iPads Can Hinder Learning
I HAVE SEEN enough anecdotal evidence to realise a full-on iPad experience slows down learning in primary school. I continue discovering experts who agree.
Dr Tom Butler, senior lecturer in business information systems at University College Cork, took the thought to Think Tank, a weekly opinion piece  in the Sunday Times of Ireland. He writes:
"Smartphones and iPads are the fast-food outlet equivalent of information technology, in that they provide a quick, convenient net fix. They are so easy to use that my three-year old grandson can hack into and navigate his mum's iPhone, browse the iTunes store and download apps on my iPad, and instruct his grandmother on how to use Skype. One year on, he has mastered my netbook and laptop to browse YouTube for videos of Buzz Lightyear, Ben 10 and Nerf guns.
"So, you would think that if his primary school was going to suggest the use of iPads and educational apps instead of books that I would be all for it? No way.
"I have studied, researched, developed and taught information technology for 30 years. No surprise, then, that I support the use of information technologies in education. However, recent research findings give me pause for thought, because cognitive scientists, neurologists, and psychologists are uncertain about how the human brain is being altered by the use of information technologies. For example Baroness Susan Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, considers the negative effects of digital technologies on children as 'an issue that's as important and unprecedented as climate change'. 
"Her concern is echoed in a recent Newsweek article entitled 'Is the web driving us mad?', which details the emerging negative psychological side effects of the internet. Researchers, therefore, consider the use of information technologies by children as a large natural experiment with indeterminate outcomes--both good and bad--and with significant unintended consequences.
"Schools in Ireland are emulating those elsewhere in introducing iPads into classrooms--without a shred of scientific evidence that such technologies benefit student learning. Significantly, Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, says of iPads: 'There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.' 
"Many rigorous studies on computer use in education corroborate his conclusions. They indicate that computer applications develop narrow, non-transferable, cognitive and/or motor skills in children at the expense of more important reading and mathematical skills. The people from Silicon Valley who provide us with our information technologies are aware of such findings. So much so, many now send their children to computer-free Waldorf schools to ensure the develop creativity and problem-solving skills.
"The nub of the issue is that information technologies are not typically designed with the Stone Age human brain in mind. Human process information best in a linear, mindful manner. When multiple sources of information are presented to the brain haphazardly, and in parallel, working memory becomes overloaded, while the conscious mind becomes distracted.
"Distraction and working memory overload explain why students using hypertext and hypermedia tend not to achieve the same learning outcomes as those following linear approaches. Recent research indicates that web-based technologies have the same mind-altering, addictive effects as narcotics or alcohol, giving rise to a new condition: internet addiction disorder.
"Children with ADHD or OCD are particularly at risk, while researchers also consider tha the rise of ADHD, OCD, depression, aggression and obesity are connected with increasing internet use.
"Furthermore, studies have found that most students use laptops and iPads in class much as they do at home, for social networking, answering emails, browsing the web, playing games.
"Perhaps the most significant issue is that, unlike an eReader, the light from an iPad or a laptop screen affects the production of melatonin in users, thereby increasing the incidence of insomnia, with a concomitant effect on learning an memory. Overall, research published in the Journal of Pediatrics highlights 'the negative influence of media consumption on children's sleep, learning and memory.'
"Finally, what of the 'heavy bag' issue that concerns teachers and parents? I would recommend the use of Eink devices, such as the Kindle. These are relatively inexpensive and the ideal media for reading etextbooks, without the drawbacks of eyestrain and insomnia. Such devices are presently unable to run educational apps, and children can still be distracted by the internet and email. But at least they will sleep soundly at night."
As Dermot Casey and Imogen Bertin point out in another network, one often walks into fallacious territory when relying upon Baroness Greenfield as an expert source. And there are disconnects when referencing a Waldorf School experience in this context.
I am getting blowback from students who expect to be able to use Facebook in the same classroom where they're getting a lecture. They also expect clever page-turning animations instead of simple (less memory and bandwidth-intensive) listings of clear text.
Those students are part of a generation that prefers touchscreens to keyboards. They would rather use a desktop to design a front end instead of the back end of a program. They're enticed to use tablets to do things that can easily be done in other ways--often with less overhead in acquisition cost and running cost.
In my own work, I encourage long reads and deep thoughts, processes that run counter to the bite-sized reading reinforced by our small screens and short attention spans. Although iPads and laptops can be efficiently used to open, scroll through and annotate meaty documents, the distractions are formidable. Better to have a dedicated e-book reader with a limited browser than an always-on iPad with notifications from social networks actively running in the background. So although we had an iPad and a Motorola Xoom Media tablet in the house, much of the time they stay out of reach of our clever four-year-old. She deserves a fighting chance at developing sound learning habits.
2. David Derbyshire -- " Social websites harm children's brains", London Daily Mail, February 24, 2009.
3. Larry Cuban -- "Answering the Big Question on New Technology in Schools: Does it Work?", on his blog, March 10, 2012.
Bernie Goldbach curates information about edtech.