iPads in Education: Why iPad?

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There have been lots of interesting stories in the news recently about various iPad deployments in education, some good, some bad. Earlier this year our school made a carefully considered decision to deploy iPads to each student on a one to one basis and we are currently in the second phase of our roll out. This article will explore why we chose iPad.

When we were first considering this decision around three years ago, the iPad was in it’s infancy, with a few schools like Cedars in Scotland, leading the way with iPad deployment. At the time, the discussion was not iPad, but how do we get an educationally sound and practical computing device into the hands of our learners? We started off on a trial basis with three sets of iPads which could be booked out on an individual, per lesson basis. It’s fair to say that this, although not a failure, wasn’t exactly successful. The problem was that computers (I’m using this as an umbrella term here) are a personal device on the whole, and making the iPad a multi user device did not work well. Students couldn’t save their work without enormous faff, there was no access to email or calendars. Teachers and students ended up getting frustrated with the experience as they would have an hour with the iPad and had to return it at the end of the lesson. It was great for accessing the web, but that was about it.

This drove us to the conclusion that to increase access to a computer for our school community, we really needed something that was a personal, one to one device. At that time, around 2 years ago, nothing practical existed. Netbooks were pretty useless and underpowered and took an age to boot up, laptops were the same, and too big for our students to carry around and at the time, iPads were beyond what was economically viable for us. When we heard about the Kindle Fire, this began to be more like what we wanted, but then we found it was too locked into Amazon’s ecosystem to be useful. We had a trial with Nexus 7s, which were an excellent device, but at the time there were serious questions about the policing of the Google Play store and the scarcity of educational apps available. There is also the issue of malware on Android, which if you are a savvy enough user doesn’t present too many issues, but in the hands of 1200 school children and teachers, we couldn’t be sure that our school community would stay malware free.

Apple announce the iPad Mini
Apple announce the iPad Mini

In October 2012, Apple announced the iPad Mini and we had a careful look at this device. The overarching question was would it enhance the educational experience and would it be educationally transformative enough to warrant purchasing? By this time, the global (but not necessarily local) iPad educational community was growing quickly. Deploying iPads would allow our teachers and students to collaborate with other schools around the world on how to enhance teaching and learning as we all had the same device. Secondly, the Apple educational ecosystem was significantly richer than other rivals. The App Store has a wealth of amazing educational apps, whilst iTunes U, complete with it’s course creation tools is an enticing proposition. On a more practical level, Apple’s iOS has a very shallow learning curve. Like any institution, a school has people with a variety of different abilities and confidence when it comes to computers. Add to the mix that some staff feel the need to know “everything” before they can use a device like an iPad in the classroom and you have a situation where you need a device that is easy to pick up and run with.

The iPad Mini ticked many of the boxes educationally for us. As a device it’s form factor was small enough to be ultra portable for school, and also for school trips. It has instant on, which coming from the netbook days which often took 10 minutes to boot up, was a revelation. I’m not bashing Windows here, because Windows is excellent at what it does, but in a dynamic environment like a classroom, we needed a device which would allow instant switching between apps and instant on, and also minimal problems with support. Other factors like the Volume Purchase Program, device management tools and more recently free iWork and iLife really pushes the iPad to be, for us anyway, the device that would give us the most educational benefit.

We ran a one to one trial for a year and a half in our school before deciding that the iPad Mini would be the device that we would roll out to the whole school community. Interestingly, as expected, there were pockets of resistance initially from a minority of staff and students, but as the trial wore on we saw some amazing things. Firstly, teachers who initially were resistant and who had never used any kind of technology in their lessons previously were becoming trail blazers and specialists with certain apps, and became empowered by the fact that they became the ‘go to’ person in their department. Secondly, students discovered more effective ways to work which could be shared with each other and their teachers. This has led to partnerships where our teachers are very open to their students deciding the ways in which they can work. Students now use the iPad to tailor how they want to work; some work entirely on the iPad, some continue on paper and use the iPad to augment their studies. Teachers made use of the personal nature of the device and started realising that learning didn’t have to end when their students left the building as screen casting apps (see the video above for an example), or personalised iTunes U courses would allow them to bring their lessons home. I’m not saying our initial trial iPad roll out wasn’t without issues. We learned that certain students needed to be carefully monitored in their use of the iPad, which you would expect when dealing with school children, but on the whole we could see some significant benefits that no other device could give us.

My personal opinion is that some iPad deployments have failed because the device has been imposed on educational institutions without much thought going into why. You can’t expect a school to use them effectively if a load of iPads have just been dumped on them as I think has been the case with some roll outs. Personal computing, by it’s nature, will be different for each institution. Some schools may be a good fit with iPads, some maybe with Chromebooks, some with Windows based devices.

I am sure of one thing however. The iPad is currently the best device for us, and for what we are trying to achieve educationally. We are in a fortunate minority of schools which have been able to supply a personal computing device to their students. At this stage, I remain convinced that eventually, a personal computer for every student in all schools will be the norm, and I also know through talking to various people in business, from the top to the bottom, they are extremely positive that we are going down this route with our students. They believe that exposure to personal and cloud computing in schools will help give them the skills for flexible, global working once our students enter the job market. Finally, no device is a substitute for good creative teaching, and you certainly can’t find that in the App Store.

If you’ve got to the end of this article, firstly, well done, secondly, if you want to see how we are using iPads in our school from phase one of our roll out, please click here.

James Potter

My day job is Director of Technology at one of the UK's leading independent schools. I'm on a daily mission to use, and learn to use technology in the most creative, innovative and transformational ways. The iPad ticks all of these boxes. I'm also an Apple Distinguished Educator, so at least Apple think I know what I'm blathering on about. My geekery also extends to a passion for cricket, amateur astronomy, video gaming and bad guitar playing. You can contact me on Twitter with the link below.

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