iPads alone won’t transform classroom learning

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is currently implementing one of the most ambitious education initiatives of our time: a phased, one-to-one laptop and tablet deployment to 100,000 students.

Miami-Dade Schools has studied the hard lessons learned by several districts that have tried similar undertakings. Last September, the Los Angeles Unified School District distributed iPads to 25,000 of its 650,000 students; by November, many of the devices were being pulled from classrooms. The digital curriculum proved unready, teachers were not fully prepared and students hacked through security. “Education of the future” had devolved into a high-profile train wreck.

The smart people in these districts are not wrong in thinking that technology can revolutionize the classroom. Such devices, indeed, have transformational potential. The mark is often missed in implementation and, sadly, hundreds — if not thousands — of districts are blowing their technology initiatives and millions of dollars every day.

It’s easy to purchase iPads, Chromebooks and other shiny devices by the thousands. It’s much harder to effect the fundamental shift that must accompany that purchase.

Since 1983 with the seminal research publication, A Nation at Risk, this country has seen its share of failed “game-changing” education-reform efforts in predictable three- to five-year waves. The aftermath typically involves denial and disappointment, leaving many educators cynical about the next big thing. Right now, however, something is different. Arguably, for the first time, a key variable is scalable, affordable and has the requisite performance capabilities; that variable is technology.

Picture Classroom A: Teacher in front of the class giving a lecture on solving for X. Half of the students are passively listening; a quarter of them are bored because they already know this material; and the remaining quarter are frustrated because they don’t have the required base knowledge. Classroom A is typical.

Now, Classroom B: Each student has a device that provides instruction at their unique skill level, offering the necessary remediation or acceleration. The teacher floats around the classroom addressing individual needs. Students then shift to work collaboratively, do research, conduct analyses and create projects.

Through my work, I help create the Classroom B dynamic, which represents a new model of 21st-century learning and a fundamental shift in the educational paradigm.

The teacher moves from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” Students change from passive receivers to active agents, even owners, of the learning process. Multiple modalities of learning occur as student engagement increases. Today’s technology allows this to be so. Also required are the right investments in classroom redesign; digital content and tools selection; local capacity-building of teachers and instructional leaders; parent engagement; and careful, incremental planning.

Putting all of these pieces together, however, is new and complex work, especially at larger scale.

As this paradigm shift in education looms, low-income minority students have the most to gain — and lose: The same issues that created the achievement gap are colliding with the digital divide. Exacerbated by a growing reality in which a person’s success is determined by his or her digital literacy, entire communities are at risk of falling even further behind.

Some communities will transition more easily. Students own devices at home; they’re learning to code and are exposed to higher order digital skills. Here, the school’s intentional adoption of technology is important, but the show will go on. In lesser-resourced communities, students often do not have the same access to devices and technology. At this intersection lies the hard reality of technology: Because it progresses exponentially, these communities face either a quantum leap or an even deeper hole.

There is a chance for real transformation in Miami-Dade County. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is regarded as one the country’s most innovative; the district has allocated significant financial resources; and it is learning from the successes and failures of other districts. Conversely, many Miami-Dade schools have consistently underperformed especially in underresourced communities; with approximately 350,000 students, the district is a complex train to move; and, greater Miami has one of the widest income gaps in the country. In observing the fiasco in Los Angeles, Miami-Dade schools slowed the pace of its technology rollout.

It has a chance to do the hard work of truly shifting the educational paradigm. Easier said than done, but the future of many of our communities depends on its success.

Jason Green, based in Miami-Dade County, is executive director of Blended Learning and Professional Development with Redbird Advanced Learning. Through a research collaboration with Stanford University, Redbird delivers to school districts best-in-class K-12 digital content, professional development and strategies.