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Transformational? by Bob Sprankle

I remember the day I bought my first Beatles album: Magical Mystery Tour. Actually, it wasn't an album--- it was an 8-track tape cartridge. The Beatles album was about a decade old by then and had "evolved" into the size of a large piece of toast that I could play in my car's 8-track player (with a pencil jammed in on the side so it didn't sound "warbly"). I bought the car because it had the 8-track player. To be able to bring the music of my choice along with me for a ride rather than rely on the radio was like a dream come true. It changed the way I thought about travel. No longer was I limited to the local-lame radio stations or my own humming. Driving was now a joy as I listened to "I am the Walrus" until my heart's contentment. My car was transformed into my very own sound machine that I could climb into and play whatever I wanted, as loud as I wanted. Rather than have to keep the music on my "phonograph" to a whisper volume back in my bedroom (for the well-deserved sanity of my parents), I now had the freedom to truly rock as long as the gasoline held out. Music came alive at the decibels it was meant to exist at and it was so much better. That 8-track player... it was transformational.

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freedictionary.com defines "transformational" as:

A marked change, as in appearance or character, usually for the better.

When talking about technology integration in education, surely one of the requirements for a tool to be considered transformational is that it must make the learning environment better... better than what previously existed because of the technology. Transformational technology to me means that without the new tool, this level of "better" isn't attainable. In other words, if the technology is just leading us back to the same old instructional practices, then it isn't worth a dang. Using a "Smartboard" to still run the same old PowerPoint/Lecture-style presentations seems to be a lot of money thrown at the old delivery system. True, it may be easier to organize and build the presentations, but without an increase in engagement for the students, I don't know if it's better. Throw in some response-system controllers where students constantly give feedback to the presenter or vote on the direction of the presentation, and now we're heading into the land of "better".

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a tool is truly transformational or if we're just caught up in the "shiny-bright-wow-factor" of it.

Enter: The iPad.

Next week many early adopters will be standing in lines at Apple Stores across the country, waiting to get their hands on their new iPads (full disclosure: this includes me). Many will chide this early adoption as unwise. Some arguments make a lot of sense: wait until the "bugs" have been worked out; wait until there are more options (i.e., camera); wait until the price comes down. But all the arguments in the world won't turn us around. We simply can't wait.

"It's just a big iPhone," is what I hear many early critics protest. To which I say, "Yes!" In fact, I think the iPad will be much, much more than it's "younger sibling," but I am happy just to have a larger iPhone with which my aging eyes can read with ease, sitting on the couch, rather than killing my aging back sitting in my computer chair. A larger iPhone makes more sense to me than a tiny screen, and I have no doubt that at least 90% of my surfing will take place on the iPad in the very near future.

To me, it's an improvement by bringing together something that's been obvious since Smart Phones have come along ---people like reading the Internet away from the confines of their computers ---and something else that we've known for a long time ---people don't like to squint.

But... will it be transformational? Especially in the area of education?

I am of 2 "brains" when answering the question:

Brain #1—Yes, the iPad will be transformational in education because:

  • it will offer a more affordable tool than a complete laptop
  • it's portability will encourage experiential learning (can't you just envision a class standing out in the wetlands with their iPads, collecting data?)
  • it will offer new ways to engage students with text (look here for an example of "interactive text")
  • it will encourage "paperless" classrooms
  • it will ignite students' interest levels (as most new technology seems to do... at least initially)
  • it's "magical and revolutionary" qualities that Steve Jobs says it has will evolve and become more apparent

Brain #2—NO, the iPad will be not be transformational in education because:

  • we will continue to do the same old things that we've always done, just with an expensive, shiny, new toy
  • (also... it will be a "closed" tool, as opposed to an Open Source device, which could easily be hijacked by any number of Media Enterprises, including Textbook Companies... but that's a subject for a much longer post...)

I'm hoping Brain #2 is completely wrong, of course, but only time will tell.

What are your thoughts? Transformational or not?