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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  • Reading this article was a huge eye-opener…

    So many great insights into the benefits of tablets:

    – Different paces of learning are easily accommodated
    – The tablet can know what someone is reading/glossing over
    – Easy accountability – and parents/teachers can monitor progress

    Not even mentioned are — learn from anywhere, remove teacher bias, randomizing test questions to prevent cheating…

    What are the drawbacks for students? (ignoring cost/maintenance for a minute)

  • You say:

    …despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.

    And I call bullshit.

  • This article reads almost like a parody of the current anti-teacher, anti-teacher-unions hysteria (with a healthy dose of technological utopianism mixed in).

    I am as concerned about the need for education reform as anyone, and technology-based solutions certainly have a role to play. But scapegoating teachers (let’s be honest that demonizing teachers unions is just that) is simply lazy analysis. These shallow assessment tools (and standardized tests are the worst of all) are the equivalent of managers who count lines of code to judge programmer efficiency. It’s not that simple. And while something like portfolio-based assessment could be of some benefit, high stakes “assessment” simply does not work.

    The problems in our schools are rooted in inequalities in society — income, health, nutrition, etc. And the incredible disparity in support (in dollars and parental involvement) between “rich” and “poor” schools is heartbreaking. To somehow pin the fact that you are more likely go to jail than get a 4 year college degree on teachers & teachers unions (an implicit conclusion here) is both deeply offensive and utterly off the mark.

    I suggest that you continue your research and read some of the very important voices in education reform that actually know of what they speak: Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, etc.

  • Here’s a nice short list of essential reading about real school reform:

  • steve

    I second peter’s comments -what a lame piece of writing. Tablets alone are not the solution and teacher’s unions are not the only problem.

    My respect with O’Reilly just went down a notch.

  • “Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year’s textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.”

    Yes, but then schools have to pay abusive prices for specially formatted “content” from publishers.

    What the chart on spending and achievement told me was that spending money has NO EFFECT on teaching, not the teaching fails to live up to the amount of money we throw at it.

  • Unions are always a lightning rod, so I’ll try to take this in stride.

    @JohnAA: The 99 percent stat comes from here: — there’s a reason for it. Most teachers are rated on a pass/fail basis, and without more granularity, it’s hard to flag specific strengths and weaknesses. Curious about the terms on which you call BS.

    @PeterK: I don’t think demonizing unions means criticizing teachers. In the original post (which I encourage you to read if you want more detail than I could go into here) I closed with these remarks from the West Wing:

    Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

    The comment on going to jail versus college is specifically tied to low-income students; if anything, I’m calling for fixing those inequalities, not blaming educators.

    @steve: I completely agree with your comment that “tablets alone are not the solution and teacher’s unions are not the only problem.” I think I said almost exactly those words.

    Here’s why I think we disagree:

    I’m a big believer that transparency and accountability are good things. Tablets and digital classrooms increase the visibility we have into how learning happens. They give us data, and data can be used to understand how and where we’re failing, to try new things, and ultimately, to fix the systems. A tablet isn’t the answer — but a digital learning system just might be.

    Now look at history. Unions have traditionally lobbied against change, accountability, or compensation based on teacher performance. I’d love to see evidence to the contrary, but I think I’ve provided ample references to make my point both here and elsewhere — and I spent several months looking into the subject.

    So if transparency and data analysis will help us, and if an organization is opposing that transparency, it has something to hide. Teachers need respect, money, and patience. But unions are swimming against the tide of change here.

  • One more quick link: This story about trying to get rid of bad teachers in New York offers a good look at just how broken the system is. I don’t think it’s scapegoating teachers; I think it shows that getting rid of one bad educator costs us millions of dollars and years of our time, which is tragic.

    Arbitrator Howard Edelman is quoted in the piece as saying, “What you have 99 percent of the time is an administrator testifying about something they observed one and a half to three years ago.” I submit that having a record of what actually happened to the student, objectively and accurately, would be better for all involved.

  • Scott

    This is a terrible piece – on the one hand the assertion is made that “teachers’ salaries have risen in the last few years (see chart below)” and then a chart of the *total* school expenditure per student is given (table 171 above). Is the difference unclear or is this the parroting of something soaked up from a deluded or incompetent source?

