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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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iPads In The Classroom: Worth Doing Right

Tablets in K-12 and higher education should not be technology for technology's sake.

Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages
Educational 'Technology' Across the Ages
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Simply purchasing slick devices like iPads for the classroom is hardly a recipe for educational success.

The temptation to do so is a symptom of an exciting, and perhaps confusing, time in educational technology. Never have students at all grades been more tech savvy, and never have educators had such an astounding range of technical resources available to them for pedagogical use. Let's talk about why iPad programs don't always succeed.

I serve as a wireless network architect and administrator, as well as a part-time faculty member at a private university, and I am parent of three kids who are growing up immersed in technology. I also spent a number of years as an advisor on a technical committee of a local K-12 district, wrestling with how to leverage various technologies that all seemed fascinating, but not easily stitched into the general fabric of the school day. I certainly don't have all of the answers on the topic of iPad initiatives, but I do have broad perspective.

[ Looking beyond the iPad: Texas School District Picks Dell Windows 8 Tablets.]

Also, a bit on iPads themselves is in order. Other tablet devices have made their way into plenty of classrooms, but the iPad has the educational market locked up as measured in volume sold. At the same time, most of my thoughts about iPads apply to all tablets regardless of make, and the challenges facing those who aspire to build educational programs on mobile devices.

Loosely defined, an iPad program puts the devices in the hands of students and faculty, and is intended to bring about the realization of some set of education goals. I break down the challenges with iPad programs into four general areas: the purpose of the program, the students, the teachers (and the K-12 districts/colleges they work for), and the technology itself. Here's where each can make trouble for an iPad program.

1. What's the purpose of the iPad program?

I've sat in meetings where administrators were bound and determined to put PCs into classrooms, but couldn't say how the machines would be used if their jobs depended on it. The same "technology for the sake of technology" mentality is a real risk with iPads. Any initiative needs a charter and specific goals, but too often technology is brought to a classroom because other schools are doing the same, or because a funding grant was too good to pass up. If you think you can simply get a bunch of devices and figure out how they will be used later, you've likely doomed yourself to failure. That's not to say you can't expand a program beyond the initial goals, but those initial goals must be defined and measurable.

2. Students

The contemporary student has a lot competing for her attention. Even without a device in hand, students wrestle with the same worries and social issues we all did at the various grade levels. Now add iPads, and consider:

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-- Students are often more adept in using devices than faculty are. I have seen this play out a number of times, from attempts to use GPS units in geocaching activities in physical education to my daughter's own Photoshop class. If the students have to teach the Instructor how to use the device or apps on it, chances for program success are pretty slim.

-- Students can have fleeting attention spans, and are easily distracted. The best teacher in the world is no match for the siren song of the Internet when a device in hand can take you to the Web during a lesson that isn't hooking you. (This is not so different from adult professionals reading email and news in boring meetings at work.)

-- If it's not a 1:1 program, students are less likely to embrace the initiative. iPads are not like networked computers, in that they don't really come with "multi-user" options. Students do best if they can feel like the device is theirs to "customize" and can expect a certain level of privacy with the device for a semester or school year, as opposed to being just an object they put back on the cart for the next person at the end of the class period.

3. Teachers And The School

With thousands of classroom hours under my belt, I really have an appreciation for the work that full-time educators do and the incredible range of challenges they face. At the end of the day, teachers are still people with varying levels of motivation, care, technical acumen, common sense, and suitability for a tech-dependent classroom initiative.

-- Underperforming teachers don't get better because of iPads. Where a particular teacher is failing for whatever reason, there's little chance that adding technology to their curriculum is going to make them more successful. In fact, it can likely have the opposite effect, especially if the goals of the program are not crystal clear. If the teacher doesn't buy into the value of the program, or if effective training on both the device and apps to be used has not been provided to the faculty, success is likely not going to be achieved.

[ Is it a changing of the guard for classroom devices? Why Tablets Will Kill Smart Boards In Classrooms. ]

-- Teachers are the first line of tech support, and don't want to be. Nothing is more frustrating to a teacher who only has 40 minutes to get through a class than a student who takes up the first 15 minutes because he's having a device problem. It's easy to say "send them to IT support and don't waste class time," but in reality it's just not that simple for a caring teacher who wants to help.

-- Are faculty teaching students, or administering an IT initiative? When an iPad program has been played up to students, administrators, and even the media as a big deal, teachers can feel obligated to decrease legitimate instructional time to make sure the iPads get used to the satisfaction of their bosses, regardless of whether students are truly benefitting. It's easy for priorities to get lost.

4. The Technology

A classroom full of iPads creates a slew of challenges for everyone involved. When multiple classes with the same student and device density are in close proximity, it gets even more complicated. From operation of the wireless network to inventory control to client support, there is a total cost of ownership to iPad programs beyond just purchasing the devices that needs to be understood.

-- Lots of wireless devices demand a good network. Not all wireless networks are created equal. As you increase your iPad counts, the complexity of the wireless network gets more pronounced. You'll need more access points professionally configured, and competing technologies, such as classroom response systems, certain cordless phones, and personal hotspots, will have to be mitigated.

-- What are the iPads connecting to? Even the best networks can feel sluggish if traffic headed to the Internet (or another campus) doesn't have a big enough "pipe" to get there, so your wired network and ISP connectivity might need to bulk up as well.

-- What about printing, Apple TVs, etc? Apple's Bonjour protocol is notoriously limited in its capabilities beyond the home setting, but is still the way most iPads communicate with Airprint and AppleTV applications. You might well have to redesign your network to support these.

-- Who administers the environment? Gone are the days when a faculty member or maintenance person can do network administration in their spare time. If an iPad program bears on student grades, it needs legitimate support from device to app to network.

-- Do you provide spares or pay for device damages? iPads are pricey, and kids of all ages break things. Who is on the hook for damaged devices? Do you keep spares so students are not without theirs in the case of theft or damage?

-- Are students expected to use iPads at home? Though residential connectivity is at an all-time high, not all students have the luxury. How do you address the divide?

As simple as an iPad program might seem, it's really anything but. Certainly mobile devices are opening new doors in education when used right, but take the plunge without having a solid plan, and no one will benefit. Study the successes and failures of like institutions with similar programs (including the "how it will be used", and not just the "what device to buy" questions), and proceed with caution. iPad programs worth doing are worth doing right.

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