What The iPad Has Done To Education

When adopting a new learning tool, the clearer the picture of how that tool ideally functions can be helpful in improving its use.

As the iPad approaches popularity that’d make The Beatles blush, it’s easy to forget what technology in learning looked like before the little tablet from Cupertino entered our collective pedagogical consciousness. It’s also easy to forget what exactly it does from a functional perspective that makes it such an effective teaching tool.

When adopting any new learning tool, from technology to curricula to instructional strategies, the clearer the picture of how that tool ideally functions can be helpful in improving its use.

The Learning Process

One of the more powerful ways technology can support learning is by removing barriers.

The iPad has been a boon functioning as a communication tool for students who have challenges communicating, from learners with autism to English Language Learners.

But it also establishes a more direct link between learners, instruction, and content. In a traditional environment where one teacher must actuate the learning of 30+ students, the ratio can be considered 1:30. But if each student has an iPad, the ratio drops to 1:1, a change not simply mathematical, but philosophical and practical.

In these cases—in a learning sequence designed to take advantage of it anyway—learners have the opportunity to “face” the content more immediately, rather than waiting for the class, the teacher, or even group members. And because the hardware and software is often familiar, students are able to troubleshoot and problem-solve issues on their own, decreasing the demand for procedural knowledge while increasing dwell time with content.

Not Everyone Convinced

In a New York Times article from last year, Stanford University professor emeritus of education Larry Cuban expressed more than a little skepticism about the ability of the iPad to help students learn.

“There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines. iPads are marvelous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.”

And Elliot Soloway, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, laments the steep cost—one paid at the expense of less expensive alternatives, explaining, “You can do everything that the iPad can with existing off-the-shelf technology and hardware for probably $300 to $400 less per device.”

While opinions on the iPad are not unanimous (little in education is), its ability to bridge the gap between the classroom and home, hardware and software, and learner and content is considerable. But how does this happen?

What it is about the iPad that makes this sort of potential possible?

What does the iPad “do”?

Mobility and Personalization

First and foremost, the iPad mobilizes digitized media. No longer are learners anchored to desktops, but rather free to move between groups, within a library, or sit in quiet reflection. The benefits of this are more difficult to leverage in a closed setting like a traditional K-20 classroom, but still available. But when you move beyond the traditional classroom setting, out into the “field”—especially when merged with smartphones, projectors, and other gadgets? The possibilities increase ten-fold.

While the iPad tends towards consumption over production, most apps do so with the expectation of interaction. Passive “reading” is less common on Apple’s wonder-device than it can be with traditional media like film or paperback novels. Users have to monitor visual and audible clues, interact with pages, or skim through digital spaces to identify next steps and sequence.

And though it’s true that physically interacting with a digital screen may pale in comparison with the cognitive struggle with a rigorous text, what if you can do both? With the iPad, that’s possible.

There is also the matter of personalization.

In a 1:1 iPad setting, every student can use a device that is set to their liking—perhaps not to BYOD standards but better than a starchy textbook. Apps can also be configured to a user’s personal affinity—in terms of which apps are downloaded, or how the user interface (UI) or social media share functions operate.

And since digital assignments will almost always be connected more vigorously (to other assignments, people, and domains) than a worksheet or essay, it allows the user to create their own path within and across these tasks and projects (assuming the instruction is designed with such self-directedness in mind).

Mandatory Interaction

Being able to effortless swipe through digital pages, watch embedded videos, and pinch-and-zoom the entire solar system, the iPad delivers on the promise of what is possible when we digitize human thought.  If that sounds like hyperbole, think where else but on an iPad with a wi-fi connection users have such natural and engaging access to so much manifest thought and reflection. Every TED talk, Minecraft design, Khan Academy stack, or Google Earth activity demonstrates for students what’s possible when you create, design, revise, and connect–and does so in a compelling way.

iPads are nothing without apps. And apps—good apps anyway—do nothing less than persistently connect learners.

They connect learners with others interested in similar content, with other media, or with the social media platforms they care about.

If I can take a picture, share it on my Learnist board, tweet it out to invite others to collaborate, and then embed it in a tumblr post that I use as a fictional travel log to track a literary character’s journey in a text, I am connected to people, apps, networks, and other texts. This forces a learner to constantly consider their thinking in a larger context, considering crucial tenets of audience and purpose, but more importantly drawing in higher-level thinking skills that are less natural with a pad of paper and a pencil.

Changing Learner Expectations

While the iPad personalizes, promotes consumption, and models possibility, perhaps more than anything, its design, pop culture gravity, and simple mobility grant its user a magical kind of ownership—even if it’s temporary—of whatever is playing, notifying, or bouncing about on the screen. It also provides immediate access to media that at least has a fighting chance to be current and highly consumable.

It might not be anything special the iPads and other tablets do. If computers first came to us as interactive digital screens with scores of personalizable apps, we may think nothing of it at all. Users may now be pining for a desktop experience that lets us sit and work with a physical keyboard and a screen bigger than a box of cereal. We may also want a handful of more universal software pieces that provide some relief from app hunting and endless beta testing for half-baked software that looks great and does little.

But they didn’t, and so we don’t.

We worked for years with computers, then came to iPads. In fact, there will soon be K-5 students whose first introduction to computers may well have been an iPad—students who may not even have a desktop in their home, and may understand computing only through iPads and its accompanying Apple iOS. Not just digital natives, but mobile digital natives, blessed—or cursed—with a schema that expects all electronic devices to honor them the way Apple’s iPad is designed to.

In this way, it has not just hinted at personalized learning, but made it forehead-smacking obvious.

The first couple of years with iPads in classrooms was great, but the honeymoon is over. By putting information in laps and at fingertips in engaging and diverse ways, whole-class, one-size-fits-all instruction is a kind of lunacy. More than anything else, what the iPad has done to education is indirectly belittle it–mock it for its mass approach to what should be an individual experience. Like Gordon Ramsay standing awkwardly in a school cafeteria, an iPad in a stagnant classroom is a brilliant, awful, illuminating thing.

The iPad has put a knife into dated information, slow PCs, and sit-and-get, passive learning sequences, but more than anything else it offers an eloquent voice to shifting learner expectations.

While students have groaned at stultifying lessons and staid content for years, now the iPad is groaning too.

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad