letter to school paper

One of our top-notch newspaper kids who put together three issues a year asked me to submit some answers to questions about the iPad I’ve been carrying around school the last few days. While I hate to scoop them since their publication times are so long, what follows is my response:

Dear T,
Thanks for asking such good questions. My first impression was that the iPad was minimalist. There’s the device itself in the box, a power adapter and cord, and a small pamphlet. That’s all. The basic software is also limited: iTunes, safari browser, email, contacts, a calendar, and not much else. Even the iBooks software has to be downloaded (for free) from the iTunes app store. I bought an adapter, which connects the iPad to a small digital projector. The two devices together weigh less than the world history textbook the ninth grade uses. That’s a lot of potential right there.

I’m not entirely satisfied with the device.  I probably wouldn’t have gotten a first generation iPad. My mother is a great believer in technology, and she bought one for me, my dad and for herself.   It’s taking some time to get used to the keyboard, which is smaller than a traditional keyboard, and gives no tactile response. I can’t lend a copy of a book that I’ve bought by sharing the book with someone else. But it is an interesting new tool with a lot of potential uses in the classroom and beyond. And I’m betting there will be as many ipads in this school by May 2011 as there are computers now, perhaps more. They’re a relatively low-cost alternative to a full strength computer, and well-suited for student and teacher use.

As a teacher, I only carry one textbook — which is heavy enough by itself. If I had to carry all the textbooks you have, or an iPad… I’d rather carry the iPad. It’s much lighter and simpler to use, and there are many supplemental materials that could make a digital device easier than a paper textbook. But! I don’t yet know how fragile it is. Can it take a lot of hard knocks from you all in the hallways and classrooms? It would be terrible to break your iPad — which is worth about the same as the current cost of ALL YOUR BOOKS from  5-9th grade – the first week of school and have to get another.

As I said, the cons are that it’s fragile, and it’s hard to personalize. It’s is also some other company’s property — apple gets to decide what software works on it and what software doesn’t. Thats a real danger to the rights of the user, who can’t really loan out books any more  It doesn’t have a camera, or a video camera, and its ability to connect to cloud computing programs like GoogleDocs or even the school’s own wiki is very limited. The version I have will only run on a wifi network: you have to be near a wireless access point to make its Internet services work. Fundamentally, it is a very limited computer with some hard limits. I can’t get it to print, for example, and it has no open port storage for an SD card or a flash drive.

On the pro side, it’s fun to use. There are lots of good games for it, and all the iPhone applications work. The word processor, spreadsheet program, and presentation software all work well, though ere are some difficulties exporting presentations or importing them from other computers.  I have shown a slideshow in my classes already, and I keep the track team’s data on it. I’ve read six books with it, and I have a library of about 200 books already installed on it for reading later. It’s very easy to download classical texts for free to the iPad: mine include the Art of War by Sun Tzu, the complete works of William Shakespeare, all of Jane Austen, all of Charles Dickens, all of Mark Twain, all of Sherlock Holmes, all of Homer and all of Virgil, and all of Lewis Carroll. I also have another forty classical authors’ works.  If it’s out of copyright, it can go on the iPad for free. This many books in paperback would cost hundreds of dollars and weigh hundreds of pounds; in a one-pound machine I’m carrying a small but good private library, and I will never be without a good book to read again.

Unfortunately, the iPad can’t replace textbooks yet, because textbook publishers haven’t made their textbooks available for purchase in the ePub format. So you couldn’t get an ipad and replace your textbooks completely. Yet textbooks aren’t necessarily the wave of the future in digital education. Organizations like Project Perseus and Geogebra and WikiBooks.org and the Wikimedia Foundation and the OLPC Foundation are trying hard to make free online resources for students to use over the web. And there’s a range of applications for the iPad like StarWalk, SolarWalk, ThisDayInHistory, and the PeriodicTable which are powerful tools for science and history students. This could replace textbooks in the long run, with software and websites that are cheap or free. The iPad’s light weight and substantial memory in the largest (64GB) size would give you the ability to take every book in the Hettinger Library with you on a ride to a sports game. The presence of a search function on the iPad gives you the ability to find phrases and words from a lot of literature very deeply. So you might not have textbooks on an iPad — but if teachers structured their lessons around free resources, you might not need them, either.

I think the biggest difficulty with the iPad is that there aren’t very many tools for personal creativity on it yet. You can’t make podcasts or record much music; you can’t use it to edit video or alter photos easily. There’s hints in the software architecture, and in the physical case of the iPad, that the next generation of this device will have some of those features, though. That device won’t exist for a year or two, but even in its current form, it potentially untethers students from library, classroom and bookbag alike.  So I think the iPad is a tremendous challenge to schools: can we expand student learning with this kind of device, and make you more wonderfully prepared for the future, or will we try to make it another cellphone-like device that’s banned in school?

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