Classroom iPads: Books and Backpacks Are So Old School

Are we seeing the last generation of textbook-lugging students?

Nearly 1,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. already have an iPad one-to-one deployment program. (Photo: BarbaraLN/Creative Commons)

The school day at Tewksbury Memorial High School in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, begins with a familiar sight. Teenage students flood the hallways, hauling 50-pound backpacks laden with textbooks to unload into their lockers. But this morning ritual may soon be a thing of the past. In a unanimous vote, the school committee agreed to fund a $100,000 iPad pilot program beginning in September 2012.

“Just on a personal level, having an iPad in my home, I’m amazed at some of the things that we’re able to do on it,” Tewksbury superintendent Dr. John O’Connor remarked. “[T]here isn’t a topic in a math book at the high school level that you can’t find with an iPad.”

Under the proposed plan, four teachers will receive carts housing 25-30 iPad tablets to be used in each of their classes. If all goes well, the school will consider equipping all 900 students with Apple’s popular device.  

“Instead of backpacks filled with heavy textbooks, the kids would walk into school with just an iPad,” assistant principal Jason Stamp told the Tewksbury Patch. “We’re trying to work toward a paperless environment, and this would be a big step in that direction. Obviously, it would lighten the kids’ school bags, and hopefully it would become the perfect one-to-one solution.”

Tewksbury High is not alone in making the leap to tablet-based learning. According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, nearly 1,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. already have an iPad one-to-one deployment program. Retail chief Ron Johnson predicted that today’s high school students might be “the last generation with backpacks.”

But replacing textbooks and notebooks with Apple’s 1.3 pound tablets won’t just be the end of oversized carrying gear (and the back injuries  that go along with them).

USA Today reported that consolidating traditional learning tools into lightweight handheld digital devices will make hallway lockers unnecessary as well. In fact, the trend toward lockerless schools has already begun, explained American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture for Education member Peter Lippman.

Germantown High School in Madison, Mississippi, was built without a single locker. In addition to saving thousands of dollars in construction costs, the extra space provided more gathering areas and unstructured learning opportunities for students. School safety experts advised that the absence of lockers also reduced weapons concealment, incidents of violence, and opportunities for territorialism and bullying.

Without backpacks, textbooks, notebooks, pencils, pens, paper, or hallway lockers, tomorrow’s tablet-filled schools may hardly resemble today’s educational institutions. But are traditional classroom staples really going the way of the VCR?

Without backpacks, textbooks, notebooks, pencils, pens, paper, or hallway lockers, tomorrow’s tablet-filled schools may hardly resemble today’s educational institutions.

Not so fast, argue critics, who question the iPad’s value as an all-in-one educational tool.

Patrick Ledesma, a National Board-certified teacher and School Based Technology Specialist in Fairfax, Virginia, specializes in instructional-technology integration and special education in middle schools.

In a recent EdWeek blog entry, he claimed that iPads have “serious limitations” when it comes to higher-level schoolwork.

“If you have a tablet, try writing a research paper using only a tablet,” he suggested. “It’s very difficult to analyze more than one document, take notes, and write a draft on a word processor app all on the iPad. It can be done, it’s just not very efficient…In terms of research, nothing beats a big desk where multiple books and articles can be spread around for quick access and analysis.”

Ledesma noted that while he enjoys using his powerful tablet at home, he prefers traditional paper and pen technologies in school. “Enjoy the iPads for what they are best at,” he concluded, “and let’s stop trying to force them to replace tools that they shouldn’t.”

In the meantime, iPad proponents like O’Connor remain optimistic about the device’s potential to revolutionize education: “If we can get teachers to think about using this technology, and accessing all of the information that’s out there relative to their content area, I think it’s a tremendous win for our students.”

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