Tuesday, February 12, 2013

iPads in my Classroom

My district is in the midst of transitioning to a 1:1 system where every student will be given an iPad for use in and out of the classroom. This current year, all of our freshmen and sophomores were given the devices. Next year, the incoming freshmen will be given them and the following year all students will have the device. I would like to take an honest look at the initiative and hopefully give you all some advice on making the transition. I will preface this by saying that I am NOT an Apple junkie. As a matter of fact, I have always leaned towards the Google/Android system for its openness and flexibility.

Currently, as I teach mostly upperclassmen, my opinions are on the fence with the iPad. I have not been able to integrate it like I plan on doing in the next few years as many of my students do not have the device. Lets focus on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good:

There are several appealing attributes to the iPad as the device of choice for a 1:1.

  1. The iPad allows for innovation. I visited a school in Chicago that was using Chromebooks for their 1:1. They were very excited about how they were using Google Docs and various websites in their classes. That was great and all, but I did not see anything being done that we were not already doing in my building. They were doing what they did before, only with a computer. Their worksheets were electronic, and the kids handed things by sharing the document electronically with the teacher instead of putting it in the wire basket. That is great, but it is not innovative. The iPad, with its camera and mic, its movie editing apps, its simulations and quiz taking apps allows for a much broader spectrum of capabilities in the classroom. With the iPad, we could not just do what we did before without paper, we can do more. 
  2. Kids think its cool. Sure there is a novelty to every technology, but with the iPad the students are still buying into its marketing. Put a cheap netbook in a kid's hand and they will say thanks, but give them this tablet and watch their face light up. Although silly, this can not be overlooked. 
  3. iPads don't break that easily. Actually they do, but we bought a pretty good case for them that protects them from being dropped and such. At a 1:1 conference I attended, people were telling me that we should expect 20% breakage of the device. I think we are like 1% in my school. Why? The iPad doesn't have a hinge or any moving parts. Most of the breaks to 1:1 devices are on the laptop hinge or some kind of moving part. Perhaps we have just been lucky!
  4. Battery life was a major factor in going to the solid state system. Most laptops have a 4-6 hour battery life, which would not get a kid through a day. Then think about three years down the road on how good that battery will hold a charge. If your school goes with a netbook or something like that, be prepared for cords spiderwebbing your floors. 
  5. The App Store is immense. If you can't find what you are looking for, it doesn't exist. People write apps for the iPad as its popularity is unmatched. 

The Bad:

Before you all believe that I am taking commission from Apple for writing this, I do have some serious problems with the device. 
  1. The iPad is not a production tool. I want my kids to produce documents from scratch that show me what they have learned. Frankly, the iPad sucks at this. My district is not going to shell out funds for every student to have Numbers or Pages at $10 each, so we are stuck with mostly free apps like Google Drive. The lack of keyboard is a huge issue in writing. It is hard to ask a student to write a research paper on this thing by typing with their thumbs. Kids are amazing at doing that, but it is not something they want to do for long periods of time. 
  2. Google Drive is not there yet for the iPad. The Drive App now allows you to save things offline, which is great, but their spreadsheets, search tools for finding contacts, and their ability to make a copy of the original for editing is way behind. I am confident they will catch up, but they are not there yet. Other teachers I know have tried Evernote and Dropbox, but neither of them allow for spreadsheets of data or graphing. Right now, I am still using my desktops for most of the actual classwork production. Students prefer it that way. 
  3. iPads do not support Flash. All of the cool simulations that have been written in the last decade are on the Internet using flash player or shockwave. In trying to keep Adobe out of its marketshare, Apple has handcuffed teachers of the tools they have been using for decades. New sims are not out there yet. 
  4. ITunes U is not what it promised. When we made the decision for the iPad, ITunes U and ITextbooks were just coming out. They were supposed to revolutionize education, but really are nothing more than slimmer versions of Edmoto and Blackboard. I don't know why anyone would write an ITextbook that is only available on the iPad. If I were doing all that work, I would do it in HTML so it could be used on any device. 
  5. Testing is a nightmare. We are looking at Naiku, a testing website that will allow students to take exams online. This is very promising but has its limitations. We need an app that will not allow students to leave the app while taking the exam. I can Google answers to the question by copying the text into the Google taskbar in Safari or Chrome. Apparently there is a part of the Naiku site that tells the teacher if the student is off task, but nowhere does it stop a student from taking a screenshot of the questions and sharing it with their friends. 
  6. I don't know where any of my files are! The Apple operating system stores your data in some magical place on the iPad that is specific to the app. On my Android phone, I can save documents to "My Files" and then retrieve them, move them, rename them, and download them to a computer. With my iPad I have to trust in the software to know what I want to do with a file and have the capability to do it. I am often disappointed in what I am not able to do. 
  7. Apps are not programs. Perhaps this is the wave of the future, but the apps that are out there are nowhere near as full-featured as the programs they stemmed from. Microsoft Word can mail merge, add images, tables of data from excel, wordart, and a million other things that no app can even come close too. If you want to add wordart, you need to find an app that is specific to that, and that will interface with the word processing app you are using. 

The Ugly:

The Ugly truth is that and 1:1 initiative, whether it be iPad, Chromebook, Netbook, or Laptop is only as effective as the teachers implementing it. We have several teachers in our building who were all over this initiative, thinking up innovative ways to use the device, downloading apps, and completely rethinking how they teach. I applaud them, but give them caution. The device should not dictate curriculum. It is a tool, nothing more. Sound teaching practices should come first. In science, I will not add an app if it does not fit into the methods in which I teach. It needs to foster inquiry and problem solving in a way that I can not do without it. I am excited to see what I can do with the device, but will not let it dictate my lessons. 

We also have many teachers reluctant or scared to use it. To them I say give it a chance. You may not find the prefect app for your lesson, but think about the abilities students can utilize in taking notes. You can now assign a video as homework instead of watching it in class. Simple formative assessments can be very powerful and easy to implement. It may not be a centerpiece of your classroom, but I believe there is a place for it. 

I would love to hear any of your thoughts.