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How the iPad Can Transform Classroom Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

The micro-computer revolution of the 80's radically improved how teachers and schools carry on the business of learning. We now have iPads in classrooms that will not only improve it, but it has the potential to change the business of learning in schools. The question is, "Are teachers ready to adjust their teaching for this new learning revolution?"

I have just become principal of a school that will be participating in this revolution this year. The ninth- and tenth-graders will be all receiving iPads. Aside from the obvious technical challenges, the real challenge I see will be to assure that this sizable investment will take student learning to the next level. Computers allowed students to word process rather than type, to do media presentations instead of show and tell, to find information on the Internet instead of encyclopedias, and to graph data electronically instead of with magic markers. Teachers depend on computers to do the same, as well as using interactive whiteboards to increase the effectiveness of presentations. The iPad can do all these things, along with many other capabilities, and it is super portable, and that might make all the difference. So how will it change learning?

In the Classroom

Let's imagine a math class full of geometry students with iPads. The teacher says, "Ok class take out your iPads and find the best geometric form for a deep sea submarine." What can the students do? The students can find out the necessary information about how deep is deep, about what kind of pressures exist there, and find out the math necessary to determine the strongest geometric form. They can also collaborate with their peers by walking across the room and showing them their results on the iPad, they can ask the teacher questions through the network, and the students can find, or better yet, create pressure simulations to predict the results. They can check out lectures from experts and professors at iTunes U, and they can share and save what they learned with other students on the network. They can graph their results, sketch a possible example of what a submarine of this form might look like, and then do a Prezi presentation about what they learned.

The teacher might be tempted to direct the students to use a geometry sketch program, a geometry vocabulary program, a self-paced geometry lesson, or an online lecture, but while those are good things you might do with a computer, they restrict and funnel student thinking, rather than expand it. The teacher could have 30 students, all doing the same thing at the same time on their iPads, but this doesn't make sense either. The students have a powerful information tool in their hands, and as The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics require students to think critically and problem solve, there is no way that a teacher can get students to become independent learners in sync. Sure there may be some useful apps that help the student gain the skills, knowledge or insight into the subject, and a teacher might want the class to do it together, but focusing solely on the apps, or student control, limits the true potential of the iPad -- "a tool to think with."

Another Example

A science teacher can provide similar learning opportunities. During the course of a true experiment, the students not only can dictate or type the descriptions of the phases of the experiment as it progresses, but they can take still photographs and movies to document the progress. So what is the teacher doing while the students are performing the experiment? The teacher is roving with his iPad, documenting student performance, taking notes, pictures, and movies. (Movies of students? There should be signed agreements with the teachers, students, and their parents that the still or video footage of the students will only be used to help the students learn, and help the teacher improve the creation of learning environments -- and not to be published on youtube or social networking.)

Getting Teachers Onboard

One of the biggest questions teachers have about giving students iPads is, "How do you keep the students from playing games?" To answer this question, certainly the aforementioned agreements should include acceptable use of the devices, but in reality, the answer lies mainly with the teacher. If students are given engaging, open-ended problems to solve, they won't want or need to play games on their iPads during class time. Even though you might not want students to play them during class, you have to admit that some of the games really are beneficial in helping students not only learn to use the technology, but also are useful in developing analytical and critical thinking skills (which are different, by the way).

It is time for the role of the teacher to change. Students with iPads have just as much access to knowledge as the teacher, and maybe more. Their perspectives do not have to be limited by a myopic and narrow textbook viewpoint, or a rigid standardized test framework. Teachers no longer need to be the sole presenters of content. This is truly a paradigm shift in how teachers interact with students who are learning. I envision my teachers becoming experts who are inspiring good questions from students, teachers who are masterful at channeling student interests in productive ways, and teachers who constantly assess student learning and providing critical feedback.

The lesson planning questions I hope my teachers will learn to ask will change from "How can I teach this content?" to, "How can I get students to learn this content?" I hope they will answer this question with open-ended learning activities rather than saying, "I have an app for that."

How do you envision that the iPad or other similar devices will change your teaching philosophy and methods?

Comments (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Adrienne's picture

My school integrated 1:1 iPad use over the course of this past school year. I'd be lying if I said that every teacher trusted the effectiveness of this powerful technology. Even I was a little wary of its ability to captivate my students. However, I can honestly say that by putting in place effective classroom management techniques, such having engaging "problems to solve," and high expectations for the use of the iPads in class, the problems that many teachers fear can be put aside. In addition, I saw a marked increase in my students' willingness to participate in class and complete assignments and in their overall mastery of skills. I attribute this fully to their interest and desire in using advanced, cutting-edge technology. Yes, any type of change in the classroom takes some getting used to, but the iPad is well work the growing pains.

