The hottest trend in education right now seems to be buying an iPad for every student, especially in high poverty schools. By providing tablets to students who may not have computer access at home, the theory goes, we can ensure all children in America have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.
But the sudden popularity of iPads among school administrators despite opposition from many teachers and parents should raise questions: Are iPads actually the most effective tool to bridge the digital divide? If our education system is preparing low-income children for the 21st century, what role are they being trained to play: producers of digital content or consumers of it?
Working at a community group engaging the public in major decisions on spending new funding in several California school districts, I’ve encountered mostly negative reactions to the iPad trend. Teachers bemoan distracted students (LA schools recalled their iPads after students figured out within a week how to unblock access to sites like Facebook and YouTube). Parents worry that children will get jumped walking home in rough neighborhoods with iPads in their backpacks. Most students are happy to get a free iPad, but often say they think it’s a waste of money when compared with other more urgent school needs.
With such thin community support, why are they being adopted at such a ferocious pace? Part of the answer is Common Core, new education standards where testing is now done on computers. Another part is strong marketing from Apple, who reaps major profits by controlling a staggering 94% of the market for school tablets. (While building long-term brand loyalty from a huge future customer base.) Finally, superintendents face an incentive to spend funds on things like iPads for everyone, which are highly visible and often generate positive media attention, rather than something like restoring furlough days cut from the school calendar, which is barely noticed by the public.
None of this is to argue against school districts investing in technology. I believe in integrating technology in schools and I’ve personally benefitted from these efforts. My elementary school in the 90’s was stocked with donated Apple computers, which I remember exploring with awe. I attended a technology magnet high school that had classes from video editing to web design to computer repair, as well as a mandatory tech literacy curriculum, which included learning to use Excel, Powerpoint, Publisher, Photoshop and even create basic Flash animation. I rolled my eyes at being forced to learn these programs then, but now use most of them on a regular basis at work.
Schools should be making targeted efforts to close the digital divide. More and more, college classes and middle-class jobs assume a basic level of computer skills. A lack of familiarity with Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint can cripple the career success of people from low-income families.
But the digital divide is more complicated than it appears. Surprisingly enough, smartphone ownership in the US is actually higher among blacks and Latinos than whites. We live in a society that’s difficult to participate in without the internet and many low-income families who can’t afford home computers or wi-fi use smartphones as their primary source of internet access.
The real digital divide isn’t about unequal access to mobile technology like smartphones and tablets. It’s about unequal access to real computers.
Here’s the difference: computers are producer tools, tablets are consumer tools.
If you teach a kid from a poor family how to use a tablet to surf the web, he/she has learned how to be a consumer of online content. But if you want him/her to learn how to make a webpage, rather than just look at one, they’ll probably need to learn on a computer, not an iPad.
But this isn’t just about teaching children to be web designers and software engineers. A major barrier that shuts low-income people out of white collar jobs in general is lack of more basic computer skills like being able to make a slideshow presentation for a meeting, design a simple publication about a topic, analyze and manipulate a spreadsheet of data, or even type quickly on a keyboard. None of these are skills you learn on an iPad.
It’s hard to predict the advances of technology, and maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and think this was naïve of me to say. But at a fundamental level, the whole point of a tablet is simplicity and mobility—it’s a product intentionally kept simple to allow it to be small, slick and mobile—which means it’s meant to supplement computers, not replace them. A tablet’s main purpose is to easily access content that’s actually created on a computer.
Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do here: What’s the deeper shift we’re trying to create through these school tech initiatives? Are we trying to widen the consumer base for the tech industry by making it possible for more people to watch videos and read articles online? Or are we trying to create a world that opens access to low-income communities of color as not just consumers, but producers of digital content as well?
It’s not only more cost effective, but more useful to invest in shared computer labs at school sites where students can learn to actually make things: Whether it’s writing code, editing videos, doing graphic design, turning data into charts and graphs, or making powerpoints and posters, these are 21st century skills that empower rather than commodify students.
If we’re about real meaningful access to the 21st century economy—about kids having a fair shot at living wage jobs and getting out of poverty—iPads for everyone is not the answer.