There has been a groundswell of tremendous enthusiasm after Apple’s recent announcement of initiatives for education. The company unveiled a new marketplace for cheap—by US standards—and interactive electronic textbooks, and a new free authoring tool to make electronic interactive books. There has been some controversy around the terms and conditions involved in using the authoring software, iBooks Author, but by and large, the initial response has been positive.
It doesn’t take an education theorist to see the benefits of electronic textbooks. First of all, they are portable and affordable. A single iPad can carry several textbooks, complete with assignments, interactive materials and perhaps even scores and progress reports. Also, the hardware and software can liberate students from being slaves to a particular syllabus or pedagogy. If they’d rather sit through an algebra class from the Khan Academy online repository—instead of just depending on the droning robot in school—the iPad allows them to do just that.
But can this ecosystem of tablet computers, electronic content and seamless production truly revolutionize education?
Schools all over the world have been using computer-aided learning methods for over two decades. Even in New Delhi, the annual book fairs in the city are full to the gills with companies offering interactive educational DVDs targeted at everyone from toddlers to CAT aspirants. Most of them aren’t worth the plastic they are stamped on.
But have they had an impact on education? There is enough research to look at the broader educational impact of technology with some scepticism. In 2004, one OECD study of thousands of schoolchildren in 31 countries found that frequent users of computers in schools actually performed worse in maths and reading.
Yes, children themselves have got much better at using computers. But, like an enhanced ability to use fountain pens, that is by itself no guarantee of better and deeper education as a whole. Finland, widely considered to have one of the best schooling systems in the world, uses IT in classrooms at levels at par with other developed countries. Excellence in the Finnish system continues to come from quality early-stage education and high teacher involvement among other factors. These are things no tablet can provide.
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