Entries in disciplinary literacy (1)


iPads in Education: Critiquing the Positive Spin Memes

As schools and even entire school districts take the plunge and adopt iPads, we have been following  the arguments for an against the adoptions in blogs, YouTube videos, and responses, and in conversations with colleagues.  The discourse about the relatively new technologies and mobile devices is telling.  It helps us understand how professional books like our book, professional development initiatives, and mobile device and OS producers position learners, teachers, and parents, as the mobile technologies and devices invade education.  What is good and what are we supposed to believe is good about mobile technologies and devices in education as we take the plunge?  


To answer the question we present and critique some popular memes put out there and reproduced by parties involved in the influx of iPads into educational settings.  We use iPads as the exemplar simply because they currently capture most of the market.  With the continued development and marketing of tablet devices by key players other than Apple, the dominance of iPads might wane, but the discourses and memes will remain the same as tablets and similar mobile devices capture the attention and budgets of educators. 


Our jumping off point for this discussion is a You Tube video:  Apple education learning with iPad US at   

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24R1QJAXL4s   Apple has a strong stake in the proliferation of its devices, OS, and ecosystem into education.  In order to do this, they rely heavily on positive testimonials from a range of K-higher education teachers and students.  What do those giving enthusiastic testimonials say--or more accurately, when the testimonials are edited, what memes and discourses remain in the statements that are put out there in social networks to woo potential adopters?


In the Apple education learning with iPad video, in the first setting, JoAnne Boyle, the president of Seaton Hill University in Pennsylvania, preps viewers for the rest of the video by telling viewers that the iPad has “all of the world’s learning in it” and promises that the device will transform us.  (the emphases throughout is ours) Catherine Giuntaan, a faculty member at Seaton Hill states,   “I cant believe how much in a short period of time the iPad has changed how I teach.  It makes the learning, I think, more accessible to the students”  I can, on the Inkling text, leave notes for them; it is overlayed on the content; they immediately see those notes that I leave, and they can refer back to that.”  


Accessibility, transformation/change, and textual layering are affordances these educators mention. Below, we comment on each of these:   


Although the iPad provides potential access to quite a bit of knowledge in the world, we have to problematize this claim by asking how students know what to access and when; and when they do know what they need and when, how is the information framed and presented in ways that it becomes knowledge and enhances learning?  Although this seems like a silly question, can we really point to specific findings from research or composite experiences of iPad users that shows that accessibility to silos of information, in an of itself, promotes understanding of knowledge?  As in all other instances of learning with literacy, we make the case that accessibility only works with clearly defined goals and tasks in which students are either directed to key information or direct themselves to information they can critique in terms of its value and credibility.


What about transformations and change?  Just as educators can make the case that various technologies have transformed education--claims that have already been made with regard to educational radio, educational TV, and computers, critics have also claimed that the basic structure, goals, and expected outcomes of education have not changed significantly in over 150 years, regardless of “technological advances.”  Is a transformation that replaces print texts and paper with digital multimodal texts so revolutionary that it promises to change the very Institution of the School, teaching learning, and  curricula?  Yes.  We make the case that we are at such critical juncture but we do not yet fully understand the affordances of iPads well enough to know which of the affordances, or composites of them, can potentially change the institution.  And hard-core critics of education, the proponents of nothing short of deep “systemic reform” in education, rarely implicate specific transformational qualities of technologies into plans or formulae for reform.  


In the book we write a lot about textuality.  Within this realm, extended to ideas of intertextuality and intermediality and learning, we critically examine the idea that notes, in and of themselves, and devices and operating systems that make producing and using notes easier, are not positive affordances by design along.    There is a lot of research in the area of studying and study skills that supports the kind of textual layering described by Professor Giuntaan at Seaton Hill.  But we note in the book how app designers mostly just adopt the memes like interactivity or implicitly embrace the sort of education folk logic of studying-to-learn where things like note taking, review, and repetitive reading as embraced as givens.  By now, you can guess the position we take here and in the book:   Teachers need to understand how textuality, intertextuality, and textual layering work in promoting learning and they need to design instruction in these tools, offer students practice using them, and provide independent application across learning tasks across the curriculum.      


Back to the Apple iPad video.  The cameras now migrate to Chicago Public Schools.   There, Stacy Boyd, a kindergarten teacher at Brown School notes that iPads help her students hear letter sounds, trace letters, and repeat skills.  In short, she makes the claim that the iPad helps struggling readers via its multimodal affordances. 


Next Emma, an eight grader, offers positive praise the the Elements app on iPad:  “. . . the Elements app got me more interested in Chemistry.  I thought science was boring, chemistry just wasn’t fun--it didn’t make sense.  But I got this app [Elements]--its not written like a normal textbook; its interactive and written like in a more kid friendly way.  I am a visual learner, and when I can really see the element it helps me because then I can really visualize how it is used in everyday life.”   Emma goes on to note that Elements is not required but now she has a A+ in science.  Emma’s mom, Jan, confirms this:  “Emma is able to go to the iPad and figure out her learning style and her own needs, and which app meets those needs . . . the iPad has engaged her”


Key memes in the Chicago segment are multimodality, interactivity, engagement, and academic proficiency--items salient across the known universe of testimonials.  Are these warranted?


