Education, Apple Inc. and the Way We Learn.

There’s no doubt that iPads, along with other mobile devices bring interactive learning and amazing resources to the very heart of the educational process.  This is a constantly repeated refrain from the Apple and Ed. Tech. converts, or as one of my colleagues likes to call them ‘the Ed. Tech Cult’.  Apple Inc. goes further and says the iPad is the “perfect learning companion”. In 2011 Abilene Christian University produced a paper entitled iPad or iFad, in which the writers produced a rigorous defense of using Ed. Tech through this device as an instructional tool in the paperless classroom; but provided no evidence of improved learning outcomes through academic success.  Pepperdine University in the USA is currently the only tertiary institution to have undertaken a longitudinal case study on the use of the iPad as an instructional and learning device in an attempt to establish the validity of claims made by Apple Inc. that their device is the future for education. They framed their study around 2 key questions:

1. Does the iPad have the potential to enhance students’ performance on course learning objectives?

2. Can we develop a formula for success?

The results which Pepperdine have posted online to date do not show any statistical evidence that using the iPad has “enhanced student performance on course learning objectives”, and the results from their questions and surveys do not indicate they have yet “developed a formulae for success” in using this device. It is my opinion that there is an urgent need for more informed, critical debate on whether or not the iPad in particular or Ed. Tech in general is enabling learners to succeed whereas without the aid of these tools they would fail.

Mayer (1993) has argued since the early 90s, that there seems little point in infusing the debate with opinions about those who support or do not support the use of online learning and Ed. Tech. in teaching pedagogy. People being people take time to adjust to the new and untried. It is a matter of respecting this and ensuing that these differences of opinion do not over shadow clear critical thinking when considering what is best for today’s and future generations of learners.

From an historical view point of view the educational sector, when it has had the means to do so, has always embraced new technologies for better or worse. From the days of the printing press, to the invention of radios, the telegraph, television, vinyl records, tape recordings, videos, CDs, DVDs, internet resourcing, podcasts, wikis and so on, educators have taken to what works well and what contributes to the genuine development of sound pedagogical processes in teaching and learning. It has never been a simplistic argument about those who embrace the new or those who resist the new and untried. Such a black and white perception of the IT revolution and what is occurring in education is profoundly naïve simply because there is a huge difference between embracing technology in all its guises as an instructional interface and understanding how such devices affects pedagogical processes; and more importantly how they impact on  the psycho-cognitive processes of learners.

There is a vast corpus of researched literature on the effects of online learning and Ed. Tech tools on children and students regardless of age nationality and gender.  For example one key study by the Milken Exchange –a subsidiary of the powerful and influential Milken Family Foundation (Transforming Education through Technology, 1999) claimed that 11% gains made to elementary school learners through mathematics and vocabulary development were directly attributable to technology usage. Yet, if these findings were tested more rigorously through applying a chi square statistical set it would show that there are no significant differences between students who learn online and through Ed. Tech tools, and those who learn offline without an Ed. Tech. interface. The differences claimed in the Milken Exchange study could have been due to many other variables in the teaching and learning processes. I have found similar results in my own research (Burke, 2010, 2012) which suggests that there are too many variables at play to be able to find a control group that will give more than a 50% mean difference between different kinds of teaching and learning methodologies and processes.

Clarke (1983) argued that there are absolutely no accrued learning benefits through using media of any kind in teaching and learning pedagogy. His famous quip that a new Green Grocer vehicle won’t change the dietary habits of a nation is an interesting analogy for today. Yet, we’ve move beyond such a perfunctory view of Ed. Tech. tools and online learning to one where we are essentially concerned with the impact and affect on the cognitive processes of learners. This is where the debate must center and focus for educators. We need to eschew the technophoria and hype, along with the awe and glamour of new devices, new applications and software, as well as the talk show type debates about online vs. offline learning, and seek a clear critical understanding of how we learn and the cognitive processes most deeply affected through Ed. Tech. tools and online learning. A number of educators are engaging in this debate; Mayer & Moreno’s (1998, 2001, 2002, 2003), well founded research and arguments for controlled and discerned use of Ed. Tech tools, and Fuchun, L, Yan, Z, Yasonng D, Lindi, Q, Zhimin, Z and Hao, L  (2011) and their seminal study on how brain structure and function are adversely impacted through prolonged online engagements are among a plethora of recent modern studies and are where the debates should be centered today for all educators.

However it is unfortunate that this may not come about because the IT lobby in the corporate sector, with its billions of advertising dollars and its quasi-research projects-all biased towards their own outcomes hinder a clear, critical public debate. This is clear in the ITL research group’s recent report on innovative teaching and learning (2011) 95% of the report condemns schools and learning institutions for not using the latest products and gadgetry, there is no informed, clear critical research on how their products perform or affect learners cognitively or how they define methodological and pedagogical processes in a constructive way. It is one thing to argue for every child having an iPad to reduce heavy back packs with lots of books, and quite another to pursue the argument that it will increase knowledge gains for learners.

Teaching and learning is a highly sociable process. It is built on a fundamental axiom of clear inter-personal communication. Moreover, schooling and tertiary studies is a highly controlled social process as well as an intellectual one. We require those who graduate from our high schools and universities to be civil to others and to have good manners and treat people respectfully. Working in the isolated vacuum of virtual realities where “I am my screen” and “I do not have  to share my thoughts and ideas” does not contribute to positive social learning outcomes at all. I’m all for ‘rethinking education’ and embracing technology; but it should be an intrinsic part of any performance management plan which has as its core principle how students learn, not what they like using and doing best.

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