What The iPad’s Popularity Says About Education

Placing an iPad into the lap of every student is nothing if not a sign that teachers are more than willing to give up control of pace and access,

What The iPad's Popularity Says About Education

What Does The iPad’s Popularity Say About Education?

by Terry Heick

Whether you find the iPad’s success energizing, interesting, or repulsive (we’ve seen all three reactions recently across our social media channels), there’s no denying its presence.

The little glass rectangle from Cupertino has left a lot of change in its wake. Education is operated by human beings (for now), and sometimes human nature takes over, looking for a fix, solution, or magic bullet to a problem that’s enormously complex. While talking to Grant Wiggins recently, he told me, “I’m old enough to recall when Xerox machines, TV, film strips, VCRs, VideoDiscs and such were all going to revolutionize education.”

So maybe it’s not crazy that there is an under-current of arguments against iPad integration, and at times these arguments can be compelling.

Some see it as an expensive toy that has little place in a tax-funded, government-subsidized industry that’s seeing a loss of teacher positions and extra-curricular funding. And when Google has been selling more affordable devices for a while now, to far less acclaim, this claim seems to have some legs.

There is also the charge of elitism. This one is a bit more curious, but has some ground. For learners without technology access in their homes–whether that be hardware, software, bandwidth, or all three–insisting on the iPad as a wonder-device can come off wrong. And this can be exacerbated by the otherwise noble intent to bring students ‘into the light,’ which can seem condescending and even clueless to communities dealing with much bigger problems than 1:1 integration. Is Is it the job of schools to assimilate or educate? And can there be one without the other?

And there’s more.

The elephant in the room of education is not a lack of compelling technology application, increasingly stifling district mandates, or even a lack of funding, but the chronic under-performance of pockets of socioeconomic “grous.’ In this way, little has changed from the conditions that encouraged American politicians to authorize NCLB. And in this context, the iPad–and even BYOD movements–can seem downright crude. How the iPad solves–or even doesn’t worsen–this issue is also unclear.

And there’s the it’s a distraction argument that can surface when technology of any kind is brought up, given in a distinctly get off my lawn tone. Moving students towards proficiency across dozens of standards in little short bursts of learning opportunity is challenging enough. To add the iPad as yet another critical piece to an already jumbled puzzle seems curious to many, making it hard to see how even the most talented tablet is worth the effort.

So if it’s expensive, crude, and distracting, why is it so popular? And better yet, what does that popularity say about education?

1. Education is desperate for change

For a variety of reasons–fatigue from testing, well-intentioned and self-administered pressure, or the constant churn of otherwise good ideas that simply didn’t produce test-measured learning results–education is not just ready for a change, but hungry and desperate for it, from administrators to business leaders, parents to most importantly students. And the iPad is among the most kind-spirited changes in decades.

2. Social Media-based PLNs are effective PD systems

Using iPad is easy. Letting students use them to complete tasks is also easy. Planning for, launching, and maintaining iPads in a high-functioning learning environment is not easy, and that is the task of hundreds of thousands of teachers globally–teachers already pushed to the brink with paperwork and minutiae. So how do they figure it out? Some of it is trial and error, but the power of informal professional development is immense. PLN are changing what educators expect from education.

3. Textbooks aren’t working

While textbooks are all too often demonized, that doesn’t mean they were doing their jobs (however you might define that). If they were working, the iPads could be brought in as research tools, second screens or in some ancillary capacity. But they aren’t, so they weren’t.

4. Teachers are willing to give up control

The idea that teachers hold on to power in the classroom for the sake of ego is inaccurate. While that can happen, most clamp on with their pedagogical grip of death because they’re scared what will happen to learning results if they do. Placing an iPad into the lap of every learner (or even every fifth learner) is nothing if not a sign that teachers are not just willing to give up control of pace and access, but are eager for that kind of shift.

5. Digital media is more compelling than physical media

This one is simple, and a bit obvious, but true. While education has historically been centered around books and essays, digital media is simply more compelling, consumable, and connected. That’s not a judgment that it’s any more potent in producing learning results (another topic for another day), but it’s difficult to argue that it’s infinitely more compelling to most learners.

7. Data is important

Gamified platforms like IXL or Khan Academy provide data that, while perhaps not as clear as they might be, is still authentic and often user-accessible. While assessments that produce data are still expensive and crude (the latter issue something testing consortiums are working to address), data itself matters. And iPads–as well as Android tablets, Google Chromebooks, and Android smartphones–are able to provide it–often in ways students can understand.

8. There is more money–or at least financial flexibility–than there seems to be

Schools lack funding, yet iPads are finding their ways into schools globally. No matter little money a school, district, or community seems, they often find a way.

9. Educators are consumers too

District folks and classroom teachers are human beings, after all. With Apple’s incredible marketing efforts that create angst-inducing must-have groans from otherwise sane adults, it’s not surprising that this effect reaches through the walls of classrooms as well.

10. Education is ready to personalize

What started out as an effort by educators like Carol Ann Tomlinson to differentiate, has turned into an all-out effort to mobilize and personalize learning: just right, just in time, just for me. The iPad isn’t just a tool to personalize–it’s a giant bullhorn that shouts angrily when things aren’t personalized. (What has the iPad done to education? Great question.)

11. Outcomes-Based learning is flawed

Outcomes-based learning is the practice of deciding ahead of time what will be learned, then alternating between teaching and assessment until mastery has been proven, or it’s time to move on to another standard. This has been the de-facto model in most first-world formal learning institutions since nearly the beginning, and tremendous resources–billions of dollars–have been poured into a system trying to make it work.

But it doesn’t work, and we keep shifting blame and finding ‘solutions’ (like the iPad), playing an expensive game of whack-a-mole to try to correct something that’s broken by design. We can and should measure learning and use data to improve, but the data that says OBL works–on the largest of scales and stages and at the highest stakes–just isn’t there.

12. Education entrepreneurship is blossoming

The iPad itself is just an actuator–and intermediary between user and content. Giants like Google and various start-ups like are contributing to the iPad’s stunning success, perhaps more so than Apple itself. Without this kind of ecology, the iPad may have suffered the same fate as film, computer labs, graphing calculators, and other technology trends that were thought to be innovators, but soon lost steam.


The iPad’s success in education is far more complex than the above factors, a kind of perfect storm of consumer popularity, parched classrooms, and burgeoning edu-ecology. If the iPad is viewed as a savior for education, education will be left disappointed.


But its considerable success is indicative of important conditions–a kind of “data” that would not otherwise be as visible. Many educators see it as invaluable. Right or wrong, that kind of assessment is worth understanding.

It will be interesting to see what the classroom landscape looks like 12 years from now, when today’s kindergartners are graduating high school–if we will again be arguing the role of technology, perhaps smart augmented reality systems, or the relationship between assessment data, school-to-school/peer-to-peer learning and student privacy, all the while swearing that this time, without a doubt, education is going to be better.

Image attribution flickr users mikecogh and barretwebcoordinator