The iPad – What it should and shouldn’t be for Education

This blog originally started as a reflection journal as I begun a pilot program for using iPads at my school. My early posts ( check January and February posts ) were discussions of the pros and cons of iPads. As the year has gone by and I have more time to research, read other iPad articles and experiment more with apps and with the students using them more frequently, I’ve had time to reflect on what iPads are offering schools. I’m not going to debate what model of iPad program to commit to – 1:1 or shared. I’m simply going to concentrate on what I think schools should consider before committing to iPads at all.

What you should use iPads for in schools

Multimedia content creation
I am so sick of the tech press misrepresenting the iPad purely as a content consumption device and complaining that it is not for content creation. I think they confuse content creation with publishing their articles with a traditional keyboard. On the contrary, the main reason schools should invest in iPads IS Content Creation. I’m not talking about Word or PowerPoint documents. That’s 20th century publishing that was meant for office workers and businessmen in the first place, not school kids.

What the iPad offers to children is the ability to capture, develop and publish their learning in the creative, engaging, multimedia way they experience the world. Traditional keyboard/writing based computing held back younger students and limited older ones. Now they can take pictures, record their voices (VoiceThread,GarageBand), create videos and slideshows(iMovie, SonicPics), annotate diagrams (Skitch), explain and record their learning in screencasts (Explain Everything, Doceri, Showme), use animated puppets to tell stories (Sock Puppets, Toontastic), create comic strips or whole comic books ( Comic Life, Strip Designer) combine text,freehand drawing and pictures in mind maps (Popplet, iMindmap) and publish interactive, multimedia books that others can read on their iPads (BookCreator,Creative Book Builder). All from the one device without having to connect any other tech up with wires and search for the files. The iPad is the ultimate one stop shop for student content creation that goes well beyond what they were capable of achieving easily just a couple of years ago. The beauty of all these apps is that they are multipurpose apps. They can be used in all curriculum areas and their uses are only limited by your or your student imagination. A Word Document could only do so much. Multimedia apps can allow for so much more scope for learning.

Portable, anywhere, interactive collaborative learning
The beauty of the iPad is its portability and use anywhere capability. Desktops anchor you to a desk and isolate you from a group. Laptops are still too cumbersome to carry around and the built in cameras and microphones are too restrictive. The iPad frees you up to use it anywhere any time. On a field trip/excursion? Take the iPad along with you and do all your work live and instantly. Take pictures and record a commentary for an instant report. Record footage of your physical activity in PE classes and play back for instant feedback on your performance, in slow motion with iMotion HD. Create a documentary on the spot with the video camera and iMovie. With wifi available, report live from an event with FaceTime or Skype. The physical makeup of the iPad makes for a more social sharing environment that isn’t as easy or effective in a lab of desktops or the one way screens of laptops. The tactile nature of the touchscreen brings students together and the multimedia capabilities can be shared by a group.

Social, interactive Reading the “digital literacy way”
One of the best activities on an iPad is reading, but not in the traditional sense. If you just want to read, get a book from the library – it’s cheaper. Reading on a iPad is a much richer experience and can enhance the educational experience in schools. Reading in iBooks allows you to highlight passages and record annotated notes which are then stored and organized in a dedicated bookmarked section and look up definitions without flicking through a dictionary. Using PDF annotation apps you can do limitless note taking without running out of space on the page.

While you can do the same on a traditional computing device, the use of social bookmarking tools and curation website bookmarklets make collaborative reading a far easier proposition, simply because of the book like experience sitting with an iPad gives you. Having students sitting in a group using Diigo’s shared annotation tools allows for both real conversation and tech based note sharing that can be referred to later. It also allows for collaboration with students outside the group which widens the community of learners you can work with. Individually, finding sites to share with others and then posting them on Scoop-it, Diigo, Edmodo, sharing via Twitter or other social media sites via bookmarklets, share buttons or through apps like Zite and Flipboard just seems more natural on a touchscreen tablet rather than on a mouse driven computer.


Check out my other posts on Writing, Maths and Literacy ( in the Categories section on the right) for my other uses for iPads – I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Suffice to say, the iPad has the potential to change the way we learn and teach if we take the time to research and investigate what others are doing. I have curated a wealth of resources for you to use on my Scoopit page linked at the top of my blog page as well as in my Diigo Bookmarks under the iPad tag also accessible above.

The iPad, however, is not perfect by any means and does have limitations to consider. There are some things it can’t do at all and many things that are best done on other devices. Read on for what they shouldn’t be used for in schools.

