A New Tool in the Classroom Grabs the Spotlight

It's easy to figure out why a 13-year-old's eyes would light up if you give her an iPad. Think of all the possibilities: YouTube! Movies! Music! Angry Birds!

But what about algebra? Would she be as excited about learning the quadratic equation just because it's presented on a shiny tablet? Turns out that -- at least for the first few months of the class -- it does significantly boost the kid's interest in the subject.

One of the country's biggest textbook publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is banking on it. In my interview this week with John Sipe, HMH senior vice president and national sales manager, a few theories about the company's Fuse pilot program are coming into focus.

1) Convenience is crucial. A 300-page textbook is replaced by a 10-inch tall, 1.5-pound sleek tablet that features all the same content, plus interactive tests, writing pad, calculator, hundreds of videos, and access to a world of information. "With a textbook, if you want to learn more about one of the examples, you have to stop looking in your book and go online to our website and navigate that particular section and view our video there. Instead, on the iPad, you simply click on 'view video' and up comes our professor, Dr. Edward Burger," Sipe said.

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2) Kids still need their teacher. In the eight-grade classroom I visited today at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, the teacher played an integral role in the classroom. She asked the class questions, had students come up to the board to solve equations, and worked alongside them as they watched videos. As Sipe put it: "Let students cover the basics on their own, and let teachers delve into enrichment and individualized learning. That’s what the good teachers are telling me."

3) Learning happens outside the class. Whether they're working out algebra problems on their iPad or watching a video tutorial on the Khan Academy website, or trying new math apps on their own at home, mobile devices are making it possible and irrefutably convenient and easy to learn anywhere, anytime. And kids are taking advantage of it. The one who figures out how to get the best content to learners will be the winner in this rapidly changing world.

4) Kids love learning by watching videos. With one-touch access to a video of an instructor explaining a problem, students are able to absorb the information in one more way, in addition to listening to their teacher or working out a problem on their own. And that seems to really help their learning process.

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Next week, I'll report back on my visit to one of the pilot classrooms.

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