    Tablets are no more a solution to these problems than the internet connection was, nor DVD tapes before that, interactive cassette audio before than and on back to film strips with phonograph records.

    What they are a solution to is the desire to sell more unnecessary stuff in order to evade the ugly truth that our schools are incompetently administered and often staffed with teachers who have little basic grasp of the subject material, instead relying on an “education” degree – usually the catchbasket program to get students who wash out of everything else.

  • Peter stole my metaphor! “These shallow assessment tools (and standardized tests are the worst of all) are the equivalent of managers who count lines of code to judge programmer efficiency.”

    And yes, overall this is the biggest load of crap that’s ever come out of O’Reilly Media.

  • So the recounting of one administrative train wreck in New York City leads to a conclusion about “how broken the system is?” And costs “us” millions? Do you line in NYC? I don’t. This is hysteria at its worst — why not just go ahead and explicitly advocate for the privitization of schools. Let’s abolish public education — things would be so much simpler. We could engineer solutions for the students we see fit to educate. Conveniently, we could ignore the less advantaged kids. To educate them is just too damn messy.

    In my fantasy, there is an education blog out there advocating ham-fisted methods for identifying and rooting out bad programmers. And New York Times is running horror stories about tax-payer money wasted in technology that was doomed by incompetent technologist who were proving unreasonably difficult to fire.

  • @scott: The compensation of teachers is a complicated topic, since pay scales with time. For example, a sharp increase in starting pay for a first-year teacher often has a small impact on overall average pay across all teachers, but may increase the inflow of new teachers dramatically.

    This is a pretty good look at the issue, with statistics by state. It also looks at per-pupil spending, which, as you correctly assume, isn’t directly correlated with teacher compensation. The “per-teacher rate” is a measure of the cost per student versus the teacher’s salary, and it varies from 10.78 (in Utah) to 5.84 (in New Jersey.) If each student costs $5,000 and a teacher is paid $50,000, that’s a 10.0 per-teacher rate; lower numbers may mean low pay for teachers or inefficient administration.

    I think that you’re missing the intent of my argument. Tablets have brought interactive learning into the mainstream, and interactivity can be analyzed.

    I’ll leave your statements about teacher competence for another day; I haven’t spent enough time looking at that issue to have what I consider an informed opinion. But I hope you’ll agree that transparent analytics of how students learn will allow us to pinpoint incompetent teachers more easily, much as web analytics allows us to pinpoint online bottlenecks.

  • iPads for learning- what a great idea! Right now, there are a number of schools that have participated in 1-1 computing initiatives, with each student issued a laptop or netbook. The outcome studies for these initiatives have generated mixed results.

    It’s complicated.

    There are many obstacles to overcome if we really want to move forward and adopt iPad-like technologies for K-12 education.

    (Unions are the least of my worries. I work in a state that doesn’t have teacher unions.)

    If most students interact with rich multimedia learning content at school during the day, and at home using an iPad or similar device, the infrastructure will collapse. Bandwidth and servers cost money, something that is in short supply in most school districts. School district will have to higher a significant number of educational technology and IT folks, and I’m not sure how this can happen.

    By the way, tech workers hired by school districts may not be committed to staying for the long haul, as the salaries are much lower than what is offered in the corporate world. This might not be the case in states that have teacher unions.

    If your school district has 40,000 students, how many tech support workers would be needed to make sure everything was working smoothly? How many educational technology specialists would be needed to ensure that the content was student and teacher friendly and appropriately linked to curriculum standards?

    What about access to the digitized curriculum for students with special needs? From what I can tell, many text-book writers-turned-educational-interactive multimedia content creators have a full grasp on the concept of “Universal Design for Learning”.

    In the era of educational progress monitoring and data-based decision making, how would all of the data generated from these learning applications be organized, stored, interpreted, shared, and used?

    And then there’s the problem of privacy & security… and cyberbullying….

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a school psychologist who returned to school to take tech/computer courses. I love technology and blog about on more than one blog!