What you shouldn’t use iPads for in schools

This list is more about poor decision making about getting iPads rather than the iPad’s lack of ability to manage the task. It’s also more applicable to a school setting ( i use my iPad for a lot of things completely un-school related, which shouldn’t be a factor for getting them for school) and why you are choosing iPads over other computing options. If it can’t do the task as effectively as a “computer”, if it isn’t going to be an improvement and make a profound change to how you use tech in education, if it isn’t going to be any different to what you are already doing with desktop or laptop computers, then consider whether the iPad is really what you want.

Traditional word processing
Don’t get me wrong. I use my iPad for about 90% of the word processing I do. Most of this blog has been published using my iPad. Having said that, if you’re going to jump on the bandwagon and buy iPads and then complain about not having Microsoft Office on it, or that Pages messes up the formatting of the Word Document you just imported or you don’t like the touchscreen keyboard for typing, you haven’t thought about why you want iPads. If all your students do with tech at school is publish stories and reports in Word, then you will find your iPads being underutilized.

Replacing books just for reading or lightening the load in your students’ backpacks.
Personally, I read a lot on my iPad. But, as I outlined in the “What you should use iPads for in Schools” section of this post, I don’t just read with my iPad. Once again, it is a wasted opportunity for changing the way you foster learning in your school if your main reason for buying iPads is to replace books/textbooks with ebooks and PDF scans of textbooks. This does not enhance learning. This does not change the way you teach. Just reading books on an iPad makes no difference to education. It may be advertised to consumers as a great e-reader, and as a way of carrying around a truckload of books to read on a vacation it’s great, but if schools are going to invest vast amounts of money on iPads only to fill them up with ebook versions of novels or PDF copies of chapters from their Maths text books so our children can prop them up on a table while they complete Exercise 7A of the Quadratic Equations Chapter in their exercise books, we’ve missed the point.

If you have invested a lot of time, effort and money in Web 2.0 tools or educational management systems.
While there is much press about the demise of Flash support for mobile devices ( Android included ) and the rise of HTML5 sites, the vast majority of educational sites on the Internet are Flash or Java based. While many are free, educational versions of these sites usually cost a fair investment to use with large numbers of children. iPads don’t support these tools well. Yes, there are workaround solution in the form of dedicated iPad browsers like Puffin and Photon that use server based connections to provide useable Flash experience on iPads, but they are serviceable at best and inadequate or unusable at worst. While I have no experience of it, Moodle is widely used in schools as well and does not play well with iPads. Interactive whiteboard software like Promethean’s Activinspire doesn’t have an iPad version so you can’t create or edit flip charts on iPads with their software. So if your school has invested heavily in Web 2.0 tool licenses, Moodle like systems or have spent the last 5 years training you to make interactive whiteboard flip charts, consider the wisdom of moving to an iPad only set up.

Are you a Google Apps for Education school?
This is open for debate as I have visited schools that are 1:1 iPad schools who use Google Apps. From my experience, the user experience is not good enough. Maybe for word processing it’s functional but the Google spreadsheet experience is woefully inadequate on the iPad. If you have made a big investment in Google Apps, I’d stick with netbooks/laptops.

Website design/blog management
Web site building tools on the web like Weebly or Wix are useable and most of the publishing work of blogs can be done on an iPad. However,if you have an ICT course that is heavily involved in website building or you need to edit graphic elements or widget components of blogs, iPads don’t handle the task completely and you’ll need to stick with traditional computing.

Dedicated specialist software compatibility
Without listing them, there is obviously a huge range of software for specific purposes that aren’t supported and are unlikely to ever be supported on the iPad. While it may seem bleeding obvious, schools need to take this into account before dedicating their entire budget to a 1:1 iPad program.

Final thoughts
I started the year thinking the iPad was the one stop solution. I’ve come to believe now that a multi device option is preferable. 1:1 iPads would be great in an ideal world but the financial reality for school with substantial investments in other tech already doesn’t make it practical for a complete change. My school already has a lot of laptops and desktops in use. They are used for many valid purposes such as those listed above. It’s not reasonable to think we would replace all our resources with just iPads when there are good things already being done with them. So we are going down the horses for courses route. More iPads are likely to be purchased next year and used for all he great multimedia purposes outlined. Web tools, research, Flash and Java Ed sites, word processing, blogging, compatibility issues will continue to be addressed with our computers. I’m starting to think it’s the best of both worlds.

But what do you think? Have I under or oversold the iPad? Are there compelling reasons for iPads in education I’ve left out ? Are there other reasons for not committing to them? Share your thoughts. This is far from an exhaustive post. Join the conversation.