Can Tablets Transform Teaching?

The case for connecting technology adoption with learning goals

May 21, 2015
Girl in classroom reading on a tablet

At the heart of their new article on the effective (or not) use of tablet computers in the classroom, HGSE Adjunct Lecturer Justin Reich, Ed.D.’12, and his colleague Tom Daccord pose a stark question about the fate of earlier technologies heralded as game-changers: “If you could take all the money that schools invested in computer labs in the 1980s and 1990s, would you spend that money again on those labs?”

The question helps Reich and Daccord make the case that technology integration is not just a matter of acquiring the hardware; it’s about changing classroom practices and developing a clear plan for how the new technology and new practices will improve learning. The article, “How to Transform Teaching with Tablets,” appears in the May edition of Educational Leadership.

Untapped Innovations

Reich and Daccord, founders of a professional development firm called EdTechTeacher, say they’ve seen a surge in tablets in schools since 2010, when the iPad was released, but not a corresponding surge in strategies to connect them to learning goals. The best work happening in “iPad classrooms” involves the creation of new forms of media that showcase multiple pathways of understanding, allow for collaboration with peers, and lead to communication with broad audiences. But tablets are used most often in ways that replicate current practices — to do things like take notes or consume existing media. “If all tablet computers do is replace notebooks with notebook apps, we're unlikely to look back on the United States' investment in tablets with much enthusiasm,” Reich and Daccord say.

New Approaches to EdTech

To make the most of the investment, school leaders must do three things:

  • Work with their communities to articulate a clear vision for how new technology will improve instruction.
  • Help educators imagine how new technologies can support those visions.
  • Support teachers and students on a developmental journey that will take them from using tablets for consumption to using them for curation, creation, and connection.

The best technology integration tends to happen in schools that were created around a focused pedagogical vision, like project-based science academy, for example. It’s harder to do it comprehensively in traditional public and private schools, but when schools have a focused set of learning goals, it can be done.

In two case studies of effective tablet use, the authors looked at how tablets could support existing learning goals — in one case, to encourage reasoning from evidence, and in another, to support collaborative learning in a global context. In both cases, teachers used iPads to empower students’ creativity, allowing them to create multimedia projects that would not have been possible using any other technology.

Read more about how schools and districts can move beyond these “pockets of excellence” to create a broad-based approach — and how to support teachers as they expand their classroom practices, as well as their confidence and capacities.

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.