What if the iPad was the future electronic backpack?


The iPad’s unveiling (see above video) will most certainly reignite the debate on technology in the classroom.  Why carry a bag full of books when they can be contained within an iPad?  Why are middle and high schools still investing in computer equipment that is rapidly becoming obsolete, instead of investing in laptops for students?  How much longer can schools resist digital pedagogy?  These are the question that Jean David Olekhnovtich, a teacher and a blogger (http://www.360emedia.fr), asks in his spontaneous post below.

“In the 1980’s when I was young, we had access to the program “Computers for All”, by Thompson MO5/TO7, (the ancestor of the local network) that allowed us to use computers as a learning tool.  Frankly, this was not a huge success: the teachers were poorly trained, the tools were outdated and, despite whatever nostalgia my generation might have for this, it was not at all practical.

Since then, computers have made their way as teaching tool, with inconsistent success, based on good will and local initiatives.  Even some brands got into the act.  One memorable instance was the world famous One Laptop per Child, an ambitious project that never quite got underway (1 million computers were liquidated).

Still, when I see my children’s backpacks overstuffed with books, I can’t help but think that in the age of the e-book, Wikipedia and blogs– education has remained extremely traditional. You touch a nerve whenever you bring up introducing electronic devices (thus less paper) into the education system. Yet, when I see the potential of this technology, the lack of progress in the educational sector is very frustrating.


The work Alan Kay, a computer scientist known for having created user interfaces since the 70’s (and former “Apple Fellow”) is remarkable.  He takes the computer for what it ought to be: not as an end in and of itself, but as a tool that allows one to stimulate our curiosity and to advance.  The best illustration of this way point of view is the analogy that Steve Jobs made between computers and bicycles.

Concretely? I teach at a university (in the Computer Sciences) and, for the last two years, I’ve noticed that on campus, the desktop workstations are less frequently used: the students all have their own laptops, paid for with their own money (or their parent’s).  There is a real gap between the money invested in desktop stations and the structure that we ought to have in place to track the evolution of solid Wifi networks and more open servers.  In spite of this difficulty, the students with laptops are surprisingly efficient: they have complete mastery of their computers and they can take them wherever they go, unrestrained by computer lab hours.

So, in 2010, what should we do: simply “tolerate” this evolution, or anticipate it and encourage it with sweeping global measures, as we did here in France in the 80s, but with better developed tools?  Economically speaking, this could be tenable: huge sums are already invested in under-used equipment (“computer labs”, etc). Reallocating this money, along with (paper) book buying budgets, towards electronic devices over a 3-year period, would make good sense.  The “Digital Divide” will only widen in the years to come and updating equipment would be an excellent antidote.

Concerning students, we run a risk by doing nothing: by believing that today’s youth has perfectly adapted to new technologies, we could turn out with generations who although able to surf the Net, would not be able to decode or analyze due to the lack of scholarly support.
As for publishers, they have no choice: staying solely with paper is a recipe for disaster.  Their attention is now focused on e-books, with each publishing house trying to find a way to get in on the action.  What’s more, going paperless makes sense in the age of sustainable development.

And finally, with teachers, it’s a mixed bag: some anticipate the change and try to equip their students with the fundamentals, but these are more often the exception than the rule.  Other teachers decide to strictly adhere to “the basics”.  This is not without reason, as it would be foolhardy to ignore the importance of paper and handwriting, which are still fundamental.

In practice, things won’t be so simple: what to do if a computer crashes and a student loses his or her data?  How to create a love of books even if their form changes radically?  There are many important questions to resolve.  This is a controversial subject, but that isn’t a bad thing, it’s what we’re here for, right?

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