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globe magazine | Perspective

iPads in the classroom

Boston College High School teacher Ron Fletcher reflects on how mandatory tablets are affecting students.

John Jay Cabuay

NEOPHILIA. WHEN MY BOSTON COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMEN encounter this or any other unfamiliar word while reading on their iPads, they need only touch the screen for a nanosecond before Wiktionary flashes a definition: “love of novelty.” The confusion lifts and they move forward, unburdened of a trip to the dictionary and seemingly one word richer. The experience feels like learning. Asked about the word the next day, though, “neophilia” strikes them as novel. They tap their iPads, again.

This year, BC High required all students in grades seven through 10 to buy an iPad, which we’ve chosen as an alternative to textbooks — those threats to spine, wallets, and trees whose demise only the strictest Luddites would lament. But as I consider my iPadded freshmen, the questions proliferate: Isn’t the high-tech world for which we attempt to prepare them awaiting an adept Web navigator, capable of plucking answers from the tangled Net? Or should the student command a body of knowledge and understanding that’s not device-dependent? Should his mind contain a well-stocked internal hard drive, or should he keep his head in The Cloud?

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After 20 years of largely tech-free instruction, it’s sobering to look up and see 25 young men seated before tablets that present themselves as both tool and toy. Yesterday’s notebook doodlers and daydreamers have more temptations than ever. A window open to the Oxford English Dictionary is only one swipe away from apps such as Angry Birds and Fart For Free.

While I can marvel at the thrill of visiting a world-class museum a continent away or enlarging helixes of DNA with a reverse pinch, I worry that plunging into the “screen culture” students inhabit night and day leaves them stranded on the surface of these moments. “Meeting them on their own terms” has placed us on the slippery slope of “edutainment,” where stimulation trumps the stillness needed to move from observation to understanding. Habituated to the pace and pizazz of surfing and multi-tasking, students, by their own admission, struggle with the sort of patience and perseverance needed to wrestle for long, quiet stretches with challenging work.

And yet here’s the early surprise for me in this time of change: The digital natives are not as restless as administrators and some teachers had assumed. Many students want to step away from the glow of the LCD portal. They welcome a separation between work and play. As the novelty of their devices subsides, some of my students have admitted a preference for pages they can turn, margins they can annotate, even books they can drop.

My seniors, many of whom own iPads but haven’t been required by the school to buy them, wonder whether the underclassmen are hiding behind the devices to avoid the awkwardness of a solitary moment. They recall the difficulty and necessity of risking a hello to a new classmate. The librarians speak of an eerie silence in the morning: the usual pre-school banter silenced by students descending into a rectangular world.

Our school’s prohibition of all electronic devices during lunch helps to restore some balance. Likewise, my colleagues’ commitment to declamation, recitation, and conversation in class creates a new significance and challenge for the texting and Tweeting generation. Still, given a chance, most students dive into their private digital worlds.

You don’t have to teach at a Jesuit school to see the classroom as sacred: a haven from the online world that — to bend a phrase from T.S. Eliot — distracts us from distraction with distraction. Students need a place to “uni-task.” iPads, alas, do not signal a “revolution in education” for me. There are no good apps for curiosity, reflection, patience, or skepticism.

I believe the culinary world’s response to fast food has foreshadowed the next movement in education: slow learning. 

Ron Fletcher teaches English at Boston College High School. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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