Leviathan's iPod

by Chris Adamson

Would you want your tax dollars going to buy someone else's kid an iPod? I sure don't.


Mike Abdullah
2007-04-11 08:27:44
Hear hear
2007-04-11 08:34:53
"As an Apple fan, I like to see Apple succeeding financially and selling lots of stuff. But ... I hate to see tax money ... spent on utterly stupid ideas ..."

Of course. Let Apple succeed on its own merits not on the back of someone's spending money that doesn't belong to them as an election strategy.

David Battino
2007-04-11 09:02:58
Chris, you're of course completely right about the inappropriate use of funds. But one thing I've noticed, having volunteered every week in the local elementary school for the past five years, is that effective computer use requires adult supervision.

We've had some breakthrough tech moments over the years. In a 1st-grade class, I typed a story the kids had co-written into Tex-Edit Plus and played it back with the speech synthesizer set to highlight each word. The students were delighted to see that they were already better readers than the computer.

Later, I brought in a sampler, recorded the kids' voices, and played up and down the keyboard to illustrate the relationship between pitch and time. I'm told quite a few kids went home that day and asked their parents to buy them musical instruments.

In 3rd grade, we used iPhoto to make personal movies out of images and songs the kids brought in, learning about photo composition, tempo syncronization, and editing. At the end of the year, several students cited that project as their favorite experience of the year.

In 4th grade, we made PowerPoint presentations. I used the opportunity to teach communication rather than technology. It was neat to see the students initially make the same mistakes as adults (emphasizing medium over message), but then realize how to improve.

In 5th grade, we did more advanced photo editing, web page creation, and animation; the kids helped each other as they needed to implement new techniques to achieve their vision.

You'll notice that 2nd grade was missing. The teacher that year used the computers only to teach typing skills, which didn't capture anyone's imagination.

2007-04-11 09:35:29
"I hate to see tax money stolen from private citizens and spent on utterly stupid ideas, like buying high-tech toys for students, based on some exceptionally dubious claims about their use for education"

Boy, you're worried about people buying torches, and here you are doing the inflaming. :) The question of technology's efficacy in education is not at all the sort of dubious fiasco you're painting it as. Nor are "for school" and "fun" mutually exclusive.

However, it sounds as if you've made up your mind, as a passage like this goes to show:

"...there is little research supporting the idea that high-tech improves learning, and the empirical counter-argument that after throwing computers at schools for upwards of 20 years, the US education system has little to show for it."

How you use "empirical" in a fallacy-fest like the rest of the sentence is just silly. You're not really trying to suggest the tools and techniques used in 1987 (not to mention that little thing called the Internet arising in the interim) have anything to do with 2007's? Throwing computers at schools also sounds dangerous.

Computers are tools, not Magic Learning Machines (TM), and as David Battino points out in another comment, they are best used under proper support and supervision. Same thing could be said for textbooks, gym equipment, and VCRs. (Or administrative budgets, for that matter.) If you don't bother training teachers in their use, and keep them updated and secure, of course they won't help.

Computers have the potential to profoundly transform learning for the better. Go have a read of some of the new thinking being done about their use in education. Marc Prensky would be a start.

Saddling the conversation with phrases like "stolen taxpayer money", "political edu-gimmickry" and the rest is doing both the discussion and students a disservice. And, no, one fiasco does not ample evidence make.

Jacob Rus
2007-04-11 09:43:07
Would you want your tax dollars going to buy someone else's kid a chest full of shrapnel? I sure don't.

How about we fund education, healthcare, and public transportation instead of spending trillions of dollars on high-tech killing machines. An iPod for every kid in the US is certainly a better use of taxpayer money than a land mine for every kid in Afghanistan (though iPods for students seems pretty stupid to me).

Bill Miller
2007-04-11 09:46:22
Oh, please. Others have already pointed out the problems with your flamebait post, so let me just say that if you truly believe this, I'll expect to never see another article from you again. That's right, unplug yourself from the Internet. It, too, was created with "stolen taxpayer money."

Clearly a better use of Michigan's money would be to buy Zune's for every student, right? Don't kid yourself that Microsoft (and others) aren't in this hunt, too.