  • Joe

    I disagree

  • I call for a little more respect in this thread. Some of the comments here about the piece being “terrible”, “crap” or “lame” are rather unfair. If you’re going to criticize a piece you should at least address specific points, like John Arkansawyer and Joe Grobelny have. And I don’t see how 5000 words of research can be deemed a “lazy analysis”.

    Putting the unions issue aside, I do think the potential of tablets is fascinating. It seems like analytics are taking off in every field now from health to games, and tablets could certainly help to measure what works on a per-student basis. It’s well known that in business today, metrics are key, so why not in education too? I would expect direct pupil-based data to be a lot more useful than standardized tests.

    Andrew Kitchell raises a great question about the drawbacks. I think one of the biggest challenges would be the distraction factor – just like college students with laptops in lectures today, it’s all too easy to switch to Facebook or start checking e-mail. Perhaps we’ll see new NetNanny type software to keep educational devices in “learning mode”.

    Also there are many ways of learning that can’t be digitized – face-to-face interaction, re in front of the class and so on – we’ll need to be careful not to lose the human touch.

  • scott gray

    The tablet can help, BUT the problem with education is the same as it always has been… PEDAGOGY.

    We need to attack how to best learn subjects like Math and how computing can help. It certainly isn’t the Khan academy. These lectures are still the traditional form of presentation that hasn’t worked for over 100 years.

    What is needed are results from cognitive science that show that these skills are best learned through exploratory means. Computers and COMPUTE and so we can provide a combination of proper narivative combined with computation to give students power over their learning through more empirical methods than ever before. We need to teach students to make math not just accept it.

    If we make the tablet just a method of delivering one way presentations or to distribute quizzes.. then you might as well save your money because it’s not going to do a lick of good.

  • It strikes me that the article and some of the comments are conflating two distinct issues: one, the need for more effective methods of teaching and learning and two, the lack of an adequate context/environment for teaching/learning.

    Frankly, I don’t think we are in a crisis on number one — I’m sure improvement can be made, and investigating options like tablets is a worthy undertaking. On number two, I think public education is in crisis, but specifically in the underprivileged schools. There are plenty of public schools that are doing just fine, teachers unions and all. And there are plenty of students in a poorer socio-economic situation that the “system” seems hell-bent on keeping them in. What those poorer schools need is support — the kind of support that takes into account the complex matrix of forces that leads to a situation where effective teaching and learning is doomed to begin with. This article really does strike me as a “let them eat cake” approach.

    If you’d like thoughtful analysis, please refer to the authors I cited in my previous comment.

  • Interesting, there’s a fellow [1] over in Scotland at an independent school [2] who serves as computer instructor and one-man IT department. He is currently writing [3] about his and his school’s experiences in incorporating the iPad into the curriculum. It is well worth reading as it represents a first hand experiment in using tablets as an educational tool including the Good, Bad, and Ugly of it.


  • In comments, Alistair says:

    I’ll leave your statements about teacher competence for another day; I haven’t spent enough time looking at that issue to have what I consider an informed opinion. But I hope you’ll agree that transparent analytics of how students learn will allow us to pinpoint incompetent teachers more easily, much as web analytics allows us to pinpoint online bottlenecks.

    Actually, no, I wouldn’t grant that. You’re making an analogy between humans and web applications which I find unfounded.

    It may be true, but I see no reason to assume it to be so and could make arguments to the contrary.

    I would say the same about much of what’s in both this piece and the four-parter from which it’s derived.

  • Alistair,

    The reason I call bullshit on this sentence–“despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators”–is because I don’t believe 99 percent of teachers lack teaching ability.

    (I sure wish the blockquote tag was recognize. It’d make this much easier.)

  • Alistair-

    I could be wrong, but I suspect from reading your work that you have very little, if any, close-hand knowledge of what actually happens in the classroom. It’s much easier to pontificate about Big Solutions if you don’t need to deal with the process itself. And I assure you it is messy, complicated, frustrating, etc. Having spent a bit of time in my wife’s 3rd grade classroom (in which most kids are not native English speakers) my predominant thought was “this is *way* too hard” — I couldn’t wait to get back to programming and architecting large-scale information systems where good solutions can, in fact, be “engineered.”

