George Lucas Educational Foundation
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One of the most challenging lessons for schools to learn in implementing iPads is that the iPad is not a laptop. The conversation can sometimes get bogged down around the device, trapping schools in these definitions as they lose sight of the central reasons to use technology:

  • To enhance teaching and learning
  • To differentiate instruction
  • To personalize the learning experience
  • To solve authentic problems where technology must be used to solve those problems

This is not an easy lesson. It requires a paradigm shift in teaching and learning.

iPads vs. Laptops

It's worth noting the different features of laptops and iPads and to see the benefit of both devices.

While the laptop is heavy, takes a long time to boot up, and is often used as a word processing tool with typing and keyboarding being paramount, it's also a powerful device for computer programming and accessing Adobe Flash-based simulations, particularly in the sciences. And the laptop is not bound by the app store. Many adults often prefer using a laptop over an iPad. And many students feel the same way. The laptop is often the default go-to device, full of power and possibility.

The shift to iPads over laptops does not have to be a zero sum game. The ideal setting, being adopted by many schools, is moving to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs to allow for flexibility and for students to work on their own devices. And BYOD also shifts the conversation away from the device and toward the learning experience. In other words, based on the learning experience, which device will best allow students to achieve the learning objectives? It might be a laptop or a tablet -- or even a smartphone.

Fast and Nimble

For teachers making the transition to iPads, frustration can set in if they continue to view the iPad as being deficient as a laptop. For example, they might talk about how difficult it is for kids to keyboard and edit on an iPad. We need to put the keyboarding issue to rest. Dr. Mark David Milliron comments, "While the new generations send text messages at 60 words per minute, the Baby Boomers text at six words per minute on average."

The iPad is a mobile device, and kids can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. Through using the split screen to type in the manner of texting, they can get their thoughts down quickly. In watching students use iPads, it's remarkable to see how facile they are in moving, adjusting and rearranging text in a Pages document, for example. It can be blinding to watch this fast, nonlinear workflow that is completely alien to the way adults were trained to type.

Clive Thompson in The Globe and Mail explains the concept of speed:

When it comes to writing and thinking, speed matters. It's what's called transcription fluency: If you can't write fast enough, you can lose an idea or a way of phrasing something, and it never comes back, Steven Graham, a literacy scholar at Arizona State University, told me. In contrast, when you can write and edit more swiftly, you can include more ideas and flesh them out more deeply.

Speed writing, outside of the boundaries of the traditional typing model, can be unsettling and baffling to many educators. The iPad is mobile, light, nimble, and boots up easily and quickly. To get started in class, all a student has to do is open the case and the iPad is ready. It's not meant to sit on a desktop. Instead, it is designed to be transported and used in flexible spaces.

Classroom Examples

In a science class, the iPad is a perfect device to video the steps and evolution of a lab, where a student can walk the viewer through the experience of conducting an experiment. Or students can photograph different components of the lab to create a virtual lab writeup. A laptop is more difficult to maneuver for capturing this type of learning experience.

For a world language class, students can interview each other outside of the classroom to practice authentic dialogue. They can create scripts and scenarios, and teachers can assess accents and pronunciation. But kids should be able to get out of their seats, and teachers should be willing to collapse the classroom walls.

From a visual standpoint, the iPad enables a whole new version of note taking. Sketch-noting has transformed note taking away from linear and toward artistic, creative, visual and free forming information capture. In T.H.E Journal, Paul Glader explains how sketch-noting works:

Many practitioners of sketch-noting use a stylus pen to draw on the iPad and use a drawing app such as Paper combined with apps like Evernote or Google Drive to save and manage notes in the cloud. Some snap their own photos of blackboards or PowerPoint slides, integrating images into their visual notes. Others grab photos from the web, cropping and dropping them into their notes and jotting maps, arrows, and words to connect and illustrate the ideas.

A Mobile Device

Again, the message is that the iPad opens doors to meeting the needs of a wider range of learners, learning styles and modalities.

As schools continue to explore the transition to iPads, it is critical to push the question back to teachers whether they are viewing the iPad as a replacement for the laptop or as a mobile device capable of dismantling time, space and linear approaches to learning.

Of course, this can be a terrifying thought, especially as schools have been designed for students to learn inside classrooms, at desks, and in a daily, weekly and yearly schedule constructed in a linear fashion with a one-size-fits-all mindset.

