This week I received a phone call from a friend in a large Texas school district, who I met about five years ago when I created a series of videos about technology leadership as part of the Gates-funded Texas Technology Leadership Academy. He asked me my opinion about purchasing iPads for school administrators in his district.

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I definitely love my iPad, and continue to be amazed by its capabilities. The question of whether or not limited district technology funds would be well spent on iPads for principals, superintendents and directors requires more than a yes / no answer, however. Like many questions, the answer to this one depends on several factors.

In a school district in which all students (over grade 3,) all teachers and all administrators ALREADY have district-provided laptop computers which they are permitted to not only use at school but also take home and use, I think iPads might be an outstanding purchase. Tablet technologies have been around for many years, but this new generation of touch-sensitive tablets as well as the bounty of creative applications which are being brought to market seem to herald a new day. If all learners in a school district ALREADY have a wireless, personal learning device, it would make sense for district funds to be spent on a cutting-edge learning platform like the iPad for administrators.

We need leaders in our school districts who both understand and model technology literacy and fluency. To this end, it DOES make sense to empower administrators (as well as teachers, librarians, and students) with personal digital devices. I think, however, a smartphone is a better choice at this point than an iPad or another tablet device for a school administrator. The iPad doesn’t fit in your pocket. While I love the lightweight, 1.5 pound weight of the iPad, its functionality does not YET allow it to be a complete replacement for a laptop computer and the everyday, productivity-focused applications which an administrator would run on it. The iPad is sexy, it is eye catching, and it’s cutting edge. If school administrators don’t already have iPhones or another type of smartphone, however, I think the decision to purchase iPads for them would be premature.

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There are not many things my iPad can do at this point which my iPhone cannot. An iPad can share a Keynote multimedia presentation directly to a LCD projector, while a non-jailbroken iPhone today cannot. An iPad can run iPad-specific applications with greater resolution and screen space features than an iPhone, and some applications (like iBooks) which are ONLY available on the iPad. The proliferation of applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad is likely to keep growing at a dizzying pace in the months ahead, which could open new doors of productivity and computing possibilities for school administrators as well as others. School officials deciding how to spend limited technology dollars should focus on the most important reasons and purposes for purchasing educational technologies, however, and that analysis should point in one direction: Student Empowerment.

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As educators, parents, and citizens of our communities, we should NOT be satisfied with school systems which continue to perpetuate an analog learning status quo. The age of the Internet is here, and that means EVERY learner (regardless of age) should have access to mobile computing platforms. Do all the students in your district have their own laptop computers? The answer is a resounding ‘NO’ in most of our Oklahoma schools today, as it is in most other U.S. states. (Maine is the primary exception which comes to mind.) One to one computing is an imperative today for twenty-first century learners, not an option. Technology purchases in schools today SHOULD reflect the importance of equipping leaders as well as followers with digital learning devices. Unless all certified staff and all students older than third grade already have district-provided laptop computers, however, purchasing iPads for administrators is analogous to buying more water to throw on a swimmer who is already in a swimming pool.

Would many of our school administrators enjoy using an iPad? Undoubtedly. The iPad IS a “magical device.” Would limited district technology dollars be well spent purchasing iPads for administrators? In most school districts, NO. Those funds should be committed to teacher and student laptop initiatives, which have far more potential to positively transform teaching and learning than purchasing a new, high-powered tool for principals.

There is one case I can think of where iPads for a group of administrators would make a LOT of sense, and that is for a grant-funded technology leadership professional development setting. Rather than provide participants with reams of articles and paper, all the instructional materials for participants could be provided electronically. Using Stanza, for example, existing digital text files could fe converted to open eBook format. Leadership-specific video presentations from the K-12 Online Conference could be loaded onto the iPads, or better yet… Administrators could learn to subscribe to and download those free, high quality PD resources themselves! Administrators could use their iPads to document classroom observations using customized Google Forms running in Safari. The impact of these activities on technology leadership skills and visioning for NETS support could be significant.

Does your school district have a plan for moving EVERYONE into a 1:1 learning model? If not, get on it. The kids are ready. All your teachers are NOT ready, but they never will all be. You don’t need an iPad in your hand to be an innovative and forward-thinking educational leader. Sure it might help you feel cool, but it can’t inspire and move you like a school full of students equipped and empowered with their OWN mobile learning devices.

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It’s all about priorities.

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  • “Would limited district technology dollars be well spent purchasing iPads for administrators? In most school districts, NO.”

    Wesley, this is a very insightful post. Having not been in teaching all of my life; but, having taught for 14 years now, what I see is a particular, if not peculiar sense that administrators are entitled to the very newest technology in the district while front line teachers have equipment that in some cases is literally handed down from administrators. The irony of this is that the technology needs of managers are rather simple except in the areas of numbers crunching. Perhaps this is true in private education; but, public education especially still suffers from a strange hierarchy in which the people who are the furthest away from, and least experienced in, the actual process of teaching get paid the most and get the latest technology.

    It is even worse that in many cases those same administrators don’t fully utilize the newest technology that they buy as they deprive the classroom of those dollars. What needs to change is the view that the newest hardware that is easily shown off is somehow a sign of technological sophistication. It is not.

  • Wes, I ahve been playing with an iPad for a few days. While I love it and think it is a game changer, there are some things that it is missing in terms of usability on a management level. Here are my thoughts:

    http://web.me.com/timholt/Intended_Consequenses/Intended_Consequences_Blog/Entries/2010/5/1_iPad_thoughts__A_Second_Glance.html

  • See my most recent iPad review – http://stager.tv/blog/?p=1189

  • Thanks for this timely post Wesley. I have been debating this question myself in recent weeks. Being in Canada though, it is only hypothetical as the iPad has not yet been released.

    I do think the iPad has the potential to bring about tremendous change and I do think school administrators have a great opportunity (responsibility?) to introduce them to schools. In the case of my district we are fortunate enough to have personal Pro D funds to draw on for such purchases. I used these funds to buy my iPhone two years ago, and will now likely use them to buy an iPad. It is professional development, if only for the example it provides.

    On this same topic, my school is one that does not allow electronic devices. Like other schools, I am sure, we have come to this rule over years of trying to stop students from tuning out with their music, or interupting with their cell calls, or posting inappropriate photos to the web, or playing video games instead of doing school work. My iPhone makes it increasingly obvious that this rule is outdated and is depriving our students of a powerful resource. The iPad will make this irony unavoidable.

    Thanks again for starting an important coversation.

    Topher Macintosh
    feastoflearning.com

  • Bill

    Brett. I agree with your observation. I am in the process of completing my junior year in college with a major in secondary education biology. In my field work I have observed high school science teachers using really slow and antiquated computers. Students typically have to go to the library to do research and those computers are equally out of date. It makes no sense that the students who need the computer technology the most get the least access. One of the local middle schools is participating in the Gates Foundaton lap top program. It is great that these younger students each get their own laptops. However, the program does not carry over to high school. Students learn fantastic computer skills and capabilties in middle school only to hit a brick wall when they “advance” to high school. What’s wrong with this picture?

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