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The Invisible iPad: It's Not About the Device

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By Michael Cohen

Since the launch of the iPad in 2010, we have seen a revolutionary transformation in how we create, consume, and communicate. Whether the iPad is an authentic educational tool is not relevant, because it’s not about the iPad.

Is the automobile an authentic education tool? What about the refrigerator? Revolutionary inventions are not about the invention itself, but what the invention gives use the ability to do. A truly revolutionary invention should, in time, become invisible. No longer is it viewed as something special, yet its effects are far reaching. The lightbulb changed the way the world functioned. The world was no longer bound to productivity during daylight, or the length of time it takes your oil lamp to burn up. It was about what you would be able to do because now there was a constant and stable source of light.

While the iPad does a little more than a lightbulb, its success in eduction is based on the principle that the iPad does the same for learners as the lightbulb: It liberates us from the limitations of creative tools, the challenges of access to quality content, as well as our source of inspiration, and innovation being based on geographic location.

But in conversations around learning, the iPad needs to be invisible because we're searching for something deeper than a manipulative touch screen device. We are looking to start a conversation, create a personal expression, and to fashion a brick in a collaborative digital structure.


The iPad isn't a great way to take a test, or read a book, or even create a movie. For progressive educators, it isn’t enough to change how we use the iPad, but why we use the iPad -- or any other device for that matter.

We use technology to liberate ourselves from mundane robotic tasks that lack any sort of creative drive or purpose. A robot can memorize 100 vocabulary words. The question is now, what do we do with those words? Do we use them for creative expression, or do we let them collect dust in the deep recesses of our brain? Technology is not here to make us lazy, or to avoid basic communication skills, but it is here to make us think critically, solve problems, collaborate, communicate, create, and ideate. Unfortunately, these words have far surpassed cliché status in education, as if they are the key to tagging successful learning outcomes, but the truth is that when the iPad is invisible, you really get to see those words in action. As long as our focus is on learning outcomes and the experience it brings.


The idea of invisible technology is powerful. Its practical application for educators can be challenging, frustrating, and fill even the most confident learning facilitator with doubt. Invisible technology empowers its user to be independent, collaborative, and truly upend learning. How do we measure its success? Is there a definitive technology yardstick to build confidence not only in the student, but in the teacher as well? What are our goals and skills we wish our students to acquire, develop, and reflect upon? If our goal is to create an army of app-savvy iPad aficionados then we have utterly failed.

We are not trying to create students that successfully use technology, because they don’t actually need us for that. We have seen the viral videos of toddlers successfully executing in-app purchases on their favorite game, and their digital literacy skills will only increase with their exposure to new technologies.

Yossie Frankel stated it simply: We cannot confuse digital literacy with 21st century competencies. If we do, we rob our students of what we really can offer them, which is the ability to communicate, think critically, collaborate, solve problems, and create dynamic ways of internalizing information and sharing it with others. This is what our place is in learning. Yes, we will need to support them with certain technology skill-building, such as keyboarding skills, app fluency, best practices of sharing and storing, and the certain nuances of utilizing technology tools, but this isn't a class or a workshop. Students don’t need theoretical workshops, they want hands-on action with a purpose.

When we teach learners to effectively and properly use traditional tools, our reason is not for the tool itself but for what we are able to achieve. No one gets excited over using a welder, but its ability to connect difference pieces together to create something unique and useful from raw material is where its value as a tool really shines. Our challenge with technology like the iPad is that it has so many different abilities, that the user is faced with a real dilemma of losing sight of what the tool accomplishes, for the experience of using the tool.

Before we even begin to think about how and where we place the iPad in our learning process, we have to nail down our goals, possible challenges, and the planned path of process. If we reach a point during the project and hit a road block, we can become flustered if we do not have even a rough outline to backtrack to a clear point of success. This all starts with identifying which skills we will need to use. In elementary and middle school, these skills need to be clear and simple so students know that right now they are “collaborating” or “problem solving.” We can expect these skills to be subconscious as adults, but this is not realistic for most students below or even at high school level.

Once our skill sets are assessed, we then can use these skills in our project-based learning experiences. Bloom’s Taxonomy, ISTE 21st Century Standards, and the UNESCO Competency  Framework are all great sources to teach these foundational skills.

The challenge for educators, especially directors of educational technology, is not to limit how our teachers teach, but to focus on the foundational skills and provide a clear and concrete formula for how different technological devices and applications will enhance these skills in order to give a learner the ability to create a product that will change the world.


Michael Cohen will be presenting on Invisible Technology at the July 28-30 EdTechTeacher Summit in Chicago.

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