The recent Apple iPad ad, "Your Verse," shows users outside employing the iPad as a mobile device. Not a single image in the ad has the user sitting at a desk.

The benefit of the iPad is that it can be one size fits each, with boundless opportunities for differentiated, customized and personalized learning that gets kids out of their seats and classrooms, and into open, flexible and modular spaces.

Have you had positive experiences with the iPad or with mobile learning in general? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Katie's picture
Special Education teacher, grades 1-5 from Anderson, SC

The discussion for iPad kindergarten apps is great! I think I could use them for my first grade students. What about apps for older students (2nd-5th grades)? Is there any discussion out there for those grade levels?

Kate's picture
Former full time second grade teacher, now substitute teacher

I love the use of iPads in schools. I see them being used in so many ways in my district. Teachers use in Dibels testing. The iPads are also used frequently with the students with IEPs. They are easy for students to use and so mobile.
Because I am not a full time teacher, I do not have access to the districts wi-fi. I catch myself putting notes and dates on my iphone. I also have a list of different time fillers, ideas, and games for students. I also have many bookmarked pages that I can go to in a quick second while substitute teaching. No need for me to carry tons of papers, binders, etc...

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hi Katie, there's a community discussion that was started by a 4th grade teacher about iPads, which you can find here:

It's a long thread, so there's bound to be some nuggets in there. You're also welcome to start your own discussion. We have some awesome facilitators in the community who will be happy to help. Just head to the link below and use the "Start a New Discussion" link in the left sidebar.

Mr. Force's picture
Mr. Force
Middle School Music Teacher

I teacher middle school music and I am becoming a huge fan of the iPad. The music programs are very hands on and easy for my students to use. Since my school has an iPad carts, I am able to provide each student with an iPad instead of sharing laptops. I am looking forward to my school district starting to integrate more of BYOD into our schools.

Mike Guerena's picture
Mike Guerena
Director of Ed Tech at Encinitas Union SD and President at ThinkWrite Tech

I don't students today making the distinction between a laptop vs iPad as much as adults do. Many of us have had laptops for over a decade and it was our default mobile device. I think kids will have preferences if asked. My daughter prefers a laptop and my son prefers the iPad when writing. I see iPads being used everyday in my district and the students in k-6 love the iPads. The apps for iMovie and GarageBand are watered down versions of their desktop siblings, but for most of our students that is ok.

Ms. Budney's picture
Ms. Budney
10th grade biology teacher New Jersey

I am a high school biology teacher and my department received a class set of iPads to utilize in the classroom. The issue I am having is that as a teacher I cannot add apps onto the iPad myself but must go through the technology department of my school to get the app added. However, it also takes time for the technology personal to add the app to the iPad from the time request that I am often not on that topic anymore. I was wondering suggestions on how to incorporate iPads effectively into lessons. I do not want to just use the iPad as a supplemental textbook but as an effective learning tool. I would like to know any successful suggestions that you may have experienced with iPads.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Ms. Budney,
This is really the driving question behind the work that I've been doing with my students. The key to your question is to move past the idea of subject-specific apps, and to move towards flexible, creative ways for the students to use them to demonstrate their learning. We've carefully chosen a set of core applications that can be used in any subject area all day long.

The apps that we use most frequently include Explain Everything, iMovie, and Book Creator for iPad. These apps are simple enough for elementary students, but rich enough with features that our high school students also use them.

Melissa Mathews's picture
Melissa Mathews
5th grade teacher from Madison, IN

Our school corporation has gone to 1:1 with K-8 iPads and laptops 9-12. This is our first year using technology in all grade levels. I learned right along with my students and loved it! Students started out taking notes but quickly moved on to discussions, presentations, research, and communicating with me through email so I could help with homework questions. They took pictures of my lessons and anchor charts to refer to later. They found, on their own, our math book online so that they didn't have to take their book home! They discovered that if they didn't know something they could immediately find out more about it online. They recorded themselves reading so they could self monitor. The possibilities are endless. I can't wait for school to start so I can see what more we can discover.

nicala's picture

I appreciate the research insights into student composition speed with iPad typing. I'm still hesitant to accept the iPad as an appropriate composition tool. I Like it for gathering and planning, but not full composition as it seems that students leap too quickly to a linear writing pattern for faster product.

Bmoll's picture

I agree that students are much better at typing on the iPads than adults. However, all of my high school students still complain about it and would prefer a keyboard. Maybe as younger students grow up with it, it will become more natural.

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