Look Before You Leap: iPads in Education

Happy leap day everybody!

Over the last month, I’ve stumbled across a number of online articles and blogs about iPad integration in the classroom. The contexts and specifics vary widely: Yesterday I read about McAllen Independent School District and their plan to provide an iPad to each of their 25,000 students in grades K–12. A couple of week earlier I read about Sacramento County Day School and their move to phase in MacBooks for the high school students as a follow-up to providing their middle school students with iPads.

iPad 2

During this time, I also conducted two phone interviews of teachers involved in similar programs: One at a rural independent school implementing iPads throughout their K–8 school; the other at an urban private school using iPads in grades K–2 and MacBooks in grades 3–8. In reflecting on these articles and interviews, there are two themes that have emerged for me: the difference in the functionality between tablets and laptops, and the pervasiveness of Apple in the education arena.

Apple in education is nothing new. My first experiences using computers as a college student were with the original Macintosh, and when I began teaching I would take my students into the Apple IIe computer lab to use early math software like Green Globs and What’s My Rule? (Notice that already back then, the technology used in schools—Apple IIe—was a generation older than the technology I used at home—Macintosh.)

Now with the enormous success of the iPad, and the recent release of iBooks, Apple is once again at the forefront of forging new paths in education. Equally striking as the prevalence of Apple products in education is the the lack of competitor products in schools. Aside from the computer labs found in most schools, which are mostly PC-based, all the new buzz about technology in education centers around Apple.

What was interesting to me were the decisions made by those schools, like the ones I described earlier, that are using iPads for their younger students and MacBooks for their older students. This makes sense to me because as much as I love my iPad, there are limits to what I can do with it. To me, the iPad is a “player,” an excellent way to browse content and interact with apps, but when I need do creative tasks—writing a report, editing videos, creating presentations, or even writing this blog post—I use a laptop or desktop computer. Some tasks are simply cumbersome to do on an iPad, while others can’t be done at all.

This dynamic is parallel to the relationship between Sketchpad Explorer—our free iPad app available from the Apple App Store—and Sketchpad—our dynamic mathematics desktop software. Sketchpad Explorer is a player in which students can manipulate dynamic models by dragging points, “flickrementing” numbers (changing parameter values by dragging them up or down), and pressing action buttons. With its multi-touch functionality, Sketchpad Explorer is an elegant and powerful environment for mathematics visualization and exploration.

Sketchpad, on the other hand, is a full construction and authoring environment. In addition to the “player” functionality, a Sketchpad user can create models from scratch, using a handful of fundamental geometric and algebraic objects. This not only allows students to create their own explorations, it allows teachers to create and share models of mathematical concepts for any grade level. Best of all, these created models can then be used in the player environment—they can be imported into Sketchpad Explorer as an email attachment or through our free Sketch Exchange sharing website.

In an online article on redefining instruction with technology, Jennie Magiera gives advice based on using iPads in the classroom. Her first suggestion is to “break down and rebuild” the existing classroom framework: “I needed to review my program with the power of my new tools in mind.” Similarly, I believe that companies involved in mathematics education need to take the same approach with curriculum and activity development, rather than simply transferring old approaches to new platforms.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of educational technology conferences, including the iNACOL Virtual School Symposium and more recently the Texas Computer Education Association annual conference. So far I have not seen anything in the realm of educational math apps for the iPad that truly takes advantage of what this new platform has to offer—and at a deeper level, that redefines how students experience and understand mathematics—the way Sketchpad Explorer has. If you have an iPad and haven’t done so already, I highly recommend that you download and play with this free app. And if you have used it, I’d love to hear about your reactions.

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