Ipads, Orangutans and Steam Engines, an Argument for the Real.
I have been concerned that the 1:1 classroom might be getting a bit long in the tooth, and when I saw that the National Zoo is providing their orangutans with iPads I knew my worries were true. A quote from the article spells it out, “Don’t be surprised when these adorable species will start using iPads soon to keep them from getting bored.” In an Apps For Apes program our national zoo’s clever primates are playing drums, pianos, or, in one example, a 25-year old orangutan stares Zen-like at animated fish while listening to new age music. http://www.ubergizmo.com/2013/01/orangutans-now-use-ipads/
In case Edu-Speak isn’t your native language, the one-to-one classroom means that there is one computer or iPad or some cheap off-brand tablet for every student to use in a classroom. This is the dream of all technologically literate and responsible teachers. In fact, in some circles it is considered professional malpractice to settle for anything less. And thanks to all the unchallenged publicity about how well this engages and teaches students, more and more districts and teachers are achieving this technological Nirvana. When the Golden Ratio of Tech to Kid is reached then as near as I can tell the teachers put their feet up on the desk while the students are so engaged with their own learning that some of them wet their pants and skip lunch because they forget to take a break.
But in light of the fact that iPads have been reduced to entertaining orangutans, I think the one to one ratio has jumped the shark. For the 2013’s we need to move beyond a mere 1:1 classroom to at least a 2:1 or even better a 3:1 classroom. I have been informed by people who are obviously smarter than I am, that today’s kids are not like us digital dinosaurs. They were born with silicon chips in their mouths, they have had instant access to unlimited information ever since they Googled who the hell Einstein was, the minute their Baby Einstein video was over. If they aren’t texting, Tweeting, Facebooking, Chat Rouletting or Instagraming then they are playing video games that teach them educationally useful skills, such as stealing cars and how to avoiding learning anything that isn’t fun.
And this brings me to why the 1:1 ratio is no longer enough. According to “Jobs' Law.” any piece of tech equipment that you give a kid will be uncool six months after it is released. Recently I had a kid throwing his cell phone against a wall hoping to break it so that he could get a new one. The iPad 4 we get kids this year won’t even make a cool door stop in a couple of years. And is anybody still using their Polaroid camera, VHS tapes, Atari, flip phone, Zune, boombox, AOL, or floppy discs? Yes, for you non-dinosaurs, floppy discs were once cutting edge.
How can cash strapped schools compete? Well, it isn’t a matter of how, it is a matter of survival, and we need to move beyond this self defeating paradigm of 1:1. We need to invest in not just a computing platform for every kid, but a gaming one too, and maybe one pair of Google Glasses per child. Perhaps widescreen tv’s lining classroom walls like in a sports bar would be a good idea and one to one jetpacks wouldn’t hurt either. Anything less and the kids will be bored which means we will never get their attention, and without that they will never learn anything and the collapse of civilization is not far behind. It will be hard to keep up with this technological arms race, but like the real arms race we just have to suck it up and spend what it takes.
Of course there will be the Luddites who just don’t get it. They will try to argue that there may be alternatives to going virtual. And they might have a point. I have to admit that I like steam engines. Luckily the Steam Punk trend has allowed me to come out of the closet about this, but I still have a toy steam engine that I had as a kid.
In science, when we are studying heat, I bring it out and fire it up. The kids always laugh when I tell them how my friend Dorian and I would would spend hours in his basement running it and pretending we were manning the engine room of an ocean liner. But they always stop laughing when the little engine that could starts running. It fumes like a teakettle, it stinks, its little whistle gives off a shriek and the flywheel spins. I remind them that they have seen one like it, only much larger when they watched Leonardo DeCaprio in Titanic. I point out that this was a technology that arguably changed the world more than computers, cell phones or, God help us, Ataris. In fact, steam fueled the industrial revolution that has led to everything they now take for granted.
If I had even a 1:1 classrooom, I wouldn’t need to go to the trouble of firing up my toy. I could turn them loose and they could research steam engines, they could see animations of how they work, they could watch videos of steam engines far more impressive than my little toy. But those things aren’t real. They don’t smell, they don’t whirl before your eyes, they don’t give off heat. They are images on a screen and in my experience the real trumps the screen every time.
And before anyone points out that I am not typing this on my trusty Remington, that I am virtually connecting with anyone who reads this, that I used Google to research this post, and that paper replaced papyrus, I get it. I know there is a place for technology in our lives. I want my kids to be able to find information, connect with their friends and research their interests or maybe even research steam engines. But I also know our kids have no shortage of technology in their non-school lives and maybe school can be a place that emphasizes the real.
Of course dinosaurs like me may go extinct, maybe our style deserves to go the way of the small brained. Maybe we need to move on, being unable to adapt. But I still think having a six year old, or a sixteen year old, make a Plaster of Paris dinosaur footprint has more value than looking at a picture of one, even if the picture is in 3-D. And if they want to they can use my foot as a model.