Crises like the COVID-19 outbreak shed light on the problems that have gone unchecked in all of our systems for years, and technology is no exception.
All of us now are dealing with temperamental software, poor connections and our world’s increasing over-complexity and sheer bureaucracy. And the place where it might be worst is in our schools.
As an ignored and largely voiceless demographic, we’ve basically just been handed an iPad or laptop and told, “This is what you’ll be graded on,” and left to figure it out ourselves — not just during COVID, but before it, too.
Almost daily, in most if not all classes, I’ve seen someone having some problem with their iPad, whether it be going through the laborious login process, losing a charge at a ridiculous rate or just having an app endlessly crash. The list goes on and on. And what’s worst is that we’re told it’s a good thing, that our iPads are — against all evidence — useful, well-managed and easily worth the price tag.
But that’s not true. It’s only now that that’s coming to the forefront. So let’s see why we have the iPads, what they’re good and not good for and whether, now more than ever, we should find something more useful to spend money on.
Kanawha County first began the process of purchasing school iPads back in 2012, at roughly the same time that other counties and states did. Needless to say, the price tag was substantial, but through a process of carefully leasing and budgeting the devices, the county successfully got the iPads in 2014, without any major financial hiccups.
As some might remember, prior to the iPads, schools mainly used laptops, usually several years old and in poor condition. iPads are a much better bargain, with a longer shelf life and frequent updates from Apple. All of this information comes from Leah Sparks, the county’s executive director of technology, and Ryan White, the president of the Kanawhwa County school board. The way the iPads came here is pretty straightforward, but the perception of how they’ve performed is a little more mixed.
Both Sparks and White say that, though there are certainly problems to be fixed, the iPads have in general been working very well as tools of education and creativity. However, like everything, the COVID crisis is revealing the numerous flaws in this system, things that have slipped by for a long time.
As a KCS student myself, in general and during this increased time of reliance, I find school technology frustrating, poorly managed and — at least as it is being used now — containing little to no educational value greater than that of a textbook. The login process is complicated and ever-changing, the software seems to have problems almost daily, and I know kids whose battery won’t last half of a normal school day.
True, occasionally they do something interesting. But I think the county, and probably most other counties with iPads, haven’t spent nearly long enough on figuring out how to use these devices. In all honesty, most kids I know who like iPads do so because it means they don’t need to work as hard.
It’s not just students having issues. Since the iPads’ introduction, plenty of parents, teachers and school officials have voiced concerns about their negative effects: too much screen time, the high risks of damage, the lack of creative uses.
These problems exist all over the country, too. Perhaps the most famous instance is the 2015 iPad scandal in Los Angeles. According to an article for Time magazine, after the L.A. school district “made an enormous investment in iPads and Pearson educational products developed for those iPads, teachers quickly discovered the iPad program didn’t work as guaranteed and the Pearson applications were useless.”
This resulted in a near-complete power shift in the school board, and an FBI investigation into claims of “bid-rigging” for the devices and software. And this is just one of numerous instances in which iPads have not lived up to their promise, leaving whole counties of students and teachers stranded.
However, there are other stories that completely contradict this. Numerous schools and teachers have had enormous success with the iPads. An article published by The Guardian in 2012, at the very start of the iPad transition, details just how. A blogger, writer and primary school teacher, David Andrews, discussed the way apps like Skitch, SonicPics and Videoscribe, can be used to create a high-tech, engaging learning environment. But there are two problems with that.
First, most of the useful applications that Andrews lists are ones that I, and I assume other students and teachers in the county, had never heard of, let alone used on a regular basis for class. The second is that this is in primary school, a time when most kids are more engaged and like their classes more.
Another article, this time by Forbes in 2015, describes a study done by the Institute of Play, a company that creates educational games. The study shows that as children mature, their engagement in the classroom gradually decreases, from 80% being engaged in grade school, to half that in high school.
It’s not the method of learning that makes grade school run smoothly; it’s those doing the learning. If iPads are having roughly the same effects on student engagement as, say, pencils and paper, doesn’t it make sense to go with the less expensive and fragile option?
iPads and technology are part of the world we live in, and I think that they have amazing potential. But Kanawha County, and likely other counties, too, have not put in the appropriate time and resources to plan ways to fulfill this potential. What instead has happened is that the iPads have been shoved into the hands of students and teachers, creating a completely uneven system that COVID is now exposing.
There are definitely ways to learn during COVID — you hear stories about classrooms that are completing activities and work over video chat, and having a lot of fun. But as far as I know, there’s no system in place for this on our iPads — at least not one that works and is widely used, even though the county has made a rule saying teachers have to communicate in such systems. But it’s not too late. Hopefully, we’ll be back to school this fall, and perhaps we can learn from this, and begin work on improving our schools.
In our state constitution, it says that, by law, children will have access to “a thorough and efficient system of free schools.” I, for one, would like to live in a world where that is true.