Tablets, education, and unions

Tablets can help students and track teachers, but not everyone is on board.

At this year’s Bitnorth conference, I gave a presentation on the future of education, tablet computing and teachers’ unions. It was a fairly controversial topic, so I decided to put my research together into a series of blogs on Human 2.0 and provide my references. Here’s the gist of it: If you want more background or links to the sources cited here, you can check out the full posts. What follows is an overview of the topic.

In much of the Western world, education is in decline. Dropout rates are high, and we’re graduating a generation that is, for a large part, functionally illiterate. This generation lacks the numeracy and critical thinking to function in an information world. The U.S., in particular, is doing poorly: Dropout rates are up, and if you’re a low-income American, you have a higher chance of going to jail than getting a four-year college degree.

There are many reasons for this collapse: lack of funding, the politicizing of curricula, administrative inefficiency and more. These areas have been well covered. In the last year, three films — “Two Million Minutes,” “Waiting for Superman,” and “The Cartel” — have taken a disturbing look at the state of U.S. education. The Freakonomics folks looked at the lack of personalized learning. Also, Bill Gates looked at the lack of accountability in schools in a TED presentation.

Why tablets can help education

Despite the problems, digital classrooms provide a reason to be hopeful. A digital classroom can tailor learning to each student’s own styles and speeds. It can tap into vast online resources, from Wikipedia to the Khan Academy.


The poster child for the digital classroom is tablet computing. Tablets are traditionally seen as replacements for textbooks, but they can go much further than that: They’re musical instruments, design tools, personal trainers and art canvases. Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year’s textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.

Tablets connect all of the stakeholders in a child’s education: parents, teachers, tutors and counsellors. But most importantly, tablets are two-way. When a student uses a tablet, the tablet can collect data: What’s read carefully and what’s glossed over; how long a student spends on certain topics; what works best and worst; and so on. In other words, when you learn from a tablet, it learns from you.

The union roadblock

This is where my research went off the rails. Because a tablet is the perfect collector, it allows us to analyze learning patterns, identify root causes and compare students. What if the conclusion it reaches is that your teacher is simply awful? That Freakonomics piece pointed out that only 13 percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year. Data acquired through a tablet is likely to point toward a bad conclusion for some number of teachers.

There’s a group that protects teachers from that kind of scrutiny and accountability: the teachers’ unions. In the U.S., teachers’ unions are the single largest political contributors. Teachers have a unionization rate that’s much higher than that of other industries. They have consistently opposed using student performance to rank teachers, despite extensive research showing that student performance is the most significant indicator of teacher competence. They’ve lobbied legislators to refuse donations to charter schools. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a bad teacher. As a result, despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.

After reading a ton on the subject, I came to the conclusion that the unions defend jobs at the expense of a generation’s education — and with it, the future of a nation.

As you might imagine, them’s fighting words. Most critics of unions find themselves tarred and feathered by teachers, accused of class warfare or making teachers scapegoats for lazy parenting and lack of budgets. It’s true that we don’t pay teachers enough. However, teachers’ salaries have risen in the last few years (see chart below), despite fairly static test scores. Also, urban public school teachers are more likely to send their own children to private schools.


Tablet computing and the digital classroom it portends will transform the role of educators. They won’t teach. They’ll manage the learning process of their students. The Freakonomics podcast once referred to this as a student’s “playlist”: a customized curriculum where the teacher helps with hands-on work and identifies problems or outliers. Already, initiatives like New York’s School of One are trying this out (although the project is limited to a three-hour after-school program at the moment).

Screenshot of a spreadsheet dashboard used at School of One to track student performance.
Screenshot of a spreadsheet dashboard used at School of One to track student performance.

So the irresistible force of digitization — which has already redefined publishing, music, television and dozens of other industries — is about to meet the immovable mountain of teachers’ unions. The unions can step up, helping their members make the transition to tomorrow’s learner-centric, tech-heavy classroom. Or, the unions can dig in their heels, resisting change and fighting the inevitable accountability that comes from analytics and digitization.

Tablet computing and the digital classroom give students access to petabytes of knowledge, tailored to their current situations, abilities, and learning preferences. It’s how we can overcome many of the problems endemic in today’s schools. It’ll mean retooling and retraining teachers, equipping them for the student-centric classroom of tomorrow.

As long as the unions don’t get in the way.


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