Jacob Rus
2007-04-11 09:58:00
In case it wasn't obvious, my above comment is mostly a joke at the absurdity of the post. Not that it wouldn't be bad to reduce rampant military spending...
2007-04-11 10:28:18
Not to mention the IT support at most schools is a joke! And the amount of $$ spent on that joke isn't funny. Plus, teachers are largely IT illiterate and can't use the machines to teach anything.
2007-04-11 11:22:03
I'll resist the usual ad-hominem about libertarians not thinking things through to their logical conclusion and point out that Steve Jobs has been completely consistent on this issue from the early 1980's forward: he's always wanted to put more computers in schools. That's the biggest reason why Apple led in the education market during the 80's, and why I grew up on Apple IIe's and II+'s.

I think Jacob has a point, though. We spend more each day in Iraq than we spend in a year on public education in the US. Thanks to Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and, most of all, Shrub. (I understand well the stakes in Iraq: if we don't fail there, Halliburton might not be obscenely profitable through engorging itself on taxpayer money!)

2007-04-11 12:39:43
What kind of Libertarian are you? I thought you'd be all for Capitalism and Free Markets and would cheer for Apple's effort in securing the sale of its products to as many school boards as possible, without any concern for the merits of the enterprise in question. Get your priorities straight.
2007-04-11 12:43:22
Well, well, well. More Communism in action. The Communists who have infiltrated our school systems are deliberately dumbing down our kids so that America will lose her technological, and especially industrial leadership. These communists think if they can get kids listening to music and wasting their time instead of studying we can dumb down America. What's even worse, they are using our tax money to kill us. Wake up America. Turn off your entertainment and get your vigilance back. There are communists everywhere in America - our schools, universities, and our corporations. They are destroying us from within. Communism is not dead, it's merely changed it approach. You, Chris, are one of the few to recognize that something's wrong here - now we just need to make people aware of WHY it's happening.
2007-04-11 12:54:15
Yeah, I agree. I don't think kids should learn about computers in school. At least not in a hands-on way. I say show them some pictures of old PCs, and tell them to use their imaginations.
Chris Adamson
2007-04-11 13:03:26
Hi all, thanks for reading and commenting.

Jacob and Chris: True enough, but beyond the scope of this blog.

tntsipr and Lee: My in-laws are retired Michigan teachers. They saw the failures of previous attempts at putting computers in schools first-hand, and still complain bitterly about them

Bill: Of course Microsoft (and Dell, and others) are in this game, for the same reasons as Apple. That doesn't make it any more palatable.

Rick: Not a free market when we're talking about public money. Also, with Michigan running a $686 million dollar budget shortfall with six months left in its fiscal year, there's a very real chance that budget cuts could remove teachers at the same time these iPods are being funded. Public or private, that's crazy.

Mike: Implicit <sarcasm> tags?

2007-04-11 13:43:53
I was probably the first generation to have a massive school district computer buy... Circa ~1980-81 New Castle School District (Wilmington DE) brought literally 1000s of Apple IIe computers (remember, this is back in the era of typing on manual typewriters was offered as an elective pass/fail credit)

My education probably suffered for it... but not for the reasons you might think. The first and most important issue was that of teachers who did not know how to integrate the computer into the learning process as a tool to use to get something done. Up to that point, all that was available was a Dec teletype and acoustic coupler avaiable to a hand picked group of student for a class that allowed them learn "mainframe programming"... individual computers... floppy disk drives... color displays... interperted basic shells from which programs could be typed directly into the comptuer without having to "run a deck"??? It took at least two years before teachers really understood what the hell was happening.

Still, early exposure to "modern" computing equipment made concepts like disk i/o, witing/loading/running programs and making data available for automated computing devices provided me with the lingua franca that sent me down a completely different path in life. Keep in mind that like most school districts of the era, the education process was designed to pander to parents egos (in my case that meant a college preparatory, science/chemistry heavy curriculum (nothing wrong with that, but I did NOT want to be an analytical chemist like dear old dad). Sorry, DuPont... I was able to escape your rat race.

I think you may be a little off the mark on the iPod, though. Two reasons:

1 - iPods are the new meta-textbook: just look at how many educational entities are putting their content on-line. You can even publish at no cost and with very little effort using iTunes. Name one other player manufacturer that offers that service:


2 - iPods are the common ground where generations can meet. It houses teens sweet tunes/videos and now it can also hold their homework, lecture notes, semester schedules, etc.

Vendor neutral is great, but the kids will figure that on their own (hell, they probably already know it); it's the teachers that need an easy off-the-shelf solution.

If your kid's teachers don't each have a class web site with an RSS feed from which you can ascertain the day's homework assignment, you've probably got a dead-tree teacher living in non-internet time. I hear some schools even still teach typing too... Lancaster Country, that would be.

