Technology for learning: Fads and iPads

by Ian Stewart at Dulwich College Seoul


Ian Stewart is the Learning Technologies leader for the Junior School at Dulwich College Seoul. He is currently working on an MA in Education at the University of Bath. Prior to working in Seoul, Ian worked in Malaysia and the UK in both primary class teacher and technology integration roles. In this introductory article, Ian Stewart (DCSL) reminds us of the overly high expectations that educators have held regarding revolutions in learning led by novel technology. While technology can provide for amazing opportunities it is not a panacea: technology’s power in education can only be harnessed through well-considered professional practice.


1981: the year the BBC microcomputer was released and the year I was born. I distinctly recall the day, eight years later, when my teacher fitted the school’s BBC Micro with a Logo chip. Seymour Papert, the developer of Logo, spent five years working with Jean Piaget because he believed that his software, coupled with a constructivist approach to learning, could accelerate children’s cognitive development (Maddux & Cummings 2004). Although the BBC Micro has been credited with starting a computing revolution (Jagger 2012), I cannot say that it did much to accelerate my cognitive development. All I remember was painstakingly typing a story and occasionally playing “Space Invaders Multiplication”. It would seem that my teachers had missed the point.

Over the past 35 years, I have seen many promises and predictions about technology igniting a revolution in education. Excitement in the 2000s about Interactive Whiteboards was quickly surpassed by excitement about Virtual Learning Environments, followed by excitement about one-to-one programmes. Still, according to Selwyn (2010), the “much-heralded transformation of schools and schooling has yet to take place” (p.6).  

Maddux & Cummings (2004) regard fads as endemic to many professions but particularly to education. They argue that many promising educational innovations fail not because they are no good, but because they lack adequate research and a logical connection to theory. Even when an innovation is firmly grounded in a theoretical framework – as was the case of Papert’s Logo – the connection is often misunderstood. 

The rise of tablet computing, specifically with the Apple iPad, could be added to the list of educational fads; like other fads, it was quickly lauded as a game-changer (Falloon 2013). Tablets have become popular in schools, with many launching one-to-one programmes, including Dulwich College Seoul and Dulwich College Beijing. But in Los Angeles, tablet computing has risen and already fallen: one school authority shut down its US$1.3 billion iPad programme after it failed to deliver the benefits promised (BBC 2015). This is known as the “pendulum syndrome”; it starts with rapid adoption, amidst unrealistically high expectations, and is followed by disillusionment and finally, pre-mature abandonment (Maddux & Cummings 2004). The phenomenon is neither new – Maddux noted it was troubling as early as 1986 (Maddux 1986) - nor is it unique to technology, as Benjamin Bloom complained back in 1981:

“The libraries and basements of our schools still store the forgotten relics of fads and nostrums which were purchased because they promised to solve our educational problems. In education, we continue to be seduced by the equivalent of snake-oil remedies, fake cancer cures, perpetual-motion contraptions, and old wives’ tales” (Bloom 1981, p.15).

Laurillard (2008a; 2008b) is not perturbed by the unrefined relationship between education and modern technology. As she points out, it took 200 years after the invention of the printing press before it dawned on anyone to organise the contents of books with a simple index. And over those centuries, education had plenty of time to adapt. Given the unprecedented rate of technological development during the past 35 years, it is no surprise that it is taking us a while to understand how best to utilise it.

With or without technology, the education faces an immense challenge. “Teaching is not rocket science: it is much, much harder than that. Rocket science is about moving atoms from a to b; teaching is about moving minds. And the whole point is to change those minds into independent thinkers who will not necessarily bend to the will of the teacher” (Laurillard 2012, l.311). The assumption that technology can somehow do this job by changing pedagogy is false. It cannot. Ultimately, the ideology of the teacher will impact how technology is used. When good teachers try anything new they will reflect on their core values and discuss the impact on pedagogy. Through our action research, reported here in The Dulwich Lab, we are striving to do this very thing.

Technology is turning a corner; things are starting to come together and tools are catching up and responding to the needs of education. Technology is getting to the point where it “just works” - well, usually. If we map the previous decade on a Garner Hype Cycle (Garner n.d. see figure 1), we have traversed the peak of inflated expectations, climbed out of the trough of disillusionment and are currently climbing the slope of entitlement towards the plateau of productivity.

Figure 1 Garner Hype Cycle (Garner n.d.)

As you browse the pages of this edition of The Dulwich Lab, on Technology for Learning, I hope you will apply a healthy dose of scepticism to the technological innovations described, just as you would with any innovation. But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. In a game of counterfactual history, would we remove the so-called “failed” innovations? The BBC took computers, previously the reserve of industry and academia, and placed them in the hands of ordinary school children (Jagger 2012). I accept that interactive whiteboards did not transform pedagogy (Zevenbergen & Lerman 2008) but few teachers would now teach without a computer, a projector and an easy means of controlling with it. And yes, many Virtual Learning Environments were initially too difficult to use effectively and became repositories for web links and teacher-generated content. Yet we can now see that the problems they sought to solve – facilitating collaboration and bridging the gap between home and school learning – are being addressed by other tools. These innovations, while perhaps not transforming education, have facilitated incremental improvements. Responsibility for revolutionising education, however, cannot be borne by a box of microchips and lines of computer code - that responsibility rests with teachers.



Works cited:

BBC, 2015. US schools seek refund over $1.3bn iPad project. BBC News.

Bloom, B., 1981. All our children learning: a primer for parents, teachers, and other educators, McGraw-Hill.

Falloon, G., 2013. Young students using iPads: App design and content influences on their learning pathways. Computers & Education, 68, pp.505–521.

Garner, Gartner Hype Cycle: Interpreting Technology Hype. Available at: http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp# [Accessed March 20, 2016].

Jagger, P., 2012. BBC Micro: Past, Present and Future? ITNOW, 57(2), pp.44–47.

Laurillard, D., 2008a. Inaugural Professorial Lecture. Digital technologies and their role in achieving our educational ambitions. Inaugural Professorial Lecture. Available at: http://www.lkl.ac.uk/cms/files/jce/presentations/laurillard-inaugural-20080226.ppt [Accessed March 1, 2016].

Laurillard, D., 2008b. Open teaching: The key to sustainable and effective open education. In Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, pp. 319–335.

Laurillard, D., 2012. Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology [Kindle Edition], New York & Abingdon: Routledge.

Maddux, C., 1986. The Educational Computing Backlash: Can the Swing of the Pendulum be Halted? Computers in the Schools: Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, and Applied Research, 3(2), pp.27–30.

Maddux, C. & Cummings, R., 2004. Fad, Fashion, and the Weak Role of Theory and Research in Information Technology in Education. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 12, pp.511–533.

Selwyn, N., 2010. Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age: A Critical Analysis, Routledge.

Zevenbergen, R. & Lerman, S., 2008. Learning environments using interactive whiteboards: New learning spaces or reproduction of old technologies? Mathematics Education Research Journal, 20(1), pp.108–126.