iPads in Education: Grading what’s working and what’s not

Nov 19, 2010

A view from the trenches… We excitedly began our iPad pilot program almost a month ago. In the interest of fair disclosure let me state from the outset that I’m an advocate of mobile learning devices, especially when combined with integrated eBooks. It was that enthusiasm that prompted me to push for a pilot iPad […]

A view from the trenches… We excitedly began our iPad pilot program almost a month ago. In the interest of fair disclosure let me state from the outset that I’m an advocate of mobile learning devices, especially when combined with integrated eBooks. It was that enthusiasm that prompted me to push for a pilot iPad program at our high school.

The educator in me has been drilled to constantly seek assessment and grading opportunities. I’ll probably feel the urge to grade this blog entry before I’m done. So, one month seems like an appropriate time to evaluate the progress of our program and hand out some grades and feedback. To be fair, we’re not operating under optimal conditions. We only had sufficient budget for one classroom of iPads. This puts us in the position of having to rotate our high school students – and four participating teachers – into and out of the “iPad room” every lesson. The students do not have their own dedicated iPads to use all day and that causes significant problems. Does that sound like an excuse? OK, I’ve heard too many “the dog ate my homework” excuses in my day to start by offering one of my own. Agreed – let’s begin grading.

1. What’s working?

The iPad is just an expensive, oversized iPhone. Grade A+

Many accuse the iPad of being an expensive, oversized iPhone. One comedian quipped that they are virtually the same device – neither one can make a phone call. However, at the risk of employing a cheap and overused cliche, size does matter. There are many wonderful ways to use an iPhone in education but the increased screen space of the iPad allows for more detailed interactions and reading or viewing anything on the iPad is a pleasure. For production purposes, it’s not nearly as comfortable typing a long document on an iPad as it might be on a laptop but it’s certainly more than possible. I’m typing this blog entry on my iPad. I wouldn’t consider typing it on an iPhone.

Start up time. Grade A+

As a teacher you have precious little class time to meet your increasing academic demands and standards. The last thing you need is five minutes wasted every lesson waiting for students to open laptops and log-in or shut down. Not so on the iPad. Simply flip it open, press the power button and presto – you’re up and running. It works within your available time schedule and not vice versa. Ubiquitous computing here we come. Wonderful.

Storage and portability. Grade A+

The iPads are small and very easy to store between lessons. There are vendors, including Apple, that sell you storage carts and it’s a worthwhile investment if you have the available budget. We actually use an old laptop cart which takes up more space in the room than needed.

Battery life. Grade A+

The battery life on the iPad is fantastic. Store and charge them overnight and you won’t need to charge them again during the school day. No need to deal with messy power cords or visits to the emergency room with the kid (or teacher) that just tripped over one. Seriously, startup time and battery life are two mega-major benefits of the iPad. I’m a teacher and I get to make up words like mega-major.

Email. Grade A+

Simple to set up and very quick to access, read and respond. Another major plus for the iPad. I now look at the email on my iPhone with complete disdain. It’s so 2009…

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Workflow – distributing and accessing content. Grade B

Whether you are distributing a PDF document or streaming video, assuming you have an online storage mechanism it’s a fairly simple process to put content online and make it accessible to students. Having said that, the workflow involved in moving your own content between applications and on or off the iPad can still be a little cumbersome. I use DropBox and it’s a fairly satisfactory solution in most cases. Workflow however is a vital component of production in any business or educational institution and Apple will need to make it more intuitive for the iPad to be adopted on a more serious level (assuming that’s their goal, and some would argue that it isn’t). Can anyone spell “USB?” I know many of Apple’s competitors can.

Multimedia. Grade A

Whether you’re watching video on YouTube, or catching up on the latest episode of Dexter (the serial killer not the kid with the laboratory), the iPad is fast and the picture is very clear and sharp when watching video. The same applies to audio and of course you have access to vast amounts of podcasts through apps such as iTunes and iTunes U.

