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Tuesday
Oct092012

The iPad School Curriculum:  “Value-Added”?

In their relatively brief existence,  iPads are increasingly appearing in classrooms, schools, and even entire school districts.  The appearances are still novel enough to earn spots on the nightly news on local TV channels.  School administrators, education technology integration specialists, and teachers express excited optimism about anticipated improvements in the quality of teaching and learning that the devices will provide.  Their comments appear in video segments between clips of excited students and clips of UPS trucks pulling up to schools’ loading docks to deliver the devices as students and teachers get ready to run down the halls with carts to retrieve the new learning tools that go to their respective classrooms.  Is something wrong with this picture? 

 

To answer the question, we need look no further than the perennial group of guarded optimists in the education community.  What about educators who haven’t yet jumped into the iPad frenzy with abandon?  What causes them tension and pause?  The hesitant, dare we say, “reasoned” educators, including district administrators, find themselves in a state of adoption anxiety: on one hand they worry about being left in the dust of adjoining districts who have already taken the iPad plunge; on the other hand, they want more evidence that adopting iPads will improve student learning and engagement.  Before they move textbook funds or other monies toward the purchase of iPads and invest time and other resources in teacher development and purchasing apps to install on the devices, educators want assurances that the devices will improve teaching and learning.  Such assurances will not be coming anytime soon. 

 

This continuing uncertainty about what could be termed the “value-added” benefit of iPads has two sources  (a) the devices promise revolutionary, dynamic changes to school curricula by offering a host of affordances--multimodal multitouch displays, access to almost limitless information, access to social networking and community participation—all complex potential benefits that will require years of research to sort out before any clear recommendations can be made;  (b) some enthusiasts position the devices as replacements for existing curricula, particularly textbooks, as implicitly superior, even though all of standards and assessments that currently guide educational policy and practice are located and articulated in traditional print materials that comprise the historically grounded, institutionalized curriculum. 

 

An Apple ad for iBooks textbooks and the Author tool used to create the new digital books boasts “there is nothing textbook about them [iBooks]”  The ad also promises that this “new kind of textbook”  is “dynamic, current, engrossing, and truly interactive.”  A reasonable retort is “why would we automatically assume that a non-textbook is better than a textbook? “ Is it safe to assume that textbooks existing before the advent of iBooks textbooks are almost universally inferior?  Our research and that of our colleagues regarding literacy across the disciplines, comprehension related to written text, academic writing, and characteristics of texts that support learning, beg to differ with such a stark conclusion.  Yet, on this site and in our upcoming book we still promote iPads and apps as having the potential to dramatically change teaching and learning.  However, we do so by offering cautious recommendations:

 

1.   Textbooks are not universally inferior curriculum materials.  iPads and apps must bridge qualities of existing textbooks with the new, dynamic qualities of iBooks. Textbooks are an integral part of the existing school curriculum defined by their content, structure, and organization; they are usually designed to promote learning.  Textbooks, although portrayed as inherently outdated, boring, and lacking in interactivity, are backed by about a century of research supporting features like (a) organization of the top-level structure with coherent prose to make ideas accessible; (b) signaling through headings and subheads to cue important ideas; (c) adjunct aids like marginal gloss, vocabulary keys, advance organizers, review tools, and a host of others features that support comprehension.

 

2.  Adopting digital curricula as a “replacement” for so-called “outdated” texts is shortsighted.  As teachers, schools, and districts look at multimodal, multitouch devices as replacements for printed curricula, they need to plan very carefully how to both retain effective components while excluding features that do not promote learning.  Recently, a rush of Apple Author-produced curricula has appeared on iTunes U from K-12 educators who have decided that they can publish curricula that replaces existing materials.  But their “curricular design” is often the result of firing before aiming, aided by the ease of design tools that permit cutting and pasting, dragging and dropping media, and moving elements around rather than considering how information needs to be organized, and how specific modalities support certain learning processes.  We elaborate on the needed multimodal affordance designs in the book and will also extend the topic in future blog posts.  

 

3.  Adopting commercially produced digital curricula is not the most effective route.  New digital texts are likely to continue the long-held notion that “experts” working for commercial publishers certainly know more about curriculum design and development than teachers; the complementary meme is that teachers cannot produce such materials.  Our caveat from point 2 notwithstanding, neither Apple, nor commercial publishers (who unlike Apple, do have a long history of producing print curriculum materials) are uniquely qualified to produce dynamic, interactive, engaging iBooks that also employ sound principles of instructional and learning design.  Moreover, commercial publishers know nothing about your students in your curriculum against the backdrop of your communities.  That said, with the right expertise and careful design guided by research, publisher have the potential to produce engaging high quality materials.  The verdict is still out. 

4.  Step by step--bridging of affordances and modalities is a must:  We take the position that each app, enhanced textbook, or digital version of a previously print-bound curriculum material will, just like other apps, provide both positive and negative affordances and will retain or exclude some positive features of traditional curricula.  In order to establish the true benefit--the “value added,” feature, teachers-as-designers, or teachers-as-critics of published materials will need to systematically evaluate all affordances--not just design features but affordances-in-use.  We take the position that bridging between traditional print materials and new multimodal media materials must be systematically applied.  For example, in the book we discuss frameworks, planning, and implementation of apps with attention multimodal affordances against the backdrop of what we know about traditional curriculum, teaching and learning.

 

In this posting, we emphasize that adoption anxiety related to iPads and apps will not be eradicated any time soon because it is just too early to do the research to get answers about the educational benefits of the devices.  But we also want to remind our colleagues that many of the “time-tested” components of schooling are more clearly backed by institutionalized practices than by definitive research.  It is time to take the plunge, guided by cautious optimism, attention to above caveats, and, we hope, a collaborative effort to collect and share evidence of the value-added, and not curriculum replaced.           

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