If we want children to memorize the capital of each state or the presidents of the United States, then 3x5 flashcards, at $0.99 for 25, is a time-tested technology.
There are dozens and dozens of flashcard and drill-type apps on Apple’s iTunes store that basically simulate 3x5 flashcards in one way or another, and many are even free. From the stories we’ve heard about iPad usage, especially in the lower grades, these apps are very popular. While these iPad apps typically emphasize the flash of flashcards better than their paper-based cousins do, in these challenging economic times, one would be irresponsible not to ask the following question: Are flashcards that cost $600.99 that much more effective than flashcards that cost $0.99?
Not only is there no evidence that iPad flashcard apps are more effective than 3x5 flashcards, but we didn’t find even one empirical study that explored this question. According to Apple, there are already 1.5 million iPads among the 55 million K12 students in the United States. Whatever happened to data-driven decision making?
Fast-forward 12 months and you can see the headline in The New York Times: “Yet again schools are wasting their money on educational technology.”
Is the technology at fault? Is the iPad the bad guy? Absolutely not. The bad guy is an outdated curriculum. Why do we still insist on making children memorize the capitals of states when such facts are just a Google search away? Because the standardized tests are still primarily fact-based.
At the same time, we say with total sincerity that we need to prepare our children to compete in a global, knowledge-work economy, where the focus is on 21st-century skills such as teamwork and deep understanding—the how and why—but we act by promoting the drilling of our children on the who, what and when.
Interestingly, via the ATC21S Foundation, Cisco, Microsoft and Intel—three giant global corporations with joint yearly revenues of about $200 billion, who are not education researchers or education practitioners or education policy makers per se—are taking a leadership role in developing new tests that truly focus on assessing the growth of 21st-century skills such as teamwork and problem solving. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to the ATC21S Foundation.
K12 schools are wasting money by applying what is unquestionably one of the most amazing technologies ever invented to teach what every thinking educator and thinking parent knows as a 20th-century, irrelevant curriculum.
The motion picture camera was initially used to record theater, and it took a few years before Hollywood came along to invent movies, a new genre of storytelling. With that in mind, perhaps it’s okay to use the iPads for flashcards and drilling exercises for a short while. But enough is enough. Now is the time to use tomorrow’s technology to teach tomorrow’s curriculum.
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.