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.

The Invisible iPad: It’s Not About the Device 6 May,2014MindShift

  • deserteacher

    I agree. Education, that is learning, uses tools–from reeds and papyrus to the pencil to the iPad. These tools just serve the marvelous minds of the learner.

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  • “We are not trying to create students that successfully use technology, because they don’t actually need us for that. ”

    I agree with most of this article but this bit is dead wrong. The myth of the digital native has been disproven many times, there are many things an educator needs to do, and showing students how to successfully use technology is one of them. Do not neglect this part of your responsibilty to your students just because you saw a YouTube video of a baby swiping at an iPad screen.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Maybe we can find a middle ground between dead wrong, and slightly on to something. My point was that students do not need as much support in the “how to”, as much as the “why to, where to, and when to”. Technology does not teach students how to be thoughtful, creative, passionate individuals, that is our job. Technology is just the vehicle to express it. After I watched a 4th grader train a 3rd grader to use Explain Everything, I realized that our students are much more capable then we give them credit for.

      • As I said before I agree with much of the article including your reply “. Technology does not teach students how to be thoughtful, creative, passionate individuals, that is our job. Technology is just the vehicle to express it.”

        However, watching a 4th grader train a 3rd grader isn’t research, it’s anecdotal evidence. As an educator it is dangerous to assume that because one student knows something, or seems to know something, that we no longer need to offer instruction on it. Imagine all the things we could stop teaching! The idea of the digital native is dangerous. It encourages teachers to believe they no longer need to teach tech skills and harms students when teachers mistakenly believe they already know everything about technology.

        • I appreciate your insight. This is only the beginning of the conversation. I do not advocate handing students a device with a “Good Luck, let me know when you are ready to learn with this” attitude, but I think that sometimes educators tend to think students are helpless without them. In my experience I have found that allowing for structured “self discovery” will indicate very quickly what students are capable of achieving. I do believe that all devices need training. The question is how much, and how often? Thanks again for sharing your ideas.

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  • Marc Garneau

    I enjoyed the philosophy of this article, and I’d like to suggest that you edit out the typos to help it stand on its own with no scrutiny of the grammar. The naysayers and negative nellies will pick on the mistakes as evidence that tech is a distraction and not integral to quality education.

    Nice article.

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  • Wayne Campbell

    I get this philosophy, I do, but I somewhat disagree. It should (ALSO) be more about the device then it is. When I was coming up, we learned about computers. We were given opportunities to learn programing languages and was taught binary and hex math. We learned WHY and how things worked and THAT taught us critical thinking and complex logical thinking skills. The problem is, if anything even smacks of being vocational is derided by educators.

    • Dvora Kravitz

      We also have the trend to include coding in curriculum instruction. This is a useful tool for teaching problem solving and logical thinking skills, as well as tools for using tech.

  • Christopher Chiang

    To me, the iPad is to create things. My fear with the statement: “The Invisible iPad” is that in too many classrooms it is indeed invisible in that teachers continue to teach as they had before, focusing on digital notetaking and digital worksheets, missing out on the potential of certain apps to transform students into self-driven creators.

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  • George Viebranz

    This is a part of my life I have loved. I first programmed a computer in a math class in 1967, so I’m an older guy 😉 I telecommuted between two universities in 1973 using a rubber-cupped acoustic modem (I think it was a lightning-fast 300 bauds), I was part of what was believed to be the first Internet speed test for educators – an email relay race around the world through Case Western Reserve University, helped repair and ship refurbished computers through Finland to schools in Russia after the Berlin Wall came down, programmed a 3D rendering of a cube on a Cray supercomputer on a Friday and got my product on Monday, and first experienced the World Wide Web on a Lynx “browser” that returned a primitive HTML code from various URLs, but no graphics. But I digress and feel old….Anyway, I have always felt that the way to see if technology is making a difference in learning is to ask the students, while they are engaged in a task, “What are you doing?” If they mention the content or product and they don’t mention the technology, then it has become a transparent tool. Too many times we get enamored with how fancy the “chalkboard” is, but we really need to focus on what teachers and students are doing with the (digital?) chalk, and how it is making learning possible in ways that were not available prior to the introduction of the technology. If you can find it, read “Teachers and Machines” by Larry Cuban. It is a great piece from the middle 1980s on the evolution of educational technology, going all the way back to the first uses of educational radio. My favorite picture from that book is the “Aerial Geography Lesson” from the 1930s in which students were taken above the landscape of their state in a passenger plane to learn geography – from a teacher standing at the front of the cabin pointing at a small globe. Not one student face was looking out a window at the real geography.
    Now THAT was innovative!

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  • Sholom

    In working with kids and digital tools for 3 decades now, I know that what you say should be 100% true but we are, sadly, not there, yet. Our kids may be ‘digital natives’ but they often act like tourists fumbling their way about. Once they are more familiar with the territory they want to live in, they can begin to use the tools in the ‘invisible’ way. The best work I’ve seen students produce, the best learning they’ve accomplished, has not happened until the tool became very close to invisible. It can take a long time for invisibility.
    BTW, this is not going to change much until our teachers have been able to fully integrate digital tools into their practice. That is taking much longer than we hoped but it is happening

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