You may have read the news that the University of Nevada, Reno, will give every member of its incoming freshman class an iPad Air (along with a keyboard and a pencil.) In and of itself, this development isn’t all that newsworthy, but it does hark back to something I have been thinking about for a long time: the coming — and necessary — paradigm shift in how we compute.
Apple was once a much-beloved part of the US education system. Lately, Google’s Chromebooks have been taking over. They are cheaper, which may appeal to cash-strapped school districts. (By the way, kudos to Sarah & Ev Williams for giving $10 million to help the San Francisco school system.)
Now, suppose we can forget the politics of Google versus Apple. Personally, I don’t care either way. Chromebooks (like their Apple or Microsoft counterparts) are simply an extension of the old paradigm of computing — one that is heavily reliant on a keyboard, a mouse, and a semi-tethered setup. Sure, Chromebooks live on and benefit from the cloud, but they still pretty much rely on traditional computing. Whether it is Google Docs or Google Slides, nothing about them is remarkably novel.
Essentially, the kids in school are getting trained on the classic model of computing. Meanwhile, at home, many of the same kids are growing up with touch devices — iPads, iPhones, and Androids. They are also growing up talking to (mostly) Alexa, (maybe) Siri, or (sometimes) Google Assistant. Every time I interact with my goddaughters — both are below five-years old — my jaw drops. They know FaceTime, iMessage, and other apps inside out, including stickers and other fun features. They are well versed in making a video call and having a chat.
And it is not just my goddaughters. I see kids who are handling kid-centric content on their touch devices with fantastic dexterity. Their engagement with interactive apps is higher than with static books, and they have more opportunities for visual learning. Swiping left or right for accessing or navigating through information is already part of their mental model of interacting with the digital world. I remember hanging out with some kids in Ladakh, and they were entirely at ease with their Android phones, typing, swiping, and taking selfies.
The point of my soliloquy is this: we have a generation that is growing up with modern computing interfaces. Instead of creating new tools for education, we are still pushing the “classic” models onto them. Why? If computing has to become modern, then we have to use modern models for everything — from play to teaching and learning.
Giving iPads or other tablets to kids will not achieve this goal on its own. It will require a complete systematic overhaul of the proverbial educational food chain. This must start with teachers, who need to become adept in teaching with new technology, not just the old paradigms. App developers, app store operators, and parents also need to internalize the idea of moving beyond the traditional interfaces for computer-based learning to more modern methods. That is how the paradigm will change.
PS: I, for one, would love to see Apple introduce a program where, whenever I buy a new iPad (or any Apple device), I can give an iPad kit to a student. Sort of like what Toms did for footwear and Warby Parker did for eyeglasses.
Updated on July 12, 2021: California State University system will give a similar package to 35,000 of its incoming and transfer students in 2021. More here