    I’d like to point out one thing in particular. Teachers *constantly* assess their students’ performance and progress. Dealing with that data (including hours spent hand-typing into spreadsheets the scoring of hand-written writing exercises) is a huge time sink, but considered by all involved to be an extremely important part of what it means to be a good teacher. If tablets can somehow be leveraged to reduce that time, great — I’m sure teachers would welcome that. Let’s talk about that simple challenge, though: how do we use technology (and as suggested by other commenters, the challenges are non-trivial) to help teachers do what they do best and what they are already doing (and with information systems that are often not well-managed or supported). Why couch this all in such anti-teacher rhetoric? Unions are utterly beside the point (not to mention that many of the very best schools in the nation are fully unionized without ill effect). I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of teachers and a lot of time in the company of technologists and to suggest that the former are not every bit as passionate about their work and its importance to society and driven to excel based on intrinsic motivations is just absurd. To be honest, I’ve been utterly humbled by the passion and dedication of the teachers I’ve known as relatives, friends, colleagues and spouse.

  • Rachel

    John A Arkansawyer, thanks for your note about blockquote styles in these comments. I’ve updated the styles, so blockquotes should be clearer.

  • Thanks for the feedback (good and bad — it’s all informative.)

    @Lynn — yes, infrastructure is a big issue. One teacher I spoke with when doing my research confided in me that the biggest problem with technology in the classroom was its “one-timeness”, as she put it. The class gets a computer on a cart. Then administration says, “you have your machine, we’re done.” And it inevitably breaks, or gets infected, or something similar. It can’t play videos. It won’t upgrade to the browser needed for a site.

    I have some hope that tablets, because they’re a less open, more insulated, less wired platform, will survive better in a classroom environment. But I completely agree with you that this can’t be a “buy everyone a tablet and we’re done” approach — it has to be a retooling of the devices, the classrooms, the infrastructure, the educators, and the administration. I suspect it’s the last two that unions will oppose.

    When I look at how autoworkers’ unions turned GM into a giant pension fund, contributing significantly to its collapse, I worry that the same thing will happen to education for similar reasons.

    And I’d love to see what paying market rates for technologists would do for schooling. I know dozens of smart geeks who would love to change the world and build educational technology, if only the salaries were competitive.

    @Peter — you’re right, I haven’t been a teacher in the public school system. My mother was, and I’ve talked with her about it in detail; and I’ve taught kids before. Your point about digitization of student progress — and making it easier for teachers — is well taken. This is something the folks at School of One told me about why teachers like their service. I remain concerned that once the “digital student data” genie is out of the bottle, it won’t just be students that are evaluated — it’ll be teachers, too, and this is what I think the unions will object to.

    I definitely don’t mean to imply teachers aren’t passionate. I do think that some of them aren’t effective, just as some passionate technologists can’t get the job done, and that accountability is a good thing in our schools.

    You’re absolutely right that the public school crisis is in low-income, urban school areas, and that this is a broad socio-economic issue. I’m hopeful that technology can change things there, by doing things like reducing costs, giving teachers more time, making it easier to encourage good teachers and get rid of bad ones, identify student problems earlier, and so on.

    @scott — absolutely. It’s the two-way nature of tablets, and their ability to analyze and collect, that make them a revolutionary step in learning (as opposed to e-books, DVDs, or tapes that came before them.)

    @John — if I understand your core objection, then, it’s that the statement “transparent analytics of how students learn will allow us to pinpoint incompetent teachers more easily” is wrong, and that somehow student learning and performance isn’t tied to teacher effectiveness in ways we can detect through analyzing data.

    That’s an interesting question; I’m a believer in behavioral economics and the use of data to understand human problems. The Gates Foundation’s research into teacher effectiveness showed, with good confidence, that the only real predictor of a teacher’s ability to teach was past performance, even within the same school. That suggests to me that we should be using their past performance as a way to determine whether they’re a good teacher or not, something unions have blocked in the past.

    As for your remark on teaching ability, I could have been more specific: I don’t believe 99 percent of teachers lack teaching ability. In fact, in the full piece, I make the point (quoting Bill Gates) that if we had the top quartile of U.S. teachers schooling the nation, the country would regain its educational leadership in just a few years. The Gates Foundation found that the top 25% of teachers can improve the average grade of a class by 10% in a year. That’s amazing. But I strongly suspect that the lowest 25% have the opposite effect.

