Marcy Markusa: Should the iPad stay in school?

It's finally happened — a tablet has officially found its way into the classroom and already some people are hoping it will drop out.

CBC’s Marcy Markusa looks at the value of tablets in the classroom

A Winnipeg school division will soon provide all of its students with iPads to replace traditional textbooks. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

It's finally happened — a tablet has officially found its way into the classroom and already some people are hoping it will drop out.

This week, the St. James Assiniboia School Division said this fall they will hand out free iPads to students in Grades 6 to 8 as part of a pilot program.

The Apple tablets will replace textbooks and other printed classroom essentials at George Waters Middle School.

I asked my colleague John Sadoway what he thought of the idea. John is a journalist but he is also a teacher.

His initial reaction was the tablet is a tool parents, teachers and students will have to figure out.

"Like a calculator in math class?" I asked.

He gave me a typical teacher answer.

"Yes," said John, "and no."  

John acknowledged the calculator is also a controversial classroom tool that strikes fear into the hearts of those who would like the world to do long division on paper instead of pressing buttons, but unlike the calculator, he said the iPad's capabilities are off the charts.

John said, as a teacher, the key to using any tool is understanding what it can do so you can add value to learning — and there's the rub. I couldn't resist quoting Shakespeare in a blog about iPad's, sorry.

I wonder: Do the majority of us understand how to harness the full capabilities of our smart phones or tablets now?

I don't know about you, but I think I only understand about five percent of what my iPad can do. I stick to googling, reading online magazines and checking out YouTube.

I have a few apps; ironically enough I have calculator, plus shortcuts for news and weather apps, but that's about it, and I think I'm pretty typical.

I also think I'm pretty typical in knowing most students in Grades 6 to 8, like the ones who are going to be getting these tablets, can run circles around me in terms of how they use these devices.

So what's going to happen to the balance of power in the classroom?

Will the students be on so many different levels in terms of using their iPads that teachers won't be able to keep up?

Will the students be engaged with figuring out how to use their tablets instead of being engaged with what they are supposed to be learning?

I actually think most of those worries don't give enough credit to teachers — teachers who will take the time to learn how to use the iPad as a supplement to their lessons but also teachers who will be open to learning from their students, too.

The greatest moments I had in school didn't come from top-down educators, they came when the teacher and the students were sharing ideas and even challenging each other.

That is actually something that tablets are very good at — opening discussions.

Unlike calculators or even textbooks, students are unlikely to arrive at the exact same answer when they are using an iPad to look up a piece of information.  

They will have to decipher and discuss what they've found and, with the teacher's guidance, come to some type of an understanding about the facts.

Imagine that — the world wide web at your fingertips.

Someone made an online comment this week that Einstein, Newton, Da Vinci and Galileo didn't suffer intellectually because they didn't have an iPad. The comment went on to say "this technology is reducing the collective IQ not enhancing it."

But I can't help but wonder what a mind like Einstein's would have done with a tool like an iPad.