The evolution of technology is truly inevitable in the age of information. Computers and the internet become an increasingly ingrained part of our lives each and every year, and the smaller and more portable the devices, the more seamless the integration. Technology has transformed the way entrepreneurs do business, how family and friends spread out across the world keep in touch with one another, and even how complicated surgeries are performed. And the impact on the educational system is becoming more and more profound. The United States has fallen behind other technologically advanced countries in a wide range of areas, and it may come down to technology to help solve the disparity. Some have suggested that placing tablets into our public school system could be the answer. Others have suggested that the costs of such efforts make it impossible. So what exactly is the future of tablet devices in education?
Computing companies such as Intel and Apple are working alongside textbook company McGraw Hill, the Federal Communications Commission’s chairman Julius Genachowski and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education to determine how tablets and other digital devices can assist teachers in the classroom. A quick look at the numbers shows that tablets could actually save schools money. The FCC has estimated that $7 billion is spent each and every year on textbooks in the United States. And no small percentage of those textbooks are seriously out of date, some by as much as a decade. If you estimate that the average tablet device costs around $250, and schools would enjoy a discount of around $100 per device due to bulk purchasing, the FCC believes that replacing the majority of textbooks with tablets would save schools as much as $3 billion per year. That’s an average of $60 per student in the United States. And the best part is that tablets would never be out of date, offering our kids the most current material our educational system can develop.
But what about the infrastructure costs? After all, there’s much more required than simply placing the tablet in the classroom. Every school that integrates tablets would need to significantly bolster their IT departments. Public schools in New York City ran up against this problem last year, and ended up having to ban students from connecting their smartphones and mobile devices to their schools’ Wi-Fi networks. All of that traffic was maxing out the servers, causing crashes that would undermine any tablets used for education. After New York City spent over $1 million on tablets for their teachers, realizing that the infrastructure was unable to manage the expansion was a serious problem. Many districts are running up against steep budget cuts, so hidden costs can be devastating.
Many teachers still feel that the growing pains are worth battling through. But research into the efficacy of tablet learning versus textbook learning has returned some mixed results. Houghton Mifflin, another textbook publishing company, conducted a study in which some students in a district in Riverside, California learned Algebra 1 through a traditional textbook and others used a digital version of the same textbook on an Apple iPad. They found the tablet-assisted students ended up with 20% higher standardized test scores. Another study performed in England found comprehension of wholly new information was lower on tablets versus traditional textbooks. It’s going to take more time and far more information to come to a final conclusion. For now, perhaps studying for a master of urban planning should involve traditional methods. But for kids in high school and elementary school, who have grown up with computer technology as an integral part of life, the results will probably be much more consistent.