There are a couple of schools in Belgium who’ll start this school year with iPads. All the students are expected to arrive with a device in their backpacks. A lot of commotion has risen about using the iPad exclusively, the costs, and other practicalities. In this article (in Dutch) the school welcomes the debate, but regrets that no pedagogical properties are considered. I do think that things like costs and choice of manufacturer are important, but one has to see the bigger picture too. Through my iPad-experiment I’d like to offer an opinion to the discussion. Feel free to prove me wrong or to engage with my reflections.
I’m not nearly qualified to offer a decent technical review about the iPad (or any other device, for that matter), but there are a lot of experts out there who can and do. Looking at different tests, opinions and reviews, I learned that there probably are devices that are faster, have a better camera, offer an external keyboard, have a USB connection, … but for me it’s about the whole package. What do you get when you buy an iPad? It’s certainly more than just the camera, just the virtual keyboard, just the display, … It’s the combination of all these things and, most importantly, how they interact. It is precisely this observation that a lot of people seem to overlook, yet to me, is quite essential.
The iPad offers (as do other Apple product) a habitat where we as a user can comfortably interact with the device itself and the apps installed on it. Responsible for this is, in my opinion, iOS. The operating system Apple uses, is a very solid and seamless one. When picking up the device and flicking through it, you feel at home, it feels natural to work with. There is no clutter and keeps your head with the job at hand. I do not have to worry about saving my data (it happens automatically). I don’t have to “learn” a new app, because a lot of the controls are similar. I know Apple keeps a very tight leash concerning app approval, but I welcome this since it offers me software that is guaranteed to work properly on my machine. I don’t have to worry about viruses, bugs, or user licenses that “are out to get me”. It exudes confidence.
Apple delivers a device which accommodates a number of features (camera, virtual keyboard, gyroscope,…). Apps can use these features and therefor have the ability to lift the user experience to a whole new level. Combined with other Apple products, exchanging information or data is just seamless, thanks to iCloud (Apple’s online service). But, using the iPad a standalone device is possible too!
The USB enigma. I don’t get all the fuss about this particular item. The first thing people would ask/tell me was whether there was a USB connection on the iPad (or lack thereof). I have never felt the need to connect a USB cable to my iPad. Or I connect it through the standard dock connector or wirelessly. So tell me, what is the need for a USB connection? Uploading photos from you camera? Use the camera connection kit! Uploading files from your computer? Use the dock connector or wifi! Connect a thumb drive? Why use thumb drives when you have cloud-based applications!? This list could go on, but take it from an experienced user: you DON NOT need a USB connection!
Built-quality! Ever held an iPad in your hand? Ever compared it to another device? Materials like aluminum and glass not only make it very beautiful, which in itself is a very underestimated property of a successful device (especially in the classroom!), but they make you feel like you hold something sturdy.
And then there’s battery life… You can use an iPad throughout the day on a single charge. Playing high quality games or doing a lot of video-editing will make this more difficult, but generally speaking you won’t spend much time looking for a power socket. This truly is an all-day-long device, and therefor the battery is the single best feature when the original iPad came out. You could actually use this thing in a classroom all day long.
Real world experience
So I’ve used this thing with students. I experienced it first hand with a friend. It just works! Students actually figure things out. Things they didn’t know 5 minutes before they entered the classroom. They can be creative beyond anything I’ve seen. The apps made it possible to look for things so much easier, store data without thinking, present their finding so much better. Students won’t have to worry about the technicalities, they can just create! And most importantly: the students liked it! They were engaged, active, hungry for more (you can read all about it here).
I talked about technical aspects, I’ve seen it in action in the classroom, but what is it that makes this thing so ideal for education. What pedagogical benefits are the result of using iPads over books, a chalk board and 25 students placed behind neat little desk?
The ability to bring the entire world into you classroom!
Exactly because the iPad is this multifunctional device, you can use it to distribute you course books as pdf’s, make notes during class, present your work, etc. but also add current/up-to-date content to your lessons. You can open up your classroom to the world and engage with everything and everyone in it:
- invite experts to talk about your subject;
- exchange information with students from other schools, or even from another country;
- work together on a global scale;
- instantly add content about something when your students seem to need some deeper digging into the subject;
- use 3D images or manipulable multi-media;
The emphasis is no longer storing information in our brains, but teaching our brains how to deal with the enormous quantity of information we are bombarded with every day. Where knowledge/information used to be scarce, we now have access to millions of pages of trustworthy data. And we can access it with our phones and tablets!
Do students still need to learn stuff? Of course they do! Most certainly! Students do need a descent basic knowledge to fall back upon, but new skills like retrieving information or knowing what information is useful is essential!
Stephen Downes and George Siemens coined the term “connectivism” which presents a new and different pedagogy where knowledge is found in networks and learning happens when new connections are made in these networks. Technology like the iPad (and many others) supports this pedagogy, enhances it. In my opinion, the connectivist approach is more dynamic in nature than the current static forms of education. More organic vs. artificial. Prepared for chaos and change and thus able to adapt more quickly/easily in new situations.
The iPad, to me, has more potential then any other product to be incorporated in a school environment. The benefits are numerous, the drawbacks few. But most of all, pedagogically speaking, it offers new ways for students to find, create and share information with the whole world. Just spending a lot of money on these machines will not do, but integrating them properly in the classroom opens up doors you couldn’t even dream of!