I don't suspect that you're an old fogie who "just doesn't get it", but on the other hand, if you can't understand why the iPod is the least effort platform that is "ready now", then I don't really know what to say.

2007-04-11 14:44:39
Michigan's budget crisis has been going on for years now and has everything to do with unemployment, not iPods. Trying to make a connection between iPods or technology and teachers losing their jobs is a sound bite, not an argument.
2007-04-11 18:59:00
Huh? Our tax dollars already fund buying computers for other people's kids so why not iPods? They're great for school! Sure, you can listen to music on them but you can also listen to lectures, audiobooks, and store homework and text files for moving between home and school. Heck, iPods can take the place of textbooks.
2007-04-11 20:24:29
What about the potential of the Internet as an incredibly large library? As a research tool for teachers and students? What about computers as a textbook replacement? A way to reduce dependency on paper (yes, paperless office hasn't happened, but instead of 25-35 expensive paper copies per resource . . . every student has a computer)? How about a way to help students better understand computers? Drill software (it does have its uses despite some wacky opinions to the contrary)? Student and adult presentations? Publishing? Mathematical modeling (Macs come with a cool 3d graphing calculator app)? Database applications?

Now, I'm not so sure about giving iPods to all MI students right now. Michigan is suffering. The schools are reeling with mid-year cuts. Maybe it's a even a mistake to give every single student a computer. But to say that there's no empirical evidence of benefit of computers in the classroom . . . We don't have enough empirical evidence to make LOTS of decisions.

Based on my 12 years of teaching (TeacherBot!), I'd have to say you're nuts. Sorry. I think there are too many people who think, "They're taking MY MONEY!" "To spend on SCHOOLS!" "Those kids DON'T DESERVE IT." "NEITHER DO THOSE DAMN TEACHERS! June, July, August my @$$" "Computers COST A LOT OF MONEY." "MY MONEY" "A stone age education WORKED FOR ME." "They DON'T DESERVE BETTER."

2007-04-11 20:46:26
Oops! Teacherbot's clumsy caveman fingers hit the wrong key and posted too early. Sorry about the caps but I get worked up when I think about the amazingly flawed primate thinking. I'm all in favor of spending taxpayer money wisely (and LESS), but don't cripple the schools.

One last point. In Michigan our state test is interesting. We call it the "politically acceptable failure rate." The cut-off points for the various levels are set by looking at various data points around the state. So, if Detroit does too well, the bar is raised. If West Bloomfield doesn't do well enough, the bar is lowered. Conspiracy? No. Fact. It means that if the state public schools were to improve overall, it wouldn't necessarily be reflected in the tests. Right. Does that seem fair to you? Also, every blessed year since I began administering the MEAP, the tests have changed. The state compares schools' scores year to year, but the TESTS CHANGE!

For example, the lanugage arts tests are VASTLY different now compared to, say, 1990. Reading selections on the tests are significantly longer than the ones from the early 1980s. On the latest test there were THREE stories, compared to two on the previous year's. What does that say about reading level? The fifth grade reading test in 1985 was MUCH LESS SOPHISTICATED and shorter than the 2006 version. Insane. Effectively, "fifth grade reading level" is not higher than that of twenty or thirty years ago. I suspect the vocabulary and sentence complexity is also more sophisticated though I don't have the evidence to support it.

I digress (ad nauseum, sorry). But can you say for certain that schools haven't improved in the last 20 years based on what I've described? Do you think Michigan is the only state whose testing is so incredibly sloppy and unfair?

Think again.


Kevin S.
2007-04-11 20:51:58
I teach English as a foreign language to college sophomores. I use a computer in the classroom in almost every class I teach. I use Excel to keep track of student's attendance and grades, I use PowerPoint to help make instructions more clear so that students have a reference to exactly what I want them to do, I use OmniOutliner to plan and execute my lessons, I use VLC and QuickTime to show audio and video clips, I use TextWrangler to write and Word to format quizzes and exams, I assign students to download MP3 files for listening practice, I send out class-wide notices via email and research topics and questions online; in essence, the computer is a very useful tool for me in my teaching.

I agree that tax dollars should not be spent towards technologies that have no proven benefit in the classroom, and were I a public school administrator or school board member I would probably not budget a large amount of money towards computers to put in the hands of teachers who are not at all tech savvy and would probably not know how to effectively incorporate a computer into their teaching.

