By Matt Burns
I do not want my children learning math proofs on iPads. I simply do not see the value in it. iPads will not help with identifying sentence clauses or writing an essay. There’s a place for interactive learning and there’s not. It’s a clear line. Give science and history teachers iPads loaded with demos, videos and soundbites. Allow children to pinch and zoom DNA strands and the inner workings of WWI trenches. But make my kids do math drills on paper with a dull pencil. Please.
Simply put, the movement to digitalized learning scares me. iBooks 2 is just the start. Digital interactive learning has always been the future but I fear for my children now that it’s here.
Education evolves. Just several generations ago children were taught differently. Some subjects were clearly taught simply so children could learn how to learn. Basic history for example. Columbus did not discover the new world yet that’s what is taught to children through the classic poem. Most of us also learned cursive writing where previous generations also learned calligraphy — both somewhat useless skills today.
Kids are now taught to pass tests. Knowledge is externalized, stored on some Wikipedia server or graphing calculator until needed. Learning is still prevalent in schools, but the storage of facts and thoughts is not. Digital textbooks will only further this problem. Just click on a word to get its definition, says Apple (AAPL).
My fear isn’t unique. iBooks 2 signals a stark change in education in a similar but more pronounced fashion as older tools. For instance my late grandfather, an engineer for the Michigan-based utility company Consumers Energy, proudly gave me his slide rule before my first trigonometry class. His hope was that I learned math rather than just learning how to get the right answer. I still have that slide rule, but I unfortunately never learned how to use it. I instead learned how to program Mario and Tetris clones into my TI-86 graphing calculator.
You see, my grandfather, like most of the greatest generation, knew math. He knew how math worked. That generation learned math methods in primary school prior to addition or subtraction. They learned the process of math since the tools were not developed yet to aid in problem solving. By the time the baby boomers came along, calculators were becoming commonplace and the process of externalizing knowledge had begun. Save an extraordinary math teacher, most of Generation X and Y saw math completely through the eyes of a calculator. Now ours kids are poised to learn through the iPad’s dual-core A5 processor.
Of course tools like calculators and digital textbooks are created and used with good intentions. Calculators let students perform actions like graphing before they completely understand the process. It gives a visualization previously not available. The same thing applies to digital textbooks as they are designed to make learning smarter, more fun, through interactivity. Students can get instant feedback on math problems rather than waiting for the teacher. Lessons can be broken up in 20-minute segments as that’s often the attention span of most people. But it’s important to remember that a calculator, and now an iPad, is a supplement and not a replacement for proven teaching methods.
Learning is expensive for everyone involved. Apple is smartly marketing iBooks 2 as a cheaper alternative. I remember paying $400 for an outdated textbook and the school only buying it back for $15. The college kid inside of me is excited. Cheaper books, less to carry to class, and a digital content management system — all awesome. iBooks 2 has a place at the collegiate level but my excitement has little to do with actual education but rather the additional conveniences offered.
My children are just now entering the school system. They have computers in the classroom that are part of the curriculum. Computers and iPads can be powerful tools, but they need to be used in a limited fashion in primary and secondary schools. Today’s children already have short attention spans. Hand an iPad to any child between kindergarten and twelfth grade and see what happens: they will jump around between apps. Then tell them to read a chapter of digital biology textbook. Nine out of ten will probably watch a video of a frog jumping at least a dozen times during the allotted time. Printouts and real books command focus in a way greater than an electronic device. Minds might wander away from the text, but at least they won’t be playing Infinity Blade II.
It’s easy to get caught up in Apple’s hype machine. It sounds great during Apple’s carefully crafted dog and pony show. iBooks 2 is no doubt a powerful tool — I wish I had it in college. This isn’t a luddite rant against the cotton gin, as I fully appreciate the positive impact that digital textbooks could have on learning. But I’m more fearful that the amount of pure learning and knowledge retention will be replaced by flashy videos and loud graphics. Remember, Apple’s primary goal is to make money, not educate our kids. Learning needs to be reinvented but I’m not sure the proper way is through an app.