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May 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 8

How to Transform Teaching with Tablets

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If your school is investing in tablets, be sure to have a plan for how learning should change.

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During one of our first visits to an iPad school, students told us that their favorite use of the tablet was for note taking. They had an app that enabled them to leave their paper notebooks at home and organize their notes in one place. We're not opposed to gains in productivity, but if all tablet computers do is replace notebooks with notebook apps, we're unlikely to look back on the United States' investment in tablets with much enthusiasm.
Getting computing devices into schools is relatively easy; changing classroom practice with technology is really, really hard. Over the past century, radio, television, video cassette recorders, desktop computers, laptop computers, handheld devices, tablets, and cell phones have all been heralded as potentially transformative classroom tools (Cuban, 1986, 2003). With every generation of computing technology, a small group of educators has been able to use new tools in transformative ways, but on the whole, classroom practices have proven stubbornly resistant to change. Consider this thought experiment: If you could take all the money that schools invested in computer labs in the 1980s and 1990s, would you spend that money again on those labs?
Over the past four years, we at EdTechTeacher have seen an incredible surge in another type of technology in schools: the tablet computer. Led by Apple's iPad, and followed at a distance by Android and Microsoft tablets, schools across the United States and around the world have made major investments in tablets. It's exciting to see so many more students and teachers with access to computing devices, but it's also scary that so many schools have adopted these devices so quickly, with limited evidence for how they might improve learning.
Since the iPad was first introduced in 2010, we've been exploring how teachers and learners can make the most of tablet computers. We've visited dozens of schools, worked with teachers in professional development settings around the world, and hosted several iPad summits across the United States. Our sense is that the patterns that have unfolded in previous generations of technology adoption are unfolding now.
When you look at the very best work happening in iPad classrooms, you'll see students creating media, showcasing their understanding, collaborating with peers, and communicating with broad audiences. The pockets of excellence are ever-present and inspiring. On the whole, however, tablets are most often used to reproduce existing practices—to distribute resources and enable students to take notes.
Past generations of school leaders might have been forgiven for permitting these patterns of technology adoption, but today we have the benefit of history to look back on. We know that without a change in our technology integration strategies, there's no reason to expect that a new device will magically create new teaching practices in schools.
To make the most of the investment in tablet computers, school leaders need to do three things. First, they need to work with their communities to articulate a clear vision for how new technology will improve instruction. Second, they need to help educators imagine how new technologies can support those visions. Finally, they need to support teachers and students on a developmental journey that will take them from using tablets for consumption to using them for curation, creation, and connection.

How Will Learning Differ?

Here's a question to start with: After your taxpayers/trustees/parents make a major investment that enables you to purchase iPads, how will learning be different? How will students improve as learners? As scholars? As citizens? What will they be able to do three or four years after your iPad adoption that they can't do now? If your school can't answer these questions, technology adoption may not have much impact on learning.
We run a case study exercise with school leaders in which they consider four hypothetical schools with recent iPad adoptions. (To see the four scenarios, go to The first school has no learning vision, one has multiple learning visions for each department and grade level, one has a learning vision collaboratively developed by the community, and one has a learning vision imposed by a charismatic superintendent. Overwhelmingly, educators tell us that the first school looks most like theirs, in which tablets seemingly appeared from the sky, with vague language about modernizing schools or entering the information age, but with no real collective vision.
It may seem crazy that schools can make major technology purchases with no plans for how learning should change. We've found, however, that there are so many details to attend to in technology planning—acquisition, security, sustainability, teacher training, parent education, and so on—that many schools lose track of the most important issues. As math educator Dan Meyer (2012) once asked, "If iPads are the answer, what was the question?"
The best technology integration tends to take place in schools created around a focused pedagogical vision. Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and High Tech High in San Diego, California, both integrate technology in the context of a project-based curriculum. The Silicon Schools Fund in the San Francisco Bay Area supports several schools whose visions center on blended learning and differentiated instruction.
Creating this shared vision is much harder in traditional (and tradition-bound) public and private schools, but it can be done. Several years ago, we started working with the Arlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. Assistant superintendent Laura Chesson explained to us the schools' shared vision: "In the elementary schools, we're focused on preparing students for learning, self-regulation, and collaboration using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. In the secondary schools, we're focused on discourse—reasoning from evidence."
Self-regulated learning and reasoning from evidence are fantastic, focused areas for improvement. With those kinds of clearly established learning goals, it's much easier to define and measure how technology can support learning. Arlington's goals are a good grain size as well—capacious enough to rally a community but focused enough to see measurable improvement within several years.
When schools develop these kinds of shared learning visions, the next step is to identify how tablets can best support those visions.

What Does Awesome Look Like?

If students were doing awesome things with an iPad, what would that look like? Here's another way of putting it: How does an iPad align with a vision of meaningful and purposeful learning?
Bereft of examples and inspiration, many educators struggle to conceive of iPad integration beyond mere substitution for whatever came before. Educators need guidance on how to leverage iPads as hubs of innovation that nurture the learning skills, competencies, and habits of mind that help students develop skills for today's world.
With that in mind, here's a look at two teachers and their iPad-infused classrooms.

