If I had a hammer: the iPad

SMUS-Views-Bob

As a boy, I would take a volume of the encyclopaedia to bed and read it after my parents thought they had turned out my light –just so much fascinating information inside. What is an encyclopaedia, some of our students are asking? Precisely. Times have changed. I love the internet, as does anyone with a curious bent of mind. Although credulous minds might be at risk, with just a little critical skill you can sift through the useful and the useless on the internet. I take my computer most places. I have a smartphone. I own a Kindle and at the moment have about sixty books on it, most of them finished. I think it is time to get a tablet. I have been slow to get on the tablet bandwagon because I am a fan of the English language, and a tablet keyboard doesn’t promote affectionate relationships with words.  It is coming down to either an iPad, or one of two Android tablets. I am almost resigned to getting an iPad.

Resigned, I say, because I watched the recent announcement by Apple of iBooks2, iTunes University, and iBooks Author. Scorn and condescension dripped from the mouths of Philip Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice-President of Worldwide Marketing and Eddy Cue, Apple’s Senior Vice-President of Internet Software and Services. The announcement is about an hour long, but you can get the gist of it in the first few minutes: find it here.

No one should take the scorn and condescension personally; their shotgun was a bit more of blunderbuss really, targeting the education system, social conditions in America, parents, people who have had the temerity to associate with books, and most teachers in prior history. Of course we were all hapless victims of a time when Apple hadn’t come to the rescue. All that time and effort wasted – perhaps valiantly, but definitely uselessly, according to these executives – are now going to be replaced by apps. Not just individual apps, but a universe of interconnected, networked apps. Of course no one should be concerned that Apple is going to control very strictly the material, format, technology and appropriateness of this universe.

The overall effect was one of a couple of business experts who are amateurs of human nature.

Once you actually have a tablet in your hands, you love it. You realize that the people creating the iPad apps do understand learning and kids and the potential of technology. But what the actual developers also seem to understand which the executives seemed to miss entirely, is the role of teachers in the education process. Almost everyone I have ever spoken to remembers a great teacher or two, or more, who transformed learning. Teachers have always had to adjust to changes, and yes, some adjust better than others. Transforming predictions have been made about television, radio, videotape, the internet, and just about every other advance in technology. The reality is that these advances are simply tools, that students either use well or badly, and it will depend on the teachers in the room how well the technology is used. Nothing can replace the interested, talented, engaged teacher for creating the conditions for student success. Nothing can replace the eye and attention of a teacher who will watch the student’s face, and judge when to prod, or peel something back, or let whatever is germinating there sprout of its own accord. Apps, whether for the iPad or an Andriod tablet, will work because the teachers are the ones eager to engage the students. Make no mistake: teachers are eager for the sake of their students, Apple is eager for the sake of its bottom line.

Doutbless, I and my colleagues will enjoy their tablets, and become experts with them, so that our students enjoy them also. If you believe that education is about the pursuit of truth and goodness, then these very apps, if they are effective, will allow students even better to learn how to sift the relevant from the irrelevant, how to sift the wicked from the good. The irony is almost palpable: if the iPad is as effective as Apple executives profess, it will help students become the kind of critical thinkers that will leave them shaking their heads at the presumption and lack of insight that packaged their announcement. Is Apple creating the Trojan Horse that will dismantle its pompousness?

On my time off I like to do physical labour – such as hammering nails, or chopping wood. For these pastimes I have a good hammer, and a great axe. But I see them for what they are: as tools, and I am not particularly attached to them. So too the iPad. Let’s keep our perspective.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

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