Jennifer's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from GA

This past year was my school's first experience with iPads in the classroom. I have 3 iPads that I use in various ways with my Kindergarten students. Students are able to use them during independent learning station time as they play educational games that are geared towards a topic of study. I also use them during my guided reading groups to give students practice in a reading principal that we are focusing on for them specifically. I use the ipad during class instruction to look up any questions the class may have about a specific topic in order to further their knowledge. The iPad is a very useful tool and I wish that I had more of them. My students may be young but they are growing up in a world that demands them to understand technology.

Lisa Love's picture
Lisa Love
Co-Founder, Bing Note, Inc.

Hi All,

Great discussion here! As a developer of educational apps, I appreciate everyone's feedback on this topic. It just proves to me that the direction my mom (co-developer) and I are headed with our apps is the way to go.

My mom, a retired teacher who taught the primary grades for over 40 years, knew very little about the "tech world". In her days of teaching...well, let's just say she definitely comes from the old school way, of course none of this iPad/BYOD existed. When we first started this project, a year and a half ago, she barely knew how to send an email. I say this, because I understand the hesitancy some teachers may have in transitioning from old school teaching, to this new and unfamiliar way of teaching.

I'm thrilled to hear everyone's successes with using the iPad in the classroom. We are about to launch the full version of our app (ABC's with Bingzy Bee: Phonics) this month, which will include a classroom management portal. Very excited about this! Our free version won the gold for the Mom's Choice Award. So lots of good stuff on the horizon. We're at www.bingnote.com, if you want to check us out.

Keep the success stories rolling and would love to hear more about how you're using iPads in the classroom.

Here's to a successful school year!


Brick Maier's picture

I've enjoyed following this discussion and am encouraged by the positive impact iPads have made in the different classrooms. I approach iPad interaction from a different angle that focuses on using the iPad's video camera. This invites a different form of interaction that transforms the iPad's screen into a window frame of sorts on a miniature movie set.

I have posted for the past couple years on Edutopia about my experience working with teachers and students on bringing moviemaking into the classroom with a method called Tabletop Moviemaking. The iPad 2 fundamentally changed my workflow and I have been hard at work trying to figure out the best way to integrate this wonderful new device.

For the past 6 months I've been iterating on different designs and piloting them with small groups of students aged 8-13. From the beginning it was clear the kids needed very little instruction on how to use the iPad, my job was to create a framework that facilitated narrative storytelling.

After lots of hard work, I managed to get the kit to a prototype stage. I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to send the design into production and I was amazed by the response. In particular, educators were tweeting and blogging about it across the web. This was really affirming because I definitely designed it with teachers in mind. I wanted to post it on Edutopia now that the project is successfully funded. You can learn more here. I am super excited about it!


Reading Diva's picture
Reading Diva
3rd grade reading teacher

I received my new i-Pad at the end of school and have worked with learning how to use it. I have tried finding apps to use with my students. Thank you Ben and all of you who posted about the wonderful apps to use. I look forward to following your blog. We don't have a technology coach in our district.

AutismClassroom.com's picture

I love the idea of using iPad apps to support students with special needs, as well as general education students. In my book Lesson Plans for Students with Autism, I tell how to integrate iPad apps with classroom lessons to make learning even more meaningful to our students. However, I also believe in the power of the iPad to teach teachers. This is seen through our other apps at Autism Classroom which are aimed at helping teachers learn more about their students.

Cathy's picture

I'm excited about the potential uses for iPads in the classroom but coming up with the money to purchase even a few for just one classroom is difficult. Apple offers a bulk purchase deal but frankly the price is pretty much the same as it would be at Best Buy or some other electronics store. Does anyone know of a good resource for purchasing iPads for the classroom?

Caroline's picture

As soon as I was given access to student iPads, all parent and teacher discussions were centered around apps for consuming information. While having an endless supply of knowledge at our fingertips can be a wonderful thing, I tried to develop new ways for students to not only act as consumers, but also as producers. We are encouraging our students to build global learning communities starting as early as kindergarten (when they start to read print), and they should be able to contribute their creations to their networks.

I'm also concerned with the hype around individual apps, because history has shown us that technology is constantly evolving. It seems that just when I master a new tool or gadget, an even better one is announced. We need to be teaching our students skills that will outlast the independent tools - ways they can approach and utilize any new technology as a "thinking tool".

Jamie Armin's picture
Jamie Armin
Health Science & Life Skills Middle School teacher from MA

I think that using google pads or ipads will allow us more time for out of the box learning the same way the use of the internet has transformed research from the days of using encyclopedias on bookshelves. Also, my philosophy of teaching has always been to challenge kids with questions. I just see that getting better and pads as tools for better/faster engagement.

DreemDigital's picture

This was a great article that touched on a lot of great reasons why tables are a vital tool in classrooms. If teachers can embrace this newfound way of learning then the students will be able to thrive. Tablets offer a 21st century approach to learning that only enhances the way we taught in the past. Children who before were resistant and tougher to engage are able to get involved with learning in a way they weren't able to before. We believe that tablets should be found in every classroom!

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