you were back to C:/ and a sense that the computer was having so much more fun than you were.

So basically old gits like me have grown up accustomed to having to cajole and curse (in equal measure) our computers to get them to do ‘stuff’. Computing was never meant to be easy, it was like hand-cranking a Ford Model T, it took lots of practice, it often did not work, and the likelihood of injury was high.  When you give an iPad to someone like me, it’s like smashcutting the cave painters of Lascaux into the centre of the Sistine Chapel; their mouths hanging open in wonder as they behold their humble tools transformed into a heady display of celestial beauty. I cannot believe how easy it is to do stuff on the iPad and how the Operating System seems to anticipate so much of what you want to do. The video at the top of this blog is my daughter who is able to unlock the iPad, start YouTube, go to history and choose her favourite videos. She is 2 and a half years old. And she’s never had a single iPad lesson in her life.

All of this usability (whether you are 2.5 or 42) makes the device very productive in a range of contexts, from taking notes in a meeting, to tweeting in front of the telly, to doing some basic video editing, to writing this blog (albeit with a grown-up keyboard bluetoothed to it). The iPad is shiny and sexy and desirable and it carries that heady promise through into the user experience and there is little wonder that some teachers have been seduced by it and speculated about the impact it could have in the classroom.

But of course the fetishisation of technologies which are new on the scene  is a recurrent theme in education technology.  When the first CD-ROMs came out (the ones which needed a ‘caddy’), there was much hype about how they could transform learning.  Suddenly a single Microsoft Encarta disc could bring an entire encyclopedia to your computer screen with multimedia (sound and pictures in old money) to boot.  Surely the kids would start learning now the theory went, what can hold them back, with these resources at their fingertips they’ll be surging ahead, what could possibly stop them? If you  wind back time to the advent of educational television you would see similar sentiments being expressed about this.  In fact you can take any new technology device and see that it will be hyped as heralding a learning revolution. The same was true of the hype around Interactive Whiteboards during their first wave of implementation in British schools.

Hype is not necessarily a bad thing though, it’s just that the temptation exists to fetishise a new technology as providing all the answers to the learning problems we face.  But once the honeymoon is over and the incredible promise is not delivered, we often turn away from that technology and seek the next big thing. But part of the hype is normally always justified, the technology does indeed have transformative potential, the trick is sticking with that particular technology and extracting maximum benefit from its residual potential. A case in point is the interactive whiteboard.  Originally hyped to a point where the technology could never cash the cheques which the advocates were writing, the IWB is now a device which is extremely useful in teaching, with the right training for the teacher and pedagogical vision of how to use it. And if you disagree with this and think the iPad is a credible replacement for the IWB, then I’ll come and do a teach-off with you, me on the IWB, you on the iPad!

So here’s the thing. If you put iPads into your classroom expecting them to be magical learning devices, then prepare for disappointment; there is no magical learning dust. The only magical device in a classroom is the teacher whose imagination can create new pedagogies and the students who can enter into these pedagogies and make them work. And if you think iPads are magical learning devices, also be prepared, after the bitter recriminations about why they did not work,  to be seduced by the next big shiny thing coming over the horizon.

Technologies do not create learning revolutions, pedagogies do. And developing pedagogies is difficult, painstaking work.  Pedagogy is not a silver slimline minimalist shiny device in a cool case, ‘designed in Cupertino’; it is rather a messy, headscratching, ‘one step forward, one step back’ kind of a process which you have to inhabit, live with and work through.  Create a transformational pedagogy for your classroom and you’ll be able to sprinkle magical learning dust on just about any technology you give to your students.

NB: I know that technically the iPad does not have any back vents, as it cools via a heat sink rather than direct air circulation. But the tweet which initiated this posting was kind of ‘off the cuff’ and technical accuracy was sacrificed for twitter brevity!

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

7 thoughts on “iPads do not have magic learning dust coming out of the back vent”

  1. I’ve never thought of you as an ‘old git’ Matthew, although I was still knee deep in pots and pans when you were experiencing the RM Nimbus …

    The thing that strikes me most about your post is the fact that your daughter is already using technology to make her life easier and more entertaining. Isn’t it ever so? My own granddaughters are similarly skilled, my step daughter’s half-brother (snigger) could fast forward and rewind the video before he could speak – yet … our colleagues are often surprised when they (the young learners) get bored when taught in ‘traditional’ ways.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly with the learning dust scenario – it applies to all new and emerging technologies. We (the teaching profession) need to get our heads around what can be done, with what and when appropriate. iPads are brilliant if you use them appropriately but so are most mobile phones, PCs, pens and paper, laptops, Nintendo DSis, Interactive Whiteboards etc.

    Don’t be afraid to experiment with new technologies, just remember basic pedagogies.


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