Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Peg Tyre sheds light on the promise and perils of education technology.
More teachers are bringing iPads into their classrooms, but do the tools really help kids succeed? (Photo: MCT/Getty Images)
Jan 31, 2013
Peg Tyre is the author of two bestselling books. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

For the last six years, the buzz about educational technology has grown deafening.

Schools across the nation are scrambling to figure out just how a new generation of technology—software and devices both in the marketplace and still to be developed—might better educate kids.

The experiments are far-reaching. Currently, there are roughly 275,000 K-12 students from 31 states who are taking classes online. School administrators all over the nation are handing out iPads and asking teachers and students to come up with new ways to learn with them. Some schools are experimenting with flipped classrooms, in which kids read or watch videos of a lecture for homework and work through problems or questions with an instructor during class time.

Other schools, including a rapidly expanding chain of charter schools that serve low-income children, are employing what they call a “blended learning” model. It works like this: The classroom is broken down into small groups. Some kids work with a qualified, credentialed teacher, while others are shepherded to a computer room, where, under the watchful eye of a paid-by-the-hour supervisor, zoom ahead or redo a lesson using interactive, adaptive software.

At another chain of charter high schools, kids sit in what resembles a call center, receive videotaped lectures and interactive lessons on a monitor, and get pulled into smaller, teacher-led groups to get a particular lesson refreshed or reinforced.

The purpose of at least some of this new technology is to make education—a sprawling, complicated enterprise—more streamlined, targeted and efficient. Rather than offer AP courses or a technical track, online classes can serve children at a small rural high school who want more enrichment, or students who find traditional academic learning not a good fit for them. 

Founders of the rapidly expanding chain of Rocketship schools say when their low-income K-5th graders are fed a steady diet of computer-delivered lessons, technology “help(s) to make a child’s time in the classroom more productive because he or she will have fewer gaps preventing understanding, and Rocketship teachers will have more time to focus on extending children’s critical thinking skills.”

The idea embedded in much of the discussion about educational technology is that it can be cheaper than regular old bricks and mortar schools. Because kids spend so much time on computers, Rocketship hires fewer costly teachers per class than regular district schools. Simply equipping kids with iPads, school administrators believe, is a more cost-effective investment than spending millions on poorly written, quickly outdated textbooks.

Many teachers are embracing ed tech—blackboards and worksheets seem so last century. They are finding that using technology is altering, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, the way they do their jobs. Others are finding their jobs eliminated altogether. Language classes, for instance, can go from flesh and blood interactions between student and teacher to online.  

All that enthusiasm among school administrators and school board members has reverberated on Wall Street, which is pouring money into the sector. In 2005, investors put about $13 million of venture and growth capital in the K-12 market. In 2011, venture capitalists poured $389 million into companies focused on K-12 education, according to industry analysts GSV Advisors, a Chicago-based education firm that tracks the K-12 market.

“Is it a bubble?” asks industry analyst Frank Catalano. “No, but there are signs it’s getting to be a bubble.”

Those who study education history called for caution as well. Every new wave of technology that has been tried in classrooms—radio, television, videocassettes, desktop computers and smartboards—has ridden a wave of enthusiasm, rapid adoption and, then, brutally dashed expectations.  

“First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decision makers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classoom in an email to me. “Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation [and find that it is] just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected…Such studies often unleash stinging rebukes of administrators and teachers for spending scarce dollars on expensive machinery that fails to display superiority over existing techniques of instruction and, even worse, is only occasionally used.” (You can buy Cuban’s excellent book here.)

Troublingly, that cycle may have already begun. Rocketship has shown that kids are learning more than their counterparts at neighborhood schools, but their blended learning model is in flux. Computer labs, once outside the classroom, are being brought into the classroom and monitored by a skilled educator. And their partnership with a tech startup, which was coming up with software to aggregate student data and help teachers plan their lessons, has ended.

Parents and taxpayers, be cautious. We need to take care not to let hype overtake good judgment.

iPads in the classroom, too, are hardly turning out to be a panacea. Teachers in some schools use iPads to great effect. Most, not. And they are not likely to lead to cost savings. In a widely quoted blog post, Lee Wilson, tech watcher and President & CEO of PCI Education, calculated that once you consider the training, network costs, and software costs, iPads cost school districts 552 percent more than those old-school textbooks.

You can check out his blog here. But in the meantime, I’ve lifted the cool chart he made showing just how pricy iPads turn out to be. (Thanks, Mr. Wilson.)


There are signs that Wall Street’s wild enthusiasm to finance the creation of the new Model T of educational technology may be cooling. Investment dollars in the educational technology sector is down from $389 million in 2011 to $305 million in 2012.

We should all hope that the next Nikola Tesla of education technology will soon emerge. And that schools like Rocketship, which are responsible for educating so many vulnerable low-income kids, succeed in getting their model just right. Meanwhile, parents and taxpayers, be cautious. We need to make sure hype doesn’t overtake good judgment.

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