In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s an iconic scene in which a group of apes become alarmed at the sudden appearance of a black monolith in their presence.  Most of the apes anxiously shriek and circle the monolith, but one among them makes furtive attempts to touch it.  Soon, several apes are huddled around the base of the ominous object, curiously exploring its sharp contours with their hands.

Oddly enough, this scene approximately parallels the public’s reception of the iPad in 2010.  When it appeared in stores (after first being paraded about on a stage by the turtlenecked prophet) most people thought that it was simply a big iPhone.  Sure, there were the early adopters who saw its potential from the moment of its release, but most people remained comfortably asleep to its promise.

The iPad

Fastforward to 2012 and we have entire school districts investing in the iPad and its ecosystem of apps and digital textbooks.  Somewhere along the line the iPad reached a tipping point, and many of us progressed in rapid order from drowsy apathy, to alarmed confusion, to eager exploration.  We have become the curious crowd of apes, all peering down into our mini-monoliths, trying to decipher what they mean.

The tech evangelists (of which I consider myself to be a pseudo-member) will tell you that the iPad is the next big step in a evolution of information communications technologies that will eventually completely revolutionize the classroom, business, and human relations.  The mediating factor in all types of interaction will be technological in nature, screened in appearance, wireless in function, and touch-sensitive in interface.

Using the iPad in education is an intuitive choice, and the reasoning behind it–while lacking some empirical data–appears above reproach.  Anything that increases connectivity, inspires creativity/collaboration, and is conveniently portable seems like a win-win in the classroom.  Add to this the fact that the iPad is THE platform for software innovation (millions of apps served daily), and you’re talking about a seriously powerful tool–not simply a gimmick.  The argument that the iPad is a passing fad seems increasingly less legitimate.

As a user of an iPad for over a year, I can tell you that it is an invaluable teaching tool.  In my student teaching, I’d use a host of apps to enliven my curriculum.  Flipboard (a magazine style rss app) was helpful to me in discovering articles that I could use as supplemental readings.  The Blogger app allowed me to keep my class blog updated while on the go.  Feedler (a more standard rss app) allowed me to see which of my students had updated their blogs and when.  I even used the T-Pain app to autotune a few of Shakespeare’s soliloquies.

For students, however, I’m a bit more skeptical of the iPad’s educational potential.  While flipping through articles on Flipboard, checking my email (and Facebook), and reading an ebook version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, it suddenly dawned on me that this divergent, super-connected, swipe-tap-and-it’s-there style of reading is where learning is headed.  I was reminded of Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.  In his book, Birkerts contrasts the deep, almost meditative style of reading that one experiences with a book to the schizophrenic, hyperlinked skimming style of reading that one experiences when reading online.  He offers an artful–if a bit alarmist–defense of the printed page as being the medium through which deeply linear thought can progress.

The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

In this, I tend to agree with Birkerts.  Books are sometimes plodding, time-intensive, and tragically narrow in their focus.  But they also don’t offer the potential for distraction that an iPad does.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interrupted my reading groove on the iPad to check my email or Facebook.  Oddly enough, the iPad’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: by being able to do practically anything, it makes it hard for its users to do just one thing.

The iPad excels as a tool of discovery, creation, and connectivity.  It fails as a tool that encourages deep absorption of material.  The overuse of the iPad in education risks turning our students into recognizers of information, not learners of knowledge–excellent navigators but poor tour guides.  I am not so naive as to think that we can stop the transition from book culture to screen culture.  I only hope that we realize what we’re giving up when we set down our books and pick up our iPads.