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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

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

I appreciate that the title of this piece reads "Can Transform Learning" and not "Will Transform Learning." Yes, technology can be used to facilitate inquiry-based, problem-based, and project-based learning; but it can just as easily be used for passive learning, canned lessons, and mindless games. Much lies in the teacher's ability to help the students find questions and problems worth pursuing, and to develop the skills to create something worthwhile out of their inquiries. One problem with the submarine example is that this is a question that has already been answered by engineers, and high school students are unlikely to have the skills to improve on existing submarine designs. So they may end up Googling and presenting someone else's work. It might be better to challenge them with a problem that doesn't yet have a solution -- perhaps something local to their school or community, as with High Tech High's fish pens project. Instead of merely simulating the processes of design and engineering ("Imagine you had to..."), they can authentically engage in them and actually create something useful.

Abbey Sullivan's picture

LanSchool's app is just that ... an app. It can be closed and uninstalled just like any other. If students close the app, they're no longer monitored and drop from the teacher's view.

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


I guess I'm not following your comment. The LanSchool teacher console requires programming within an application. It's not that simple to uninstall, unless perhaps you're a programmer. And then if a student closes the app when he/she is not supposed to, isn't that the whole point of this teacher portal/classroom management system? The teacher will know the student is not working on the app and can react accordingly.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

I did a webinar (free) for Classlink and they have a fantastic solution to your problem: how to managea classroom full of ipads, apps, accounts, and data storage and retrieval. It is called Launchpad and it simplifies all of the headaches of Ipad implementation. It is so good that even Bring your own technology works with it. (

Ben Johnson,
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


You have a point there. There are plenty of new unsolved problems out there, there is no need to recreate ones that are not as urgent or engaging to students.
Thanks for the insight.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Brian's picture
Math Teacher from MN

I like what you wrote about with your math examples. I konw that the students learn at diferent levels and pacing can be tricky. So I think if teachers can find many ways for students to show what they learned more students will be learnig and not restricted to one way. I hope to be able to do this in my clasroom this year becase we are incorporating iPads in the classroom.

Gayle's picture

I began using iPads for formative assessments last year in my classroom. Overall, most students were highly motivated to do quality work with an iPad in their hands. I was amazed at their creativity. We often assume that high school-aged students are quite adept at technology. However, many of them get easily frustrated when problems arise on the iPad. I encourage teachers to create examples on the iPad before introducing them to students. By doing so, teachers can learn where difficulties will arise. We have to share iPads in our school; I would love to have broader access to them.

Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

I am a Reading teacher, and I can tell you that I am just tickled pink to see what an IPad can do. As you know in my field, I need to do more personalized instruction. I may have a student who is struggling with sight word vocabulary, and may still have another who needs help with print processing. Then the learning styles of the students vary. Some or more kinesthetic, others more visual, and still others more auditory.

With such a light and powerful technology, I could not only reach out to students with different learning styles, but also easily motivate the students and get them excited about Language Arts activities.
One very beneficial activity in so many ways is to just get the students to not only read but write. Writing and Reading go together; writing enhances a student's reading skills, and reading influences their writing skills.

I currently like to use Cubert's Cube. It is a website geared for elementary school and middle school students and uses Wikis. The students can create and interact with each other with the use of this online software.

The teacher has full control over the site, and can create a private and safe environment for his/her students in the classroom. Over the years, I've always promoted using computers for writing when I've had the opportunity. In the past, I'd have a couple of big clunky desktop workstations which only two students could access at a time. They also were only able to word process or practice sight words which used a software program on a floppy disk. ( Remember those)?

Now in 2012, students can use the sleekest gadgets in a way that they not only can write, but they can publish their works online! How cool to be able to see your writing published? And is there no better inspiration to want to write further? With an Ipad, the students can read a book in the classroom, go to the author's website and learn about the author. Then, they can try writing their own similar tale with their friends on Cubert's Cube.

Cubert's Cube also includes story starters and a gallery where the students can either draw or upload pictures to illustrate their writing and inspire them further.

My first year as a teacher, I had a grandparent come in to visit the classroom on "meet the teacher" night. He wrote on my board: "A teacher is a window through which the child sees the world." I'll never forget that quote and believe with the amazing tools of today, the windows are open, and the sunshine is beaming in.

Dave Staurt Jr.'s picture
Dave Staurt Jr.
HS ELA / History Teacher who blogs at

Hi Ben,
I appreciate the sentiment that engaging activities alone will eliminate inappropriate game-playing, and I think that conceptually it is great. Unfortunately, it seems that, in the real world of the classroom where students sometimes enter with a lot of issues, avoiding game-playing is more difficult... . I haven't used iPads, but I did have a classroom set of netbooks last year, and it was very difficult to keep some students (who I loved!) from misusing the technology.
Any additional pointers?

Natalie W.'s picture
Natalie W.
1st Grade Teacher Eatonton, GA

Love IPads
I can personally say that I love using iPads as learning tools within the classroom! The learning opportunities with the iPad are limitless. I was received two iPads last school year due to a grant that was written by my first grade team. The students are deeply engaged and love reinforcing learning through the iPad. I first began allowing my volunteers to use the iPads with students who were struggling, it quickly led to allowing the students to use the iPads during reading and math centers. So that every child got to use the iPad frequently enough to become somewhat familiar with it. It takes limited training to get the students familiar with it. Students practice math facts, sight words, read stories, and practice many more topics. iPads are meant to be a learning tool used to reinforce the fundamentals that are taught. I feel the iPad in hands of all students provides equal learning opportunity as many students within my town do not have access to computers in their homes. iPads and other great forms of technology are the future of our education!

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