The Social Cost of iPads in Schools

ipads in classroom

A recent paper by a team from the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles explores what happened to a group of sixth-graders who attended a nature camp without any digital media available for five days. No cellphones, no iPhones, no laptops, no computers, and no television. As written about in the New York Times, the researchers found that the children who spent just five days without screens scored higher on tests in which they were asked to interpret the facial expressions of either people in photographs, or people in videos without sound, than did children who had no such break from technology.

The Times opinion piece explores the various ramifications of the study, for children and adults alike. But what I found most interesting came towards the bottom of the piece. Psychology professor Patricia Greenfield, who also worked on the study, says:

“[iPads in school classrooms are going] to reduce interaction with teachers, [they’re] going to reduce children’s interaction with each other face to face. So I think this study is very important because it does indicate there is an important social cost, and that schools need to really think about that.”

Those who know me know that I have been concerned about the use of iPads in classrooms for a few years now. Despite school districts nationwide spending billions of dollars on iPads, I have not seen any research that shows a benefit to using them in schools. In fact, the research I have read finds detrimental effects: no increase in test scores, difficulties in reading comprehension, disrupted sleep. And one school district’s plan to provide every child with an iPad went down in spectacular flames, with ongoing controversy and questions about possible ethical violations. As Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban says so well,

“There is still no evidence that iPads will increase student achievement at all. It’s not the hardware, it’s the software, and no studies have been done on the software apps in use, so no one knows,” said Cuban, who suggested the money might be better spent on training and recruiting teachers. “I’ve seen students with iPads and the novelty is there and the engagement is there, but it’s not clear that novelty and engagement will lead to increased academic achievement.”

One might be forgiven for wondering if, so far, the only true beneficiary of schools’ race to buy millions of iPads has been Apple itself. The company lobbies hard to get schools to buy the devices, and they have pocketed hundreds of millions – if not billions – of taxpayer dollars to that end.

Time will tell if iPads in schools turn out to be an important educational tool, or just a really cool toy. But now that research indicates there may be a social cost on top of the financial ones, it seems time to take serious stock of what we are doing and why.

What do you think? iPads in schools: thumbs up, or thumbs down? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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