    What is “satisfactory”? If we define it as “getting 80% of your students to pass” (which seems like a pretty low bar to me) then there are lots of studies showing that more than 1% of teachers are unsatisfactory. Yet that’s how they’re rated.

  • Alistair-

    A piece of advice: go into the classroom, spend a week with teachers in action. Speak with teachers currently in the workforce, in struggling schools and in successful schools. I’m quite sure almost any public district in the US would allow you to do that sort of observation with proper vetting.

    I guarantee you will see a wealth of opportunities for technologists to partner with teachers to make their lives easier and work more effective. I also guarantee that you’ll gain a respect for the profession that your article and previous pieces sorely lack. And you’ll be far less likely to repeat outrageously unrealistic and over-romaticized “opinions” about education that you hear on prime time televison dramas. Sorry, it’s not like that. Public education cannot and should not try to cure all of society’s ills. It’s hard work on all fronts, and determination, passion, experience, open-mindedness, etc. are key indicators of success. And competitive salaries? Sorry — not going to happen. Public sector work has its own rewards.

    Don’t have time for that? Well, at least read Larry Cuban’s “As Good As It Gets.” It is a level-headed recounting of reform efforts in the Austin Independent School District in all its complexity, messiness, successes, and failures.

    I’m not going to defend or trash teacher unions. Frankly, the topic never comes up (although my wife is in the union). Her school has had bad teachers and there were ample opportunities for administrators to institute measures (which were taken) to either improve their performance (young inexperienced teachers can often benefit from good mentoring/coaching) or remove them from the school. The difficulty of addressing under-performers is *way* overblown.

    Your article taps into a deeply disturbing and particularly insidious sort of chauvinism/paternalism/tech-utopianism that seems to be on the rise. Again, it is a real shame — the public sector in general and public education in particular could really benefit from smart technologists ready to deal with real-world situations as peers/partners.

    Hitting a bit closer to home (for you and me both) I see far more outrageous wasteful spending, high-salaries for poor performers, dysfunctional administration and management in the tech sector than in public education. Perhaps your next piece should be about that.

  • “In Philadelphia, we believe there’s a different way—engage the entire community, collaborate with union colleagues, and focus on instruction.”

  • Alistair,

    You do miss my objection to this:

    Transparent analytics of how students learn will allow us to pinpoint incompetent teachers more easily, much as web analytics allows us to pinpoint online bottlenecks.

    Web applications are designed to be instrumented; human beings are not.

    Humans have characteristics which can be measured numerically and characteristics which cannot. If we decide on a regime of numeric measurement as our criterion of success, then those subjects which cannot be so measured will be deemphasized.

    I don’t believe in fitting education to the tools of measurement.

    There’s more to say against your proposal. That’ll have to wait.

  • But I will add this, which fortuitously just landed in my reader:

  • AListair-

    I’ll grant you this. There’s real gold here and this is it:

    One teacher I spoke with when doing my research confided in me that the biggest problem with technology in the classroom was its “one-timeness”, as she put it. The class gets a computer on a cart. Then administration says, “you have your machine, we’re done.” And it inevitably breaks, or gets infected, or something similar. It can’t play videos. It won’t upgrade to the browser needed for a site.

    I have some hope that tablets, because they’re a less open, more insulated, less wired platform, will survive better in a classroom environment. But I completely agree with you that this can’t be a “buy everyone a tablet and we’re done” approach — it has to be a retooling of the devices, the classrooms, the infrastructure, the educators, and the administration.

    This is by *far* the biggest challenge to the effective use of technology in classroom. Money pours in for equipment (corporate grants, etc.) and there are no resource to properly administer and support the equipment or train staff in its use (again — that’s the messy, frustrating part that no corporation is going to get PR points for). The “retooling” you mention is getting away from thinking about hardware as a silver bullet (a serious failing of your article) and focussing on instruction. That philosophy will lead you to a proper integration of the hardware (it’s just a tool — nothing more) into the instruction environment.