However, as for myself, I use and rely heavily on my computer for my teaching, and in order to get the most out of it I need the classroom to be equipped with a projector that provides good contrast, brightness and sharp focus; a screen large enough so that the students sitting in the back of the classroom can clearly read what is on the screen; lighting that I can easily control via a panel to adjust for when the projector is or isn't in use; and some speakers with audio clear and strong enough that students sitting anywhere in the classroom can easily and clearly hear whatever audio is coming through them.

Could I teach effectively without these things? Yes, but I would have to spend more time doing grunt work and as a result would have less time to plan effective lessons and to give individual attention to my students. For me, the computer is not so much a learning aid for my students, as a time saving and productivity enhancing tool for myself.

2007-04-11 20:53:48

"Essentially, fifth grade reading level (for example) _IS_ now higher (or harder) than it was twenty, thirty years ago." Does that seem appropriate?? Why aren't reading levels set in stone as much as possible based on standard metrics??


2007-04-12 04:57:01
after throwing computers at schools for upwards of 20 years, the US education system has little to show for it

You mean except for producing a substantial and disproportionate portion of all the worlds technological innovators over the last 20 years?

In light of the fact that you're willing to deny that technology can aid education, I can understand why you'd be against this. But if you open your mind for a little bit and lay off the rhetoric, spending this money to try this out doesn't seem like all that bad an idea. If it had been a hand-held cassette recorder, would you be as up-in-arms about it? I know a lot of college students who used those "back in the day" to good effect.

2007-04-12 07:07:20
When one of the largest problems facing public schools today and for the past 20 years is the incredibly high student to teacher ratio, I don't understand why there is even a discussion of experimentally trying technology like IPods. How about we use our budget on reducing that ratio, and then worry about trying new things out.
Chris Adamson
2007-04-12 12:44:57
The sponsors now say no iPods for students, and that was never their plan in the first place. They've also reimbursed Apple for their travel costs. So, the issue is now moot.

2007-04-15 09:08:14
Computers in schools are a great idea as long as they are used properly. Don't use one scandal as a strawman to attack using computers effectively. They are not a panacea, but I'd rather have my daughter's homework shown on a locked video iPod than have her read some very badly written text books.
2007-04-15 15:54:35
It's a difficult one, in that Dell, et al, are equally in the game. I think the problem actually stems from the movement of computer purchasing away from the department, to the school, and eventually district level, such that the deals are in the millions. Back in the 80s, I remember schools having a huge variety of machines in different departments, but then - of course - came the idea of standardising systems and 'computer labs' that would be borrowed by subjects.

My view : Push the control back to the schools and teachers. My father's been doing innovative things with computers in Art since the 80s - he's a big Mac user these days - but he has an interest in it. In contrast he sees the media department don't use the Macs they've been donated at all (so the art class are using FCP and Motion, and watching Keynote presentations on artists, while the film students watch TV).

My former wife is a language teacher and she's also very good at using the Internet with her kids - instead of out-of-date textbooks you can present them with something real in the target language - she even bought her own DVD player, as many European region DVDs are multi-language, which has been a revolution (show the kids a popular film or cartoon in French). The thing she wants is proper pan-national TV streaming. So there's a lot of ways technology can be used in education.

But I do agree with your overall sentiment that the vast majority of computers for schools spending has been wasteful. It's not stemmed from teachers making use of, and requesting more, computers. Even where it is used in interesting ways, it's not clear what the overall educational benefit really is (other than the ability to use MS Word). I learnt my research skills in the days before the Internet, and marvellous as the Internet is, it is rather more like reading Pass Notes, than wading through a couple of opposing critical texts.

And for the record, my politics are more on the Left than the Right - I'm all for tax-and-spend - but that doesn't mean I want to see wasteful spending. I've no particular objection to public money being spent of goods from private companies either (they should, in theory, be more competitive than public sector or nationalised providers). But I do think the current system makes the stakes large enough to encourage near corruption, that wouldn't happen is the school staff were made responsible for purchasing again.

And yes, there's an argument that some schools would spend the money on salaries or books, hence ring-fencing a technology budget - but there's your whole argument in a nutshell - if you can't convince a school that computers are going to enable them to do a better job and save money, then they may be right to ignore them (the argument that it will put kids behind is a little circular. They will be behind in knowing computers).

Michael Natale
2007-04-16 05:45:46
Amen to this article.

iPod's for students?!?! Huh??? A bit WTF to the suits in Michigan who thought that was a good idea.

Why not take that money and pour it into actual improvements in the education system itself?

I weep for the future...