When I first applied for my current position as an Academic Trainer and Consultant with Pearson eCollege, I considered doing the interview-presentation we require of all applicants on the iPad’s use in education. At the time, the first iPad was newly released, or fairly newly released, and it was being touted all over the Internet as a “game changer” for education. The primary idea was that it was supposed to replace textbooks and provide (college) students with one device that would serve as notebook, textbook, and laptop. In exploratory fashion, I ventured into the Apple store and played a bit with a display iPad; one of the Apple “Geniuses” spoke with me about its uses in the classroom, including how easily students could go back and forth from textbook to taking notes.
“Can they do both simultaneously?” I asked. “Can they have the book and the notes app open at the same time?”
“No,” she replied. “But it’s so easy to get out of one app and into another, so it’s almost the same as doing both simultaneously.”
“So, they can annotate their textbooks? Write notes as they read in the text itself?” I asked.
“Uh, no, but there’s a notepad on every iPad, so they’d just have to close their textbook and open the notepad. The textbook will automatically be bookmarked so they don’t lose their place.”
“Hmm,” I replied. “Is there a wide variety of textbooks available in electronic form through iBooks?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “Tons. There’s really not a discipline in which we don’t have electronic textbooks already available through iBooks.”
I opened the iBooks app and did a few searches for textbooks in my discipline—I started first with literature anthologies. There were none. I decided that was perhaps not a fair test—maybe literature anthologies are not technically classified as textbooks?—and searched for some fairly common writing textbooks. Nothing.
“Well, thank you for your help,” I said, and walked out of the store.
I decided after this experience that the iPad was not quite a game-changer in education, at least not in terms of its ability to replace textbook, notebook, and computer, particularly for higher education. There were and still are too many things it doesn’t do—word processing being foremost among those. I know there are workarounds, but there’s not a way to get the most functional and common word processing program onto an iPad. An inability to view Flash content on the iPad is another commonly remarked limitation. However, after receiving an iPad for my birthday in November, I’ve revised my opinion. I think the iPad might be a game-changer for education, but in ways other than I imagined back in April of 2010.
The iPad has become one of the most popular items in our house and is particularly beloved by my eight year-old daughter. I downloaded a number of math and spelling apps for her, and she still—two months later, a long time for an eight year-old to play with anything—plays with these apps almost every night. Her favorite, SplashMath, is really genius—it teaches math concepts rather than rote memorization, but it also rewards the kids with an aquarium, and once they pass a certain number of questions correctly, they earn animals to put in their aquarium. Crabs are the first level; you get quite a few crabs, and the children can go into the aquarium and make the crabs dance, learn about real crabs, and find out about their crabs’ personality (I think the crabs are generally happy—they definitely dance quite a bit). The next level is clown fish (they’re grumpy), then squid, and then, the Holy Grail of the aquarium, angel fish. The fish in the aquarium interact with each other—for instance, the squid’s ink will stun the angel fish, so you have to feed the angel fish to revive it, but you must get more math questions right to earn food. This is probably my daughter’s favorite app. The questions are not too basic or too hard, and they teach her actual concepts, so it’s been a really worthwhile download.
Around the same time that we got the iPad, my daughter’s third-grade teacher sent home a packet of information about various websites the elementary school now had accounts with. One, for example, is a website where the teacher had set up accounts for each student with their “word work” pre-loaded. The website will test each child on spelling and using the words in a sentence. The word work is unique for each child based on his or her language proficiency and fluency, so each student must login to the teacher’s account and find his or her name, which will then reveal the lists. There are quizzes/games that the students can play with their word lists as well. Another website, this time one devoted to reading, allows the teacher to create an account and then select e-books for each individual child based on that child’s reading level. This website required me to download the Photon browser app to the iPad so we could view the Flash content on the page, but it still works very well. My daughter can choose whether or not to read the books on her own or, alternatively, select an option to have the computer read the book to her. If she reads it on her own, difficult or important words will be linked so she can click on them and hear them pronounced and defined. Finally, the instructor had created a Google account where the students can upload PowerPoint slides with notes on a current research project. My daughter uses the iPad to work with all of these websites.
The best part of using the iPad for elementary education is its lightness and ease of use for children. It is extremely simple to operate; the interactivity of the screen—the swiping, the pinching, and the tapping—all make it a really intuitive device for children. (Not that most children today find technology at all complicated—my daughter was Googling with no help on how to do so by the time she was 6.) I have less anxiety when she uses the iPad than I do when she picks up my laptop to use, which inevitably results in a sticky trackpad but also a panicky call for help—“Mommy! The screen is totally black and I can’t make it go back!” It’s also lighter than a laptop, so she’s usually snugged up on her beanbag chair with the iPad while she uses it.
My colleague, Rob Kadel, blogged in September about why the iPad didn’t work for his fully online teaching (you can read his blog here). I agree with his comments in that blog. For fully online teaching, there’s no practical way to use an iPad unless you collect no papers that have to be graded and returned and don’t need to actually build your online course (or make changes to your already-built online course). There’s no full integration with Microsoft Office, and, as I mentioned above, if the iPad is really going to be game-changing for higher ed students, there simply must be. However, I have found the iPad to be fun, if not wholly game-changing, in terms of how I teach in the face-to-face classroom.
I began teaching a writing course on-ground in January. Before the first class, I went to Best Buy and purchased an adaptor so that I could project what was on my iPad using an overhead projector (much to the consternation of the sales clerk, who could not for the life of him understand why you’d want to project from an iPad). I also took the entirely text-based notes I use for lecturing in that class and, from them, built a Prezi (www.prezi.com). Then I downloaded the Prezi app for iPad, and voila—there were all my Prezis on the iPad. In the classroom, I was able to project my Prezi; I use it as a kind of visual aid, something to help those students who are visual learners rather than aural learners. It’s not really a “lecture” or a “presentation” of content in the strictest sense of the word—I just use the Prezi as a way to initiate a series of mini-discussions with the class about various topics. I’ve found that it works extremely well. The students really appreciate having the added cue of the words on the screen as I am talking (usually just two or three words at a time—keywords, in a sense), and they’ve asked me to make the Prezis available in our online course shell for them to revisit.
But bringing the iPad to class each time I teach has enabled me to offer my students more, to really enrich the course materials in a way that, if my experience can be described as representative, is still not common in many on-ground classrooms. Rather than writing URLs on the board when I want to point them towards a helpful resource, I can just browse to it on the iPad. Rather than telling them to Google something to find out about it, we can do it together as a class and discuss the accuracy and credibility of the results. If I want to talk about resources for conducting research on their papers, I can browse to the library’s website and show them the databases I’m talking about as well as how they work. I can use one student’s topic for the purposes of demonstration, and we can engage in a discussion about search strategies, Boolean logic, and keywords. Before using the iPad, I would usually just describe what I was talking about as fully as possible and then jot down, on the board, the steps they needed to take to do whatever it was. The iPad enables me to demonstrate and make the class more “active,” if that’s the right word. In that sense, it’s been a great addition to my on-ground teaching.
Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant