EdTech: iPads in education

Oh, a long post on a niche subject? There’s an idea guaranteed to get you more readers. *cough*

Last week, I went along to a “iPad Information Evening” at my kids’ school. The school has requested that from age 8, each child should have access to (read “own”) an iPad, as they will be integral to the school’s educational journey from the start of 2014.

One of the speakers was Tim Keller, who has been working alongside the school’s deputy headmaster in implementing this programme and he gave a very interesting presentation. I popped onto his blog when I got home and found this, which was (unsurprisingly) very much in keeping with what he had to say:

Let’s imagine that a tablet sits on every child’s desk, and text books have been banished. The tablet is filled to the brim with the best educational content curated by the finest teaching minds in the country. The content isn’t simply paragraphs and images, it’s completely interactive. Don’t understand Pythagoras theorem? Here’s a demonstrative video. A word in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that you don’t understand? Simply highlight it and see the definition. Photosynthesis just not making sense right now? Mark it to read later so you can study it at home. Your entire educational life would live on this tablet, from homework to novels to quizzes.

Photosynthesis has never made sense to me. Never. Extra study time wouldn’t have helped. But we get the idea.

The next day, Tim tweeted and said he’d like to get my thoughts. Since I was going to blog about it anyway, I freely agreed and – much later than planned – here they are.

So back to the evening. Arriving at the school, we were greeted by tea, coffee, a Digicape stand and some of the students demonstrating (with only limited success, to be fair) how they had been using the iPads already being used at the school. Hmm.

Arriving in the school hall, we were greeted by posters full of thought-provoking quotes:

What year are you preparing your children for?

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.

and the somewhat patronising (I thought, anyway):

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.


I’ll freely admit that even as an alleged “early adopter”, I was skeptical going into the presentation. I was concerned about several things.
Firstly, why was there suddenly a need for this change in direction?
Secondly, why the iPad? Why not an Android device, since we all know that Android is much better than Apple? (I will only be accepting supportive comments on this point.)
Thirdly, what about the basic skills of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic? When did they suddenly become irrelevant?
And then, the nuts and the bolts: security, insurance, cost, safety etc etc.

Spoiler alert: I came out converted, having had my mind opened. Here’s why.

There were several obvious misconceptions amongst most (all?) the parents present that this was something of a fad, something trendy that the school wanted to be involved in to look cool and progressive. It seemed like something of a kneejerk decision and for such a big decision, that didn’t seem quite right. Then there was the assumption that somehow the iPad was going to be used for everything: replacing books, replacing pens, pencils and paper; replacing teachers, I suppose, at the extreme.

To be fair, the school was partly to blame for this. The email about their plans was sent out during the long winter holidays, which was a bit odd (they are usually very good at asking for the parents’ input) and it didn’t contain much information, save to say that they would like us to buy an iPad for each of our children and that they would be using them in school from the start of 2014. The inter-parental network (I assume the school know that we have one of these behind the scenes, right?) went mad and (of course) everyone thought the worst. It’s human nature to resist change, see? And if you don’t like change… well… yes, exactly.

But then, they couldn’t have possibly told us everything in one email, as the 2½ hour meeting showed. So the parental mob arrived, pitchforks and flaming torches in hand, sat down and listened to what Tim and the other staff had to say.

The first thing that became obvious was that these people knew what they were talking about. One thinks of a science teacher (for example) knowing about science. Which he does, but he also knows about education – how to impart that knowledge of science to students. As the son of two teachers, I knew about this, but I’d forgotten about it. Education and how to educate is what teachers are trained in; the subject they teach is then secondary to this principle.

And then it became very clear that this was in no way a snap decision. It had been two or three years in the making. Research, networking, consultation and more research had gone into this. I didn’t know that. Had I known that I would have been more open to the idea from the start. It was also clear that this was being led by a very dedicated, passionate team. This is good and bad in my mind. I love enthusiasm and drive, but it must be tempered every so often by some realism. Fortunately, I think in this case, it’s balanced very well by the controlling influence of the Headmaster, who while obviously being involved, is also not directly part of the team tasked with working on the programme. Sensible.

The next thing I learnt was that the iPad wasn’t going to become the sole method of teaching. Rather it was just to be a(nother) tool for teachers to use. But the iPad is a “multi-tool” – the technological Leatherman. They demonstrated this, with three teachers showing how they were already using iPads with their classes and the benefits that it was having. They cited the engagement that the kids had with the device (I’ve seen this with my kids and my tablet) and the way that that engagement facilitated learning. The skills that it was teaching them – creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem solving and independent research – “skills for the 21st Century” they said. And they clearly stated that it was really not taking over – just that it was a really effective way of getting kids educated.

That interested me, because as far as I know, we, as parents, happily accepted the letterland system as the way our children were going to learn to write. We never questioned the suitability of the set of books our children are learning maths or reading from, nor, if we look at the technology side of things, that they have interactive whiteboards and projectors, rather than chalk and blackboards. We were completely satisfied that the school made the decisions on which tools they felt were best for educating our kids. Of course we were: that’s what we pay them to do.

So why the fight about iPads?

I need to ask my parents – were they consulted before we were shown our first VHS video at school? Or learnt BASIC on Spectrum computers? Was there widespread outrage, fear and panic? Did they think I’d never learn to write? If so, they hid it well.

That extensive research I mentioned earlier had also gone into the choice of device. And yes, Tim does sport an iPhone, so maybe he’s that way inclined, but the reasons given for selecting the iPad were perfectly reasonable. And I could agree with them too. Uniformity is key here and Android probably wouldn’t work in this scenario – too many different tablets with different versions of operating systems and different capabilities. Then the teacher (trained in teaching remember, not in sorting out tablets) spends the lesson trying to sort out tablets and not teaching. It’s not playing to your strengths. It doesn’t work.
Then there’s Apple TV, being installed in all the classrooms ahead of the new school year. What’s on your tablet, suddenly on the big screen, shared with the class – it’s not just very cool, it’s really helpful as well.

All in all, I was very impressed with the whole idea, the thought and effort that had gone into it and the exciting future that awaits our kids. So much so that I had to check myself just to make sure I hadn’t been brainwashed. But there was sound rationale for every decision they’d made and that’s good enough for me.

There are still those nuts and bolts to be ironed out. Or tightened up – whatever it is you need to do with nuts and bolts. How can a child who can easily lose a shoe – a shoe! – at school be expected to look after an iPad? What is going to be their acceptable use policy? How will they protect the students from the nastiness of the internet? (filtered wifi and special child friendly browsers, in case you were wondering.) There is more staff training to be done, network upgrades that still need to be carried out, special lockers to be purchased and decisions on what apps they are going to use. But every (reasonable) question that was asked, was answered, and answered well.

I’m converted. I knew that tablets were powerful, useful devices, but I’d never really considered their specific uses in the education sector. Now I’m aware of that, now that I’ve seen the enthusiasm of the team behind it at my kids’ school and I can see that it’s going to be implemented correctly and sensibly, I’m really excited for them to get started and I’m hoping to see some near immediate benefits.

Watch this space.

11 thoughts on “EdTech: iPads in education

  1. There are already schools (Parklands College for one and another school out that way) that use iPads, so I’ve already had some time to get my head around it. I think it’s a great idea, but that may be because I’m already an iPad fangirl.
    Thank you for putting your thoughts down so concisely, great read.

  2. It’s a very good idea. Unless the current bubble in Higher Ed. bursts (well, assuming it’s a bubble at all), this is an ideal way to prepare the proto-people for higher learning (if that’s something they want to do), and also a connected World.

    At UCT, my course is part of a pilot of two courses, pretty much offered fully online, for credit (so, not a MOOC), and next year, we’re launching an online PostGrad diploma. A large part of the struggles some have had in my 1st-year courses is simply around being alienated by the technology, and getting that into schools early on will alleviate the problem significantly.

    The devices are becoming cheap enough that soon, they should help close the socio-economic gap rather than exacerbate it too.

  3. Tania > Parklands College is one of the places they’ve been talking to. I’m very excited to see how they integrate it into the curriculum. If it doesn’t work out, it won’t be for lack of effort.

    Jacques Rousseau > That grounding in how to use technology is also one of the points that they made. We’re not educating our kids poorly, we’re educating them well, just not in the right things.

  4. How big is the kickback Apple is giving the school? Sorry, but when someone claims “interoperability” and “connectivity” as being the reason for things, then the cynic in me climbs aboard and wonders who got paid what? Maybe I’ve been working in the government environment for too long.

    I’ve got an Android tablet. And yes, there are different operating systems. But the Apps all work the same, no matter what operating system it runs on. And even that isn’t a train smash. Simply specify minimum requirements. Even Apple devices aren’t uniform across the spectrum.

    Plus there’s the not inconsiderable issue of cost. You can get an Android tablet for under R2000. Apple devices are more than double that. Our school provides text books. If they came to me and said I now had to spend R6000 on a glorified text book, I would be wondering why the school fees didn’t come down somewhat.

    Then there’s the control issues. Tablets may be great, and have all kinds of learning resources, but who’s going to pay the 3G data costs of all this extra “learning”? And who’s going to guarantee that the kids are actually not spending the whole day on Facebook instead of paying attention?

