iPads: Friend or Foe?

Do some research to find out if tablets enhance learning, or if they are just another distraction.

By Erin Bailey


Kids using an iPad

School supplies are becoming increasingly high-tech. In addition to pencils and paper, tablet computers, such as the iPad, are showing up more frequently on back-to-school shopping lists. As more schools consider investing in these devices, I investigated the potential pitfalls and benefits of integrating them into the classroom. 

While traveling this summer, I couldn’t help but notice all of the iPad users around me; checking facebook updates and e-mail, playing games, and reading books were the most common uses I saw. Portable, powerful, and packed with apps, it’s easy to understand the allure of such a high-tech gadget. Surprising to me, however, were the number of children using tablet computers. Today’s kids have been raised on the wizardry of the computer age and readily gravitate toward technology. It’s no wonder iPads and similar devices are showing up more often in classrooms. In the words of one school administrator from Auburn, Maine, “Ipads have star power with kids.” But is that enough of a reason for schools to jump on the bandwagon?

Costs vs. Benefits 

For schools that are throwing out traditional textbooks in favor of paperless versions, digital ebooks offer features that are unavailable in hardcover formats, such as links to online videos, embedded video demonstrations, and audio clips. However, there is a misconception that digital texts are considerably cheaper. Publishers charge about the same for either format.

The hardware itself is an additional cost, and maintenance of the equipment must be considered. The Auburn Maine school district spent $200,000 on 285 iPads and related software for the kindergarten class alone in 2011. School districts may face opposition from parents and taxpayers for the initial outlay. While grants for such equipment exist, it is difficult to say how long they will be available. Buying educational apps adds to the costs, as does the temptation to upgrade every few years.

The Need for More Data

Since the technology is relatively new, few studies exist on the effectiveness of tablets as a teaching and learning tool. Investing in unproven technology is risky in today’s environment of shrinking budgets and demands for more accountability. It will take a few years for useful data to be gathered which will answer the question “Is this working?” Until then, it is up to teachers and districts to collect the pre- and post-data correlated to traditional factors of student success such as engagement, project completion, and time on task. It is this type of information that will provide a more objective picture about whether or not iPads are helping to achieve classroom and individual goals. 

As with any new technology, there is a learning curve as teachers try to incorporate it into the curriculum. Nothing angers local fundraising groups more than seeing piles of expensive equipment collecting dust. The effectiveness of any new tool, including the tablet, rests with the teacher. Therefore, schools must make a pointed effort to provide the necessary training and ongoing support to ensure the iPads are being used to the fullest potential.

Game Logs Help Document Learning

Parents often cringe when a child reports that they played games in school, but teachers who have used iPads in their classrooms herald the ever-changing array of apps which they say keep lessons fresh. More than 5,000 educational apps are available with as many as a thousand available for free. To document the learning accomplished through such game time, pupils should be taught how to be purposeful in the use of this tool. A game log, similar to a reading log, should be employed. Before students begin jumping from game to game, have them create a plan which includes what they will achieve and how long they will play. Students should play designated games and record their highest and lowest scores on their log. They should also set a goal for the score they hope to achieve by the end of the week or other time frame. Ask students to write short notes about the apps they used and the skills they learned or practiced.

As I researched how teachers were using tablets, a number of ingenious applications for the iPad made me want to run out and buy one. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Teacher’s Assistant Pro: Designed by a teacher to document student behaviors and habits. Each field is fully customizable and can be filtered by actions, class, etc. This tool makes it easy to stay in touch with parents and administration. The low price is appealing, too.
  • StoryBuddy: Allows pupils to write their own ebooks and save them while Toontastic allows users to record animated cartoons. Draw your own ideas or select from a pre-loaded set of characters, props and settings. Kids tell their story in their own voice and Toontastic plays it back.
  • Virtuoso: Take the iPad into the fine arts program and allow young composers to write their own music.
  • iFont maker creates a font in the child’s own handwriting. Handwriting is as individual as the child, and this app does away with generic fonts when typing assignments.
  • iPrompt: An auto cue program that helps readers build fluency. Downloaded text scrolls across the screen at a rate set by you to fit individual needs.
  • Photo Card Lite: A virtual postcard that encourages students to write about a picture (either the ones provided or others they upload). Teachers familiar with it say that it is useful in learning geography and science vocabulary.

Lesson Plans with a Technology Component:

Of course, the iPad isn’t the only piece of technology equipment in the classroom. The lesson plans below incorporate other devices that have been around a bit longer.

Daily Announcements Made Easy

Pupils use a webcam and the software program NewsMaker to create school announcements. Skills that your class will practice include making decisions about digital tools, research, and managing a project.    

Animating a Historic Event

Using clay animation, learners retell important historic events in short, commercial-like segments. This is a highly engaging way for children to practice research skills and then give their work a technological component.

Immigration: Creating the American Melting Pot

This lesson plan is designed for the SMART Board. Middle school groups explore the Ellis Island website to answer questions before creating their own family trees.

Autism Apps

This list of apps is targeted at those who teach children with autism. A few of the included applications are appropriate for older students.