iPads replace schoolbooks – great publicity, poor usage

The Irish Times recently reported about a secondary school in Co. Mayo who have decided to offer students the opportunity to replace their textbooks with iPads.  Essentially, rather than spending €450 on the schoolbooks and bringing them to school everyday in heavy schoolbags, parents can spend about €700 on an iPad with electronic versions of the books on it.  The books themselves are simply electronic replicas of the textbooks.  There are no videos.  There are no interactive quizzes. Doesn’t this sound familiar?
A few months ago, again with great furore and publicity, a secondary school in Co. Meath gave all their first year students a Fizzbook (a tablet/laptop combo) with electronic replicas of the textbooks.  So, it’s the same old story except with a cooler device storing the books.
While one could look at these two stories as the first step on the road to integrating technology into education successfully, it also raises questions about why we have to start that process this way.
The only difference between the iPad book and the traditional textbook is the weight.  Both are used exactly the same way.  Here are a few simple tweaks that the iPad version of a textbook could have done:
A book cannot show a video but an iPad can.  Hence, wherever possible, the iPad book could be used to show videos of teaching concepts, real life scenarios, etc.
Internet Links
Let’s say you’re reading about a particular topic and would like to read more about it.  A nice list of links to related web sites might be useful.
I’m reading my school textbook and I come across a word I can’t understand.  What do I do?  A few years ago, a trusty dictionary would come to the rescue.  Nowadays, most electronic books can link up to an online dictionary.  Simply click on a word and its definition shows up.
Sharing Notes
Your teacher tells you to remember some phrase or definition.  In anyone’s language, this means that it is likely to be important (or come up in a test).  Let’s say you could highlight this text and save it then share it with other users.  Amazon’s Kindle allows this so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Interactive Quizzes
Most textbooks have revision questions at the end.  Surely it is easy enough to make these self-correcting or at very least have the ability to send them electronically to the teacher who can send you back your score or grade.
There’s probably plenty more ways that one could enhance a textbook on an iPad.  In fact, it’s quite likely that this will be the route that these textbooks will go down over the next few years as companies head down the road of digitising their schoolbooks.
However, the iPad (and any Internet-enabled device) is capable of producing much more than all this.  Even with the above tweaks, these digital textbooks are still textbooks doling out content to students, which they will eventually have to regurgitate at the end of 6th year.
Could the iPad version of the textbooks have started differently?  Why did it need to take the textbook and simply digitise it?  Why did it not think of some other way to help students learn?
One possibility for the iPad would have been a content-free platform for sharing curriculum knowledge.  Students could build their own portfolio according to their own learning needs and styles from an almost infinite bank of knowledge on the web.  Why should one book company dictate how it teaches Shakespeare or Boyle’s Law?
Why can’t students find examples of re-enactments of plays and videos of science experiments then store and share them on their own personal learning network?
Why can’t teachers share their notes or their favourite links with their students to help them through the finer details of trigonometry?
Why can’t developers create beautiful games and quizzes for schools  that not only challenge their memory but also their skills of searching for information, finding that information and expressing that information well.
Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to be seeing iPads and other tablets being used in a traditional sense, at least for the time being.  I suppose it will be up to primary schools to show them how it’s done properly! 🙂

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