Reasoning from Evidence Using Multimedia

Shawn McCusker is a Chicago-based history teacher who has emphasized research, reading, and writing during his nearly 20 years as an educator. For much of that time, formal analytical essays have been the hallmark of his assessments.
But something changed in his classroom two years ago. His students got iPads. From that point on, Shawn concentrated on what students could do with an iPad. He hoped to uncover new and powerful ways that students might demonstrate their learning. In doing so, he embarked on a path that is at the heart of innovative iPad integration: He empowered students through creativity.
Shawn decided to give his students some control over how they might demonstrate their learning. Students could write an essay if they wished—or they could create a performance of understanding. One girl created a video about Adam Smith and Karl Marx. The engrossing 12-minute clip features hand-drawn animation, sketch notes, music, and student narration. When we present that video at workshops, teachers pay rapt attention. Although we show only a few minutes of it, teachers tell us they would gladly watch more and profess to have learned much.
Teachers aren't the only ones learning from it. Shawn offers to publish his students' work to a public audience, and soon enough, this high school girl's history video attracted a YouTube audience. Motivated by the interest, the student asked Shawn if she could work on her project some more. She wanted to improve her video and boost viewership. If you now Google "Adam Smith and Karl Marx," you'll find that her video ("Adam Smith vs. Karl Marx: The Industrial Revolution") has more than 80,000 views and appears as a top search result, ahead of many well-known and popular news and historical sources.
Despite the clear evidence of learning, many teachers may dismiss this as a "video" activity, devoid of rigorous history content. However, it's important to understand that this 15-year-old girl spent untold hours researching industrial philosophers and drafting her narrative and that she can quote passages from Marx and Smith verbatim. The video is the summative culmination of her work and its public manifestation, but her days spent engrossed in reading traditional prose were powerfully formative and important, although invisible to some.
As Shawn understands, students have great and varied capacities to demonstrate their learning. Yet assessments are often narrowly fixated on text. We know that information presented through multiple pathways addresses a wider range of learners and increases comprehension and use. Shawn encourages his students to integrate a combination of text, visuals, audio, and animation to create powerful avenues to learning. For Shawn, the iPad is a multimedia creation device that has enabled his students to showcase their research and argumentation skills in new ways.

Learning Collaboratively and Globally

Kristen Paino is a New York City elementary school teacher. Along with colleagues, she helped create a community called Global Book Series, which features collaborative books authored by educators and students from around the world. In these multimedia books, students and teachers present their schools not only through pictures and handwriting, but also through audio recorded directly in the pages and videos that students have created themselves. The result is a delightful mixture of information and storytelling.
One of Kristen's goals was to help elementary students become interested in—and learn—geography. She and her colleagues decided to solicit geography presentations from classrooms both in the United States and across the world, reaching out to teachers through social media, particularly Twitter. They asked teachers—and by extension their students—to create two-page presentations about their communities.
Flipping through the pages, one encounters some New Zealand students who take viewers on a historic and cultural tour of Wellington. Then, one meets Olga, a teacher from Yoshkar-Ola, Russia, who proudly displays pictures of her city. Up soon is Johnnie, a 6th grader who tells readers about the Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly the Sears Tower), along with how he travels to school and what he likes to do. One encounters in these pages intriguing students and teachers from across the United States and the world.
What happened next in Kristen's school is a great demonstration of the power of connecting students through technology. The New York students who viewed the pages started to ask questions: Where is Russia? What's at Navy Pier in Chicago? Can we see Johnnie's school on a map?
For many students, learning geography in a classroom is a passive experience. They're given maps to study and are told to memorize certain spots, and then they place them on an outline map. Not so for these New York students. For them, geography is about connecting to other students and classrooms. It's about wanting to learn more about Chicago because Johnnie lives there. It's about asking questions and finding answers because you want to learn more about the students with the unfamiliar accents and the interesting school building.
As a result of the Global Book Series, Kristen's students connected with—and learned from—students around the world. It just goes to show that when students are equipped with iPads, they can create immersive multimedia content that goes well beyond what pen and paper will allow. They take an active—even leading—role in the learning process and learn the value of connecting and collaborating with peers to create rich learning experiences that no one student or one classroom could do alone.

