Will iPads (and other technologies) Connect or Separate Learners and Educators?

Some say the iPad is a toy, while others rave that it will transform education.  (See an interesting discussion in an April issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education.) A book I am reading now, “The Social Life of Information,” by John Seeley Brown makes me think that neither prediction will pan out.   Brown notes, “the information age, highly rationalist though it seems, is easily trapped by its own myths.”    As examples, he points to all the unfulfilled promises of paperless offices, the demise of the fax machine (still holding on stronger than ever), the end of the university (still going strong), and many other dire predictions for change.

Where prognostications are most likely to fall down, he points out, is where information technology is predicted to “replace the nuanced relations between people.”  This reminded me of the e-Learning boom, where it was predicted that education could suddenly be scaled so that one teacher could teach thousands of students at a go leading to massive structural change in education.  A study in 2006 by Tomei showed that the optimal class size for online courses is 12 students, not an economically attractive number that will result in closing the door of the university.

iPads may be a great little device for taking notes, viewing media and browsing resources, but in classrooms the most important thing is the relationship between the learner and the educator.  Only things that transform the teacher/learner relationship will truly transform education.

In my experience, using digital video in class can heighten the relationship I have with the students because it provides a shared experience that we can talk about and learn from because it provides a sort of “virtual contribution” that allows for debate and disagreement.

For example, I have been known to start my entrepreneurship class by playing this clip by one of my favorite interviews with Don Katz, who founded Audible (the top audio information and entertainment service) in 1995 and then sold it to Amazon in 2008.  In the clip, Katz is answering my question about whether entrepreneurs are born or made.

If  Katz were physically present in my classroom, students could be reluctant to disagree with his views.  However, using technology to bring his comment into class inevitably leads to a rich discussion on the very first day of class, focused on whether it really matters to take a course in entrepreneurship (i.e., if you think entrepreneurs are born, why bother?)

References:  Tomei, L A. 2006. “The Impact of Online Teaching on Faculty Load: Computing the Ideal Class Size for Online Teaching.” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 14:531-541.

2 thoughts on “Will iPads (and other technologies) Connect or Separate Learners and Educators?

  1. What about the peer relationships and communication that takes place in a classroom? It’s been three decades since I was in college, so maybe this has changed, but in most of my classes of 25 people or less, I learned a great deal from the interaction between other students and the professor, and with other students and myself. I would imagine that the one-on-one interaction between teachers and students would be of paramount importance, but that the ancillary relationships would still have a great deal of value.

  2. Great point, Jonathan. And I fear that iPads, laptops and cellphones do more to separate the learners from each other, rather than enhancing their relationship. If presented with an in-class breakout assignment, I get the feeling that each one may be tempted to think: “I have the world at my fingertips — why bother working with another student?”

    Also, students spend less time in libraries (physically, speaking) and so interaction among learners has to happen elsewhere.

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