    Look, I’m not averse to technology forming a part of the future. And there’s a great deal of merit in electronic formats of text books (especially seeing the back-breaking bags kids are expected to carry around school these days). But they need nothing more than an e-reader in class (even the most basic Kindle has wi-fi for downloading books, which can easily be an integrated dictionary which can even be specified). For the rest, that’s what internet at home in a controlled environment is for.

  5. gmross > Woah! Hang on there, cowboy!

    See near the bottom where I said that all reasonable questions were answered. I think you’re pushing the bounds of reasonability here.
    But I’ll try and help you out anyway.

    Kickbacks? Seriously? No.
    Educational discounts, yes. Those are being passed on to parents.

    And I too am an Android fan (I mention this in the piece). I have Android phone, Android tablet, but sorry – there IS discrepancy between devices and different versions of the OS. I see it between my Sony and my wife’s Samsung. Often.
    Specify minimum requirements – great idea, but on what UI and on which version of Android? Minimum 2.3.3, perhaps? You’re missing out on every new app then.

    Next – “glorified text book”? Belittling stuff. You can do MUCH more with tablets of any sort, as you’re well aware. Either that or you’re really wasting your money on yours.

    Control – The school pays for the internet access at school, which is where these tablets are being used. Wifi only tablets are completely acceptable, because they’re using wifi, see? The wifi is filtered and young kids will be using controlled browers (K9). Incidentally, Android tablets also use data.
    The “not messing around” thing is a classroom management issue. First off, the tablets will only be in the kids’ hands when they are using them (for educational stuff). Locke away the rest of the time. But yes, as was pointed out, kids will be mischievous – in my day, it was handing around notes behind the teacher’s back. It’s up to the teacher to make sure the kids behave. Just like it is with pencils, rubbers, tippex, books, modelling clay…. everything.

    Finally – This isn’t about replacing text books. This is about getting kids to integrate their group work better, it’s about videoing them playing futsal and comparing techniques, tactics and progress, it’s about documenting school outings while you’re still on them, it’s about being able to immediately show them strengths and weaknesses in their oral presentations in languages, it’s about increasing their confidence by allowing them to practice their spelling without the permanence of their errors, it’s about making films and music projects as a team.

    That said, belatedly, suddenly a lot of your points seem completely valid if you think this is just about replacing text books.

  6. Some of those benefits are, to me at least, not benefits. What’s wrong with getting things wrong? And learning that it’s ok to make mistakes? And learning to spell properly without the aid of spellcheck? At age 8 you don’t have all the basics sorted by any stretch of the imagination. Hell, at that age you can barely write a coherent sentence of more than 5 words, nevermind anything else.

    It was a lot easier to control things in our day. Teachers could see we were up to no good. But when the kid is looking at the tablet screen, how do you know what’s on it from the front of the classroom? You don’t. Limited internet access is one thing, but anyone who’s spent any time on the internet knows there’s always a way around that, and never underestimate a 10 year old when it comes to technology!

    I can see the benefit for group work, and outings to some extent. As I mentioned previously, there’s certainly an advantage of less weight to lug around. Which brings to mind an interesting question, how’s homework going to work if the iPads are locked away? I presume only during the school day and the kids will be allowed to take them home?

    In short, as a replacement for school books (text books, and in certain but not all instances, work books too), and as a device for assisting in collaborative work, these devices will have merit. But technology should never be allowed to replace learning the basics (and, from your article it would appear they’re not going to).

    Projects such as this should be exceptionally carefully handled, to prevent long term unexpected and undesired outcomes.

  7. One has to understand the learning process to realise why digital devices are an essential part of learning. This is what Author meant when he said teachers have learnt about the education process. To simplify things, there has been a lot of research in the last 50 years or so to help us to understand how people learn. There are three main models – behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. Search youtube for learning theory and each of those terms and you will see very simple explainations for them. You will see that learning is far more than just looking at text books. You didn’t learn how to play your favourite game by reading the manual did you? There problably wasn’t one because a friend showed you where to download it and you didn’t get one. He showed you a few things and you got going. You then discussed the hard parts together and worked out a solution. Now that works really well for games but what if you used the same method for solving maths and science problems? You construct new understanding by interacting with other people who have a similar interest – social constructivism. The digital device allows you to do that much better than using other methods. You can edit far more easily on a digital device than you can on paper. Movies are very hard to create without access to devices like this but are very good to demonstrate that you have understood something. “You don’t understand something unless you can explain it in simple terms”. Yes you will make mistakes – hopefully but you will learn from them and make better digital artifacts the next time. Somebody showed me a peer marking system. Kids mark each other work. They can learn from each other mistakes as well as their own. Proof-reading a colleague’s work is the best way to improve your own writing.
    About the choice of the device. The point was made in the original post that teacher should be able to just get on with the session and not have to stress about who is using what device and how the app is going to work on a number of different platforms. Apple invests considerable effort in providing support for education. Digiicape was at the presentation. Has anyone seen and Android supplier doing anything to help education use their devices? Thought not.

  8. gmross > There’s no spellcheck involved. The child writes, with a stylus, on the screen and can erase errors without the rubber smear that blighted her work on paper. Handing something in that is not messy improves her confidence and she is now back on paper and has carried that confidence into her “traditional” work. Her average score in spelling has doubled.

    Once again, you’re putting this into the wrong context that everything will be done on iPad. That’s not the case. It is merely another tool in the teacher’s toolbox. Homework will be done with pens, pencils and paper. There may be times when the kids bring the tablet home, but the rest of the time, they will be locked up at school (the tablets, not the kids).

    The way that you have “come around” to a couple of other uses of the iPad since your first your first comment is enlightening. That’s exactly what I did at the information evening as more was demonstrated and explained to us. And then they demonstrated something else to us. And something else. And something else.
    They have thought how they can best use this and it’s not technology leading education, it’s education using technology.

    Of course it’s going to be carefully handled. For how many of the learning decisions at your kids’ school have training programmes been implemented 9 months ahead of time? At what point did you go to a meeting specifically about what sort of reading books the teachers were going to use or which educational DVD the children were going to be watching?

    David Rogers > Hi David. Thanks for the comment. Some good points made from what I’m guessing is a professional and hands-on standpoint.
    I can understand the resistance amongst parents though. It’s way out of our comfort zones and we need to be spoonfed these things. Now that the school has gone through the thorny issue of actually introducing the idea to us, they need to get it implemented ASAP so as to demonstrate the benefits.

    Yes, as I remarked in the post, iPad was the correct choice for this implementation. But Android is still brilliant. 😉

  9. @David Rogers

    The whole uniformity thing is why I’ve repeatedly stressed the specification item. Hell, it wouldn’t be that hard for the school to procure a specific model of tablet, and then resell those on to the parents. This means that every single child not only has the same OS loaded, but the same device in every way. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    And if you believe Apple and Digicape were there because they give a damn about “giving back” to education, you’ve missed the boat completely. Apple know full well that people tend to develop some kind of loyalty to the products they know, and by getting to kids early they expand their market. They do it for MONEY. Nothing else. Same with Digicape. They were there because of the no-doubt not inconsiderable amount of money they are getting for the privilege. Nothing else.

    I hope this works. And I hope that a way is found to make it affordable across the board, for all schools. I certainly cannot afford to buy 1 iPad, nevermind the 2 I would need, unless they come with about a 90% discount on retail value. And if I can’t afford it, then you can guarantee that the majority of people out there can’t.

  10. >GMRoss
    Thanks for your response. I am glad for this oppurtunity to discuss these issues with a “sceptic” because it focusses the issues that i will be deeling with as I roll a similar project out at the three schools whose IT systems I manage.
    Many students already own mobile digital devices. If I were to say to parents, “You have to buy model X.”, I will strong push back from all those who already own model Y – especially if it was thought I was actually selling them – at a possible mark-up for profit either to myself or the school. There is no bulk discount on Ipads, but there is a 3% discount availalbe to schools purchasing for their own staff or for the schools own use. This margin is so small there is no advantage to the students or their parents to do it that way. Rather let them get their Discovery Health discount, their e-bucks reward, buy it through their bank on a Vodacom / MTN deal – however they can get the most suitable pricing in the market place.

    I am fully aware that Apple and DigiCape are not doing this solely for philanthopic ideals – but they are doing it. In the ‘nineties, M$ gave educational discounts to both State and Independent schools. (Well free to state and reduced cost to Independent) and as a result the Computer Application Technology subject is largely based on their products. We got the industry leading OS and Office software at reduced cost and they got a million trained users. Apple is not giving us anything in the way of discounted software (in other countries – yes but not SA) put they are giving is good support in both the educational and technical areas. They run regular training sessions for teachers on their products and technical sessions to help us to deplpy iPads. I have not seen any of the other vendors doing this.
    Affordability will remain an issue as long as so much wastage exists in the education system. State education is not underfunded – it just doesn’t always get the to people who need it most. Most of the iPad deployments are happening in Independent schools. These parents are already funding state education through their high tax burden but they additionally choose to pay for independent education. They are choosing the higher cost option and are (mostly) willing to pay the additional cost to have the best possible devices for their children to use to learn. I hope that we are able to live up to that expectation.

    Leave a Reply