Beyond Pockets of Excellence

So how do schools go from pockets of excellence exemplified in Shawn McCusker's and Kristen Paino's classrooms to broader change? Shawn's work would be a great exemplar for the Arlington secondary school teachers who are focused on discourse and on reasoning from evidence, and Kristen's students would be great examples for the Arlington elementary teachers who are interested in preparing their students for self-regulated learning and collaboration. But not every teacher is ready to make these big changes.
Just as we learn from the history of education technology that devices don't magically change classroom practice, we can also learn how teacher uses of technology evolve. Since the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1990), we've known that teachers with access to education technology go through a developmental process: They start by reproducing old practices with the new tools before becoming more adept at imagining new futures. Sandholtz and colleagues described five phases of this process: entry, adoption, adaptation, appropriation, and invention.
Ruben Puentedura recast this insight as the SAMR model, in which he describes a trajectory that moves from substitution, to augmentation, to modification, to reinvention. (For an introduction to the SAMR model, go to The core insight here is that the first thing that teachers tend to do with new technologies is extend existing practices; most will need substantial support to gain the comfort and confidence to develop new teaching practices.
A shared pedagogical mission can help focus teachers' journeys along this developmental pathway. If teachers pursue their own individual, idiosyncratic development, they can't benefit from their colleagues' innovation in the way they might if there were a schoolwide focus on using technology for collaboration, discourse, or another worthy aim.

From Someday to Monday

Teachers need time and support to go on this journey. This isn't cheap. At EdTechTeacher, we're routinely approached by schools and districts that are spending vast sums of money on new hardware, but only a few thousand dollars and a couple of early-release days on professional development. If investments in technology aren't paired with investments in teacher capacity, change is unlikely.
As we support teachers in this work, we've found the Someday/Monday metaphor to be a helpful way to think about the steps we'd like folks to take. On the one hand, if technology doesn't help teachers make substantial changes in classroom practices—if their classroom isn't "someday" a very different place—then the technology investments often aren't worth it. But on the other hand, teachers can't do a gut rehab of their classroom practices in the middle of the year. They need something they can try out on Monday that will take them one step closer to wider change.
Professional learning opportunities should offer a balance of Someday- and Monday-based learning experiments. Sometimes we want teachers to experiment with small steps they can try out right away. Other times, we want them to tear down their units or courses and build them anew.
Formative assessment with technology is a quintessential Monday-type professional development topic. In a few hours, any teacher can learn to use Socrative; Poll Everywhere; or Google Forms to create surveys, quizzes, and exit tickets for their students. Teachers can easily add these practices to almost any lesson in any subject, with minimal design time; these practices also adapt to a wide variety of devices and operating systems.
Someday-type professional development requires a much deeper commitment to change. For instance, if teachers intend to use technology to support more project-based learning in a unit, they usually will need to recast the unit through substantial planning and research.
When one of us (Tom) taught U.S. history, he transformed an uninspiring unit on the political history of the Great Depression, which focused on memorizing the alphabet soup of federal relief agencies, to one that examined the Depression through the eyes of adolescents of the period, especially a well-documented group of teenage hoboes. The new unit involved research in online archives and an entirely new set of lessons; it culminated in a collaboratively produced podcast from the "golden age of radio" (Reich & Daccord, 2009). Professional development that supports these kinds of major changes needs to provide ongoing support to help educators reinvent their practices.
In considering the Someday/Monday split, we've also come to recognize the importance of thoughtful timing. Right after school lets out for the summer is a great time to go full-bore on ambitious designs, with months ahead for teachers to create their Someday learning experiences. On the other hand, professional development that happens right after Thanksgiving is a great time to focus on incremental change.
Whatever pace you target for change, supporting teachers in exploring how best to use new technologies is every bit as essential as arranging the details of getting new devices in the hands of teachers and students.

Rebooting for Change

Despite all the challenges, we think this is an exciting time. The widespread adoption of the iPad has great potential to reveal how technology can transform our schools. As we've written elsewhere (Daccord & Reich, 2014), "this is our chance for a reboot, a chance to put learning and vision at the heart of the adoption of a new technology."
Tablet computers alone won't shift our thinking about teaching and learning, but technology adoptions can be powerful opportunities for school communities to engage in answering important questions. We're hopeful that educators will take advantage of this chance to reboot and use new technology adoptions, not as a chance to hand out devices, but as an opportunity to rethink the purposes of schooling in the 21st century.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cuban, L. (2003). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daccord, T., & Reich, J. (2014). iPads in the classroom: From consumption and curation to creation. Dorchester, MA: EdTechTeacher.

Meyer, D, (2012). [Lisa Nussdorfer] Using the iPad in the mathematics classroom. [blog post]. Retrieved from Math Recap at

Reich, J., & Daccord T. (2009). The "Day in the Life of a Teenage Hobo" project: Integrating technology with Shneiderman's Collect-Relate-Create-Donate framework. Social Education, 73(3), 140–144, 152. Retrieved from

Sandholtz, J. H., Ringstaff, C., & Dwyer, D. C. (1990). Teaching in high-tech environments: Classroom management revisited: First—fourth year findings (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Research, Report 10). Cupertino, CA: Apple Computer. Retrieved from

End Notes

1 For more information on using the Someday/Monday metaphor, see our four-part series at

Justin Reich is a learning scientist interested in learning at scale, practice-based teacher education, and the future of learning in a networked world. He is the Mitsui Career Development Professor of Digital Media at MIT, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education (Harvard University Press, 2020), and host of the TeachLab Podcast.

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