2. What’s not working

Aren’t we always told to share? Grade F

I have to confess a mea culpa on this point. iPads are designed to be personal devices and are not intended to be shared. Personal preferences, passwords, documents and files are all stored for a presumed single iPad user. There’s no login and no simple way to accommodate changes in users. We knew this going in, but simply didn’t have the budget to purchase an iPad for every student. The only tenable long term method for using iPads extensively in a school environment is to ensure you have one for the exclusive use of each student.

eBooks, iBooks… whatever. Grade C+

One of the most important factors in our decision to adopt iPads was the potential of using eBooks. The eBook revolution is definitely on the way but it’s not quite here yet. Publishers are looking to protect their traditional turf for as long as possible. Too many of the books that we wanted to use are either not available yet, or available as simple PDF documents. The common misconception is that an eBook is a “digital book.” That’s only a small first step in the transformation. The eBook revolution will really take off when publishers start producing “interactive digital books” – when they test and provide feedback or even better, when they analyze the learning needs of the reader and redirect or adapt accordingly. The concept is great and the revolution has started. Check back in two years.

User control and management. Grade F

Are you a control freak? If so, stay far away from using iPads in class. There’s no practical and comprehensive method to monitor and control student use. To be clear, you can block access to the iTunes store and you can use Parental Controls to block some access and content. However, beyond that, you’re pretty much on your own. You need to use trust or stick with laptops. Whether student control is required or not is a topic for another day, but be fully aware that you have to throw caution to the wind if you plan on using iPads in class. I was demonstrating how to use iPads in one teacher’s class on the very first day and explaining that students shouldn’t mess with the setup when right in front of me – first row, two feet away(!) – one student is already scrawling something in a paint program and changing it to their background.

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Creating documents. Grade C+

The initial evaluation of the iPad when it first came out was that it was fantastic for media consumption but not really a serious production device. In many respects that still holds true. There are several areas in which the iPad falls short as a production device:

  • Workflow: I discussed some of the workflow challenges in the section above.
  • Keyboard: Leaps and bounds ahead of the iPhone, but that on-screen keyboard is still not really suited to my fat old 20th century fingers. Great for emails and short documents but don’t use it for long papers. Apple tries to compensate by auto-correcting as you type… mostly works but there’s the all too frequent occasion that you shoot off an email only to later realize that auto-correct changed it to look like you were communicating in Serbo-Croation. Of course, just as I am trying to type “keyboard” right now, auto-correct changes it to “kiss board.”
  • Word processor: Never one to miss an opportunity to sell its own products, Apple tries to make an additional $10 by pushing you to buy Pages for the iPad. Pages is an adequate word processor at best, but I would have preferred Word or Google Docs (which is coming soon).

Where’s the Flash Steve? Is there a grade lower than an F?

I know it must be difficult dealing with the pressure of constantly needing to innnovate… but you don’t always need to reinvent the wheel in order to succeed. HTML 5 promises to be a great step forward when ready for mass consumption. For now however, Flash works. More to the point, everyone uses it! Apple’s decision not to support Flash on the iPad sacrifices its own consumers in favor of their pursuit of a business rivalry with Adobe. It’s that sort of arrogant near-sightedness that has brought down many companies in the technology industry and you can be sure that Apple’s competitors are jumping at the opportunity to fill the void they left. As an educator, I constantly access many popular Internet destinations that require Flash. There are numerous sites we’d love students to use in class but they simply don’t work on the iPad. Very, very disappointing.

3. What’s still in process?

  • Google Docs: Apparently on the way in the next few weeks, this will be an important step forward for Google Apps’ large user-base.
  • Multi-tasking: Already available on the iPhone, this is another enhancement that should be available in the coming weeks. There were a few times I needed a thesaurus while writing this blog but didn’t want to close out my writing app in order to open the thesaurus. Multi-tasking would fix that.
  • Competition: There are several competitive devices that have either just come out or are on the way. Companies such as Samsung, Dell and HP will provide alternatives that seek to take advantage of existing weaknesses in iPad technology. This will only strengthen product offerings in the marketplace and help solidify mobile tablet computing as a leading trend in educational and business computing.

This blog post originally appeared on iPads in Education and has been reprinted with author’s permission. You can follow Sam on Twitter: @samgliksman.

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Sam Gliksman

Sam Gliksman has been leading technology applications in business and education for over 25 years. Today he splits his time between being the Director of Educational Technology at a prominent Los Angeles High School and working as an independent educational technology consultant. He also writes online columns for several publications and websites and speaks to parent and teacher groups about technology and its impact on the future of education.

Sam believes that the magic of technology lies in its ability to connect and empower people. He trusts that educational institutions can re-envision their roles  in order to remain relevant in the ever changing landscape of life in the 21st century.

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