Will Steve Jobs finally conquer the classroom?

Apple's announcement last week that it is entering the textbook market in a big way, with a free product allowing content creators to build engaging digital textbooks more easily, has already gotten lots of reaction

positive and negative from around the K-12 blogosphere (including from Fordham's own Kathleen Porter-Magee). Put me in the column of believers, though I don't think the iPad's impact on the classroom will be limited to digital textbooks.

Soon after its release in 2010, accessibility advocates touted the iPad's potential to displace much more expensive assistive devices for both kids and adults. Legacy devices in this realm serve very niche markets, meaning they can be incredibly expensive to produce (and thus burden the special education budgets of some districts serving severely disabled kids). The touchscreens of modern tablets (not only Apple's offering) provide a much easier means of user input than mouse and keyboard, meaning the right apps can provide much of the same functionality as specialty devices on a much cheaper consumer-oriented platform.

The democratization of the tablet computer means
developers have huge incentives to develop great products for K-12
students at low prices.

The democratization of the tablet computer (15 million iPads were sold last quarter, and another 11 million the quarter before that) means developers have huge incentives to develop great products for K-12 students at low prices. The fact that the iPad shares a basic platform with the iPhone (over 100 million devices sold to date) means the audience is even larger. To me, textbooks are just the thin end of the wedge: a minority of schools will start using iPads to replace textbooks but will get a bigger bang from tapping into the growing universe of educational apps

many of which target  parents but would be effective in the schoolhouse, too. If use of the devices can spread outside special education classrooms to find innovative and effective uses in the general education program, Steve Jobs may wind up transforming another area of American society even after his untimely death.

My colleague Kathleen is right to be skeptical, of course. (Although the Gorilla Glass used on iPads is more durable than one might think!) Education technology has mostly failed to shake up traditional classrooms. Laptops and smartboards have been more disappointing than transformational in the hands of K-12 educators. 

The source of my hope for the iPad is that it represents a much greater paradigm shift in personal computers than did the laptop computer. It changes how people interact with computers, making the experience more personal and enabling entire categories of apps that are only possible with small, portable touchscreens.

Parents will likely have to drive change here, however, not district technology folks or savvy teachers. If parents demand that classrooms tap into the universe of content now available, much of which they're starting to use at home, and if teachers avoid the uncreative niche uses Kathleen fears (a tall order, admittedly), the iPad could help schools deliver better instruction for less.

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