No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

About Joanne


  1. Another insane idea which will require school
    districts already strapped for funding to spend
    money on the needed infrastructure to support
    the tablets, notebooks, and laptops, but does
    the program mandate that every kid will know
    how to read, write, and handle basic math without
    using the tablets/notebooks/laptops?


  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Hmmm, I wonder what will happen …

    The technology will show that some students are consistently moving faster than the rest of the class. It will show that some students are consistently moving slower–and that they are “not getting it” in similar ways. Someone will suggest that it will be easier for both teachers and students if the different groups were in different rooms with different teachers.

    The powers that be “fell upon him, smote him hip and thigh, and cast him from the company of educated men.”

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    I only see two uses for a tablet: 1) Learning math facts (but most of the games I’ve seen–and I’ve seen a lot of them–are much more game than math, and most of the non-games aren’t any better than flash cards or paper and pencil. 2) Easily portable books and text books,

    I don’t see those as overcoming the obvious problems: too many distractions, too expensive to repair or replace, to many tech headaches when something doesn’t work, etc.

  4. A solution in search of a problem.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    I took a stat course back in the day when the computer was at Princeton and the U was paying, it was said, $60/minute for access. It was supposedly programmed to figure out what you didn’t know from the wrong answer(s)., and head you out on a sub-program to fix what it thought you didn’t know.
    Unfortunately, calculators being unknown at the time and “adding machines” too expensive, we did our arithmetic by pencil. Which meant some of our wrong answers were not wrong because of what we didn’t know but because, in our haste, we might have forgotten to carry the two, for example.
    Catastrophic. I think we all got courtesy Ds in the experimental class.
    So I look at one use of the tablet and see that a teacher is supposed to be able to know, instantly, why a kid got a wrong answer and to be able to address it instantly. And differently for another kid, and another….
    Luck with that.

  6. LOL. Some students might learn more from the tablet, since they are offered work at their instructional level. Just when they thought they had that problem conquered by removing the textbooks….the ‘gap’ is going to widen….