We have every reason to believe that multimodal texts can and should be superior to print-only texts.  But researchers and other educators still have little definitive evidence on how multimodal presentations and interactivity will change the way learners interact with a range of content now restricted to traditional textbooks. Note, we are not saying that educators lack definitive evidence on how, for example, video or simulations could help students understand cell metabolism.  We are saying that it is not clear how a video modality is superior to a well-written textbook that includes learning aids normally written into a textbook.  


The complement to the modality argument is the implication that learning styles associated with various modalities are evident in individual learners and that learners are aware of these modality advantages and choose them as needed or when available.  Again, logically, we  accept the notion of modality preferences and argue in our book that multimodal texts have great potential in supporting literacies related to learning. This with our typical caveat that teachers need to help students understand and make the various kinds of transformations in which they select the modality that best fits their goals and particular tasks in constructing or representing meaning.  In short, learners need strategies for using modalities to privilege different kinds of meaning.  We also make the case that exercising choice in modality for producing texts can be both engaging and can potentially change learners‘ sense of competence and agency.  This latter issue is a huge potential positive affordance for iPads that we discuss at length in the book.    


Interactivity is one of the most powerful memes in education.  But few educators can explain exactly what it means and how, specifically, it enhances learning.  To us, it is often more apparent how interactivity supports engagement which, in turn, enhances learning.  But we have yet to critique engagement.  


Engagement is defined explicitly in relation to learning in the fields of motivation and achievement motivation.  But it is used in testimonials much more ambiguously. An academic definition we like is offered by John Guthrie, Allan Wigfield, and Kathleen Perencevich in their book Motivating Reading Comprehension:  Engaged readers are people who are cognitively competent; they possess the skills and reading strategies necessary in learning from texts.  They are driven by what they already know and their ability to call it up and use it. They are socially interactive in communities of other learners and, finally, the aspect most associated with the mobile devices testimonial meme, engaged learners are motivated. But being engaged is not just being motivated; it is being motivated because you have the drive to learn and the agency to be successful because you are aware of your competencies and want to exercise them to a successful outcome.  


Can iPads, due to their multimodality, accessibility to information, ease of use, navigation, and the like promote engagement on these various dimensions?  Our answer is of course, but in order to promote the capacity of engagement to enhance learning--to look at engagement more than just working on something because it is novel or interesting, teachers have to systematically plan to support students in the various aspects of engagement.  The engagement meme tied to novelty and excitement inherent in using the device, and even tied to the currently novel features of apps, may wear off after kids participate in an iPad intensive curriculum unless teachers are one step ahead of surface engagement though careful planning of activities, lessons, experiences, and learning communities in which iPads are key.


Onto to Durham North Carolina to talk with people in the field of medicine.   


The Videographer now hones in on Malik Burnett, A third-year medical school student who contends:  “I think a feature of medicine is not going to be how much knowledge you can hold in your head but how much knowledge you can put your hands on and access at a give point in time.  The iPad expands that creativity an intellectual curiosity of students."  The relatively new technologies potential in education is sold with these memes:  creativity, engagement, interactivity, individual choice, intellectual curiosity.  Mr. Burnett continues,  “Instead of having to buy a new textbook each year, you can just download the most up-to-date content, in real time.  They write a new chapter, you just download that chapter.  It replaces your old chapter.  That changes fundamentally the way I learn.  It is like having my portable knowledge base. It makes life a whole lot simpler.”  Other medical educators then note that the iPad allows students to access huge amounts of information and to do so without hauling heavy books around.   


We have to problematize the notion of being able to immediately access huge volumes of information up against the notion of learning and integrating that information into one’s schemata.  How is accessing large amounts of information related to learning it, especially learning it well enough to apply it?  What is more, if learners spend so much time accessing information or organizing it for future access, do they spend proportionally more time managing information than learning it?  We realize there are no definitive answers to these questions, but there is some evidence from academe, where we have experience, that we have so much information at our fingertips and spend so much time organizing it, that we might be reading and studying less intently and deeply than we used to--a case of improved breadth of more surface level knowledge over depth.  We make the point in the book that accessing and assessing the quality of information are both crucial in using iPads but the more critical issue is developing specific goals, learning tasks, and outcomes that guide  


We are cautious optimists about how iPads and similar devices will revolutionize education, and our brief critique of some of discourses and memes we hope we can raise a optimistic but cautious and critical stance in other educators.  Our book is predicated on the idea that wedding iPads and apps with literacy practices that support learning has potential to map the journey ahead.