The Riddle Of Meaningful iPad Integration

The Riddle Of Meaningful iPad Integration

by Noah Kravitz


In lieu of being incredible pieces of hardware with significant learning potential, iPad adoption has produced uneven learning results thus far. In some cases, they enchant learners and encourage practice, creativity, and collaboration, while in other settings they offer up a drudgery and mediocrity of their own to deepen existing excesses of each. The question is, why?

Where’s the tether?

This is series is the result of a collaboration between The Tabula Project and TeachThought in pursuit of better learning results with the iPad. In it, we will explore the day to day challenges educators face in integrating iPads into classrooms from a “workflow” perspective, and propose some solutions to achieve

The Problem

What do educators and learners need from tablet computing?

What are the pain points in early adopter tablet programs, and what does tablet-centric workflow look like for K-12 teachers and students right now?

What is tablet “workflow” in an educational context, anyway?

Tablets can do many things, but a good solution can only solve for so many problems at once. So in the name of leveraging technology to support good teaching, let’s define a wish list for tablet computing in K-12 environments. We’ll start with the concept of workflow.

My last teaching job ended seven years ago. I worked at a K-8 school in Oakland, CA, where I served as half of a two-person computer department, teaching classes out of a lab, running tech support, and working with other teachers and faculty on what we then called “classroom tech integration.” Home base for me was the Mac lab, which  consisted of 27 eMacs, each of which weighed roughly the same as 35 current-generation iPads! Our eMacs ran the then-current version of Apple’s OS X, including Apple Remote Desktop and other sys-admin tools.

The software enabled remote tech support but we also leveraged it for instructional purposes: Screen Sharing was used for live demos pushed out to student screens, SysAdmin messaging enabled tweet-length strategic hints and nudges to get a student back on task, and remote screen lock was a last resort for when my sixth graders’ wills outmatched my own classroom management skills.

The networking features built into OS X also allowed us to create individual student accounts on the school server, which made it easy for students to keep track of their own work, and for teachers and administrators to access files on a class-by-class or individual student basis. Windows, Linux and other desktop platforms, of course, also allow for this sort of user organization. So long as the server was up and running (ahem) and students remembered their passwords, tasks like keeping tabs on whose files belonged to who and distributing resources to an entire class or grade at a time were easy. Directories and files could be accessed from the handful of workstations scattered across classrooms on campus as well from in the lab. Many schools employed conceptually similar setups back then, and likely continue to today.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Tabula Project was borne out of a simple premise: Tablet computers hold enormous potential as lower-cost, touch-friendly alternatives to desktop/laptops in schools, but they lack the local networking tools that we’d leveraged so effectively for instructional purposes back in 2005. If we could create tools to help teachers wrangle 30 iPads or Nexus 7s at a time, let alone supplement those basic management features with tools to support teaching, we might be onto something.

Or would we?

A Problem Made Worse

From the get-go, we focused on getting tablets to talk to each other in a local network (classroom) situation.  We wanted to support real-time instructional practices with features like “virtual walkthrough” to let teachers check in on student progress from afar – ideal for “blended learning” or small group situations;  a clicker-style app to take the class’ pulse mid-activity to help determine the best use of remaining instructional time, and; a lightweight authoring environment to allow teachers to string activities and resources together to support individualized learning using tablets.

Already we’d gotten too complex.

Once I started describing our ideas to educators, I quickly became familiar with a certain refrain: “Workflow! Do something about iPad workflow!” Teachers seemed at least somewhat interested in tools to manage communications and learning interactions on tablets, but they had a more pressing problem in need of solving: It’s just difficult to distribute, collect, and assess student work when iPads are involved.

Forget coding apps and remixing videos: These folks are saying that it’s too hard for a kid to write a paper on an iPad and hand it in (unless they go the old fashioned route and print the thing out). Some quick research confirmed that iPad using educators beyond my immediate circle shared the frustrations: Google Drive (nay Google Docs) doesn’t work quite right on iPad; Dropbox and other cloud services aren’t educator friendly and remain difficult to configure; What the heck is “WebDAV,” anyway?.

iPads weren’t designed to support multiple users and network accounts. iPads – and the myriad Android tablets following in Apple’s wake – were designed as single user devices that rely on cloud services for everything from app and content downloads to system updates. Native document handling in iOS means cloud syncing, Emailing/messaging, or printing, and not saving to a network directory configured by your school’s sys admin – let alone one that shows up as “Nate D” nicely tucked away in a folder labeled “Geology 9B.”

The Challenge of Workflow

Six classes of thirty students each emailing individual assignments to one teacher is not a workflow solution – not when old-fashioned laptops offer a better way.

So how to get around the basic problem of tablet workflow, aka “How do I hand my homework in?” There are some crude solutions. Many of the educators I’ve talked with have at least tried eBackpack, a sort of middleware layer that tries to bridge the gap between “teacher friendly” and webDAV.

Others limit their tablet use to walled garden apps that either support easy to use but limited workflow (Nearpod is an example), or simply don’t use the devices for creating anything that’s meant to be assessed or preserved.

But there’s got to be a better way.

In the next segment of this series, we’ll explore the criteria we can reasonably expect any “solution” to have, and then set about thinking about how we can make this kind of thinking a reality–both with tools we have now, and tools we want in the future.

Part 2 can be read here.

Noah Kravitz is an educator and consumer tech journalist who recently founded The Tabula Project; image attribution flickeringbrad, kjgarret, and auburnalumniassocation