January 05, 2011

iPad for Learning for All the Wrong Reasons

In Long Island administrators are seeking to reduce textbook costs by replacing their purchase of paper with the iPad, reports the New York Times. Perhaps some quick maths with the iPad's oversized calculator would have shown the folly of justifying a luxury personal slate on cost grounds.

Update: This post now generating some conversation on The Huffington Post, too.

At an outlay of $56,250 for 70 iPads with textbook savings coming in at $7,200 a year, the idea is that the purchase pays for itself in just under eight years. By this time, the technology will be out of date and the students will be graduating from University.

Crucially, the applications that are really required to revolutionalise learning have a) yet to be built, b) will be designed by professional learning companies, who will c) charge healthy sums for them. Whose iTunes account on the student iPads will pay for this? A modest $2.99 education app for each of four school terms, for every student in a trial comes to around half the annual textbook costs.

It's not just on dubious cost grounds alone, of course, that the justification is being made. Teachers love the iPad, they say, because it allows them to move learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Teacher Larry Reiff now publishes all his lessons online.

But this isn't thanks to the iPad.

This is thanks to the internet, and millions of educators already publish their courses online through learning environments or their personal sites. You don't need an iPad per se to do this, you need any device, including the much cheaper and more likely student-owned smartphones that, increasingly every holiday season, we see our youngsters hiding at the bottom of their school bags.

Where the iPad - or any light weight slate such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab - can make a difference is opening up the web to those working in schools who are on the move. Principals, teachers making classroom observations and students out doing fieldwork may find them hitting a spot that laptops (with their slow startup times and clamshell) and smartphones (whose screens are a little to small to permit long-form typing or writing) fail to.

I liked Chris Lehmann's instinct to use his (personal) iPad and a Google Form to provide instant feedback on classroom observations as he does his rounds at Philladelphia's Science Leadership Academy.

I admire the work that Steve Beard and colleagues in Shropshire, England, have done to get students designing their own iOS (the operating system for iPhones and iPads) applications, and then testing them out for real. This is the kind of cross-curricular learning that cannot happen in any other way than through the requisite hardware.

But spending $750 to only harness the free apps limits the use of any device. You need to have significant budget to invest in the high quality learning apps that exist and will exist in the future, and a clear means of getting those funds to students. The iPad is not any old computing device - it's a personal computing device. The most disheartening practice I've seen is a return to the computing lab, something we realised a long time ago is not an effective means to integrate technology into learning:

Pinnacle Peak School in Scottsdale, Ariz., converted an empty classroom into a lab with 36 iPads — named the iMaginarium — that has become the centerpiece of the school because, as the principal put it, “of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids.”

You cannot get the most out of an iPad without letting the student own it, and harness their personal accounts, tastes and media for some creative learning. Putting it in a lab like this takes away from the iPads principle boon: it helps us move further away from the office metaphor of learning and into new, personalised, anytime anywhere learning metaphors.

The iPad itself is a great device - I love mine and it's changed the nature of computing on our couch. It is the ultimate in personal computing; it is not, as my wife and I have discovered, very good at being a shareable device despite the efforts of crack designers BERG London to make it a non-personal computer. It has helped me read more in a casual manner (rather than feeling I have to carve out a time, place and tome to 'get some reading done'), and this would be a welcome side-effect in any schooling environment. The collaborative annotation of literature has been eye-opening and allowed me to understand some texts I've read before in a new light.

But educators should not get confused between what the iPad offers and what it represents might offer us. Jump on the personal computing bandwagon pronto, for sure. The educational benefits are there (despite what the NYT might claim) and the iPad is still the most beautiful, most appealing and most app-laden device to try it out with.

Some of those experimentations are about the right size - a few classes or a whole small school filling up their boots with iPads makes sense, provided some sturdy action research is taking place alongside. They should learn from those who've been there already, such as Ian Stuart and the students of Islay High School who've been using Ultra Mobile (personal) computers for the past few years with interesting results.

Above all, they should use the internet (through their iPad or maybe just on a plain old PC) to share what they get up to, the impact it really has and, if it has no impact at all, or if the impact is proving hard to decipher, they should let us know that, too. And we can do that without the New York Times.

Pic from, of course, the New York Times.


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Excellent points. What the Long Island plan lacks, as with many (if not most) student device experiments is vision. It is a classic example of a program implemented as an extension of existing practice and, like other similar ideas before it, is doomed to failure. A carefully planned and thoughtfully executed program, however, has the power to transform the learning environment through new opportunities and the personalization of learning. We've seen much success (and have the research to prove it) with such a program here in California. For details independent evaluation by university researchers, see http://goo.gl/psuy9

That said, I'm not so sure that the iPad is the right device, which I believe is what you too are trying to say. While it is an excellent, personal tool, it seems to me that the costs are far too high and management in a classroom environment is untenable, making any sort if large scale iPad implementation impractical and unsustainable. Perhaps in the future, if the device loses its tether to a desktop machine (and better yet, its mothership), it will make more sense. But, as of right now, it seems to me that netbooks with open-source operating systems give you the battery life, screen size, and instant-on you suggest only a tablet offers, at a far lower cost and in a more flexible, manageable package.

Essentially, what I think we are both pushing for is a device as reliable as a cell phone, but with all the right inputs and outputs for creative expression, all in a package that is both practical and manageable. For more of my thoughts on netbooks and open-source (and those of a number of ed tech leaders here in the U.S.), see http://goo.gl/7fW3

Hear, Hear!

It is not the device. It is the Internet a community consuming, creating, and curating. Connecting students to that is key. I care not if it is an iPad, Android, or some toaster you modified to run Linux.(The iPad is an excellent device and seems to be hitting people just right for reading and note taking. Of course other tablets will as well.)

We should not be concerned about the cost or lighter backpacks, but that the learning experience is enriched by enabling students to have access. With that said, if return on investment or cost saving is a Trojan horse to help some grasp an urgency to make this happen all the better for the students.

Spot on analysis, Ewan.

The example from New York is a clear case of thinking about the urgency of having something cool and putting aside the important aspect of learning. It assumes one will follow from the other, which is does not.

Content providers are not there yet in taking advantage of the design (I know, as I have done some work with some and they don't get it yet) but they will. Once that happens, the device will become more useful.

We are using iPods at the school and they are very useful - I Can Animate, eClicker, Skype, video recording and even using it as a mobile language lab. I iPad will mature but it needs to have cameras for it to be really useful in a classroom context.

I received a grant for a class set of iPods this year for my 5th graders. They have them at school, they have them at home and they travel with them. They are as valuable as their pencil. I believe strongly that the guidelines need to be set up between the school, home and student. I had a meeting with all my parents and everyone understands the guidelines. If interested I started my own blog about my classroom experiences.

I thought my blog address would appear in my post.

I had a conversation where a proposal was made to provide all students in the school with an iPad. It didn't happen, and I suspect the main reason was money.

I agree with you, I love my iPad. However, the cost of the particular iPad device is very expensive, and Apple do not tend to reduce their prices very much. As in the phone sector, I am looking forward to more mature offerings from rivals, mainly using the Google Android OS, to bring competition to the field.

I have no doubts over whether tablet based devices will play a vital role in education and business going forward, particularly with screen sharing software on flat screen panels or projectors. I still think it is early days, but we all need to be preparing for what we do with this technology.

I'm not sure that Ipod is much better than notebook.

I have been working with several schools who have thought about having class sets of iPads in the future. I have managed to direct them away from this 1-1 computing idea and to consider purchasing a limited variety of equipment with the view of students being able to work collaboratively with a choice of devices. iPads are wonderful devices but they are still limited in some areas. Students have better learning opportunities if they are able to make choices about which equipment they need to use to give them the best results for what they are doing.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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