    You ideas about assessment are speculative and don’t seem to be grounded in any sort of real world experience or scientific research. So just drop that part and start thinking about the ways in which tablets might just possibly offer some benefits (small as those benefits might be) over aging eMacs (remember when those were going to save education??). Now think about “retooling” the idea of technology suport — it is of a piece with the other sorts of support that teachers need to do their jobs effectively. Give it the seriousness of thought it deserves. I can assure you the benefits to teachers would be quite significant. I can also assure you that the teachers union will do nothing but applaud your efforts.

  • From :

    “In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

  • Mark Guzdial (one of the most insightful and highly respected researchers studying computer science education today) has written a long reply to your “…series of foaming, not well-argued blog posts imbibed with faith that technology bestows silicon grace” which you can find at

  • @Greg: thanks for the pointer. I commented over there. I think it’s an unfair characterization, particularly his characterization of my conclusions as “tablets are the answer because … well, MIT OpenCourseware exists!” I believe I was pretty clear both here and in the original piece that it’s the the interactivity and analyze-ability of digital learning — not free content – that really changes things.

    It’s also disingenuous to say that I claim “the unions are the problem because three pundits say so.” I hope I’ve provided sufficient references here and in the original piece to show that, on numerous occasions, unions lobby for obfuscation and limiting accountability. When digital learning — and the analytics that accompany it — become more commonplace, unions will have a torrent of data to try and fight.

  • paul

    As a teacher, although at the university level, not k-12, I have often thought that having a track on the way my students move through the material would be an interesting measure of their engagement with what I am teaching. I have been looking at web analytics as perhaps a way to approach this, as much of my material is delivered on-line. So, I am not sure if such analytical feedback is possible, or what to make of it if it is. But I do know that when a student comes to me and says, “I tried, but I couldn’t get it,” and I see from the website logs that they haven’t even logged on, I feel much more secure in my response them. But just because a student logged on and was logged on for an hour, doesn’t mean that he or she spent an hour’s worth of time engaging with the material. The real mystery to education (and my speciality is ESL) is that with terrible materials and crappy teachers, so students seem to get it, and with great materials and the best teachers, some students still don’t get it. The disconnect is startling. My worry about the technology, is that from my experience, it is the personal engagement of an adult with a learner that often is the key. And that has more to do with teacher/student ratios than the tech that is thrown at the classroom.
    On the other hand, my k-12 friends in San diego are very excited about the possibilities of iPhones and iPads for the classroom.
    And whether you agree with this piece or not, it is important to keep the discussion going.

  • Could not agree more. The three main areas are exactly what you have covered. Been teaching for over 23 years and have been trying all that time to go forward.
    Chairs have been thrown in front of me every step of the way. If it requires an ounce more work you can forget it happening from both sides of the aisle teacher and school.
    Only if it shows up on the rubric is it considered valuable.
    eBooks and tablets are the path to many things but they are just not being accepted because there are just too many obstacles in the way. Too much work to get anything going. At least that is what the current pop sees.
    There will be a greater decline in education before it gets any better.

  • Einstein pointed out the problem, and everyone has been busy ignoring it ever since.
    To give someone an education, they MUST WANT IT!
    After World War Twice, and the Great Depression, we decided that OUR children would not go through the tribulations WE did (exclude me from OUR and WE, and my kids show it!!!!).
    So, we ruined most of them. They are looking for the “easy out” (most of them, anyway), and instead of an education they are looking for tickets to some sort of a concert!
    WHEN AND IF we can get the “kids” to WANT to succeed, we may have success. I overcame major obstacles on the way to my doctorate, and so did some of my friends; but with the exception of my kids, I don’t see today’s youth motivated.
    NOTE: If someone really WANTS to succeed, poor teachers, inadequate materials, poor facilities, don’t matter. If they don’t REALLY want it, I refer you back to a quotation from over 2000 years ago; there is no royal road to an education!

  • his is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

  • Gerry

    I like the part when you say if you’re a low-income person you have more of a chance to go to jail… then you say a tablet help education – like it’s a magic pill that will save everyone. Wasn’t this the same thing they said when the computer and the Internet was invented? Why will a tablet make much difference? What you need is more of the government budget spent on teachers.