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Checking Out the iPad: A Pilot Project Tests the Hot New Tech Tool

By Carolyn Foote - Posted Nov 1, 2010
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Just carry an iPad into a restaurant or a school library and see how much attention you get! It’s a device everyone wants to get their hands on, touch, and play with. But it can’t just be about the dazzle of the device. It needs to be about what the device helps students and teachers do better. So what are its strengths and weaknesses in using it in schools?

That’s what we wanted to find out in our district, Eanes ISD in Austin, Texas. A decision was made to pilot six iPads at Westlake High School’s research center and to examine if the devices were helpful in a school and/or library environment. As to why the library was selected for the pilot and rollout, Carl Hooker, coordinator of educational technology for the district, stresses: “Librarians are the informative media hubs for our campuses. They manage and distribute information on a regular basis in a variety of formats, so it seemed logical that they would be the perfect starting point for piloting the iPad. Since it is such a high-traffic area for a variety of students and staff, it allows us the unique ability to heterogeneously test multiple facets of the iPad in a centralized environment.”

Granted, at this point, most schools and libraries can’t purchase an iPad for every student by any means. But as iPads and other types of tablets become more prevalent, we wanted to get a sense of how useful a device it would be for classroom small-group use, for library research use, and for teacher use.

THREE ONGOING PROJECTS

There are three ongoing projects we are doing to assess that use. First, we are asking teachers to try the iPad, explore various apps and applications for their subject area, and assess their impressions via a survey. Secondly, we are setting up library student focus groups to examine and evaluate library applications—e.g., e-readers, database apps, internet searching and bookmarking, and MLA (Modern Language Association) apps. And lastly, we’re setting up some small-group classroom assignments using the set of iPads to see how they can be used in small-group settings.

To begin, we decided to manage all the iPads from one iTunes account. We loaded a large collection of free iPad apps as well as podcasts, videocasts, and TEDTalks in various subject areas; the only purchased app we loaded was iSource MLA ($1.99!). Our choices ranged from productivity apps (notetaking and brainstorming tools) to subject-specific apps.

While there are many paid apps, we are exploring the depth to which we can go with free apps at first because there are many to choose from. Education apps can be found easily in the iTunes app store or in online articles and blog posts. And as we have used the iPad in different subject areas, we have searched out apps appropriate to the curriculum of that subject, gradually building our collection.

PRODUCTIVITY TOOL, INSTRUCTIONAL TOOL

Currently, we are in the teacher phase of the trial. There are two main aspects we are looking at: iPads as productivity tools for teachers and iPads as instructional tools for a class. Comments from teachers have been very positive, particularly about apps for working with students with special needs. There are some excellent apps for students, including audio recording/notetaking apps (such as AudioNote or Sundry Notes) and an app that will “speak” for students (TaptoTalk). The fact that screens and fonts can be enlarged also proves very beneficial for some students. As one of our special education teachers concurred in our anonymous survey: “The iPad is excellent for students with special needs. It offers great accessibility for students with physical and mental disabilities.”

Counselors have explored the college apps available; many colleges now have apps for tours. English teachers have tried the MLA App iSource mentioned previously. The AP government teacher has explored various free federal government apps. And our American Sign Language teacher has been testing various sign language apps, including quizzes and tutorials.

Of course, beyond the apps themselves, iPads can store anything an iPod can, so it gives teachers great access to iTunes U and other podcasts. The excellent video quality of the iPad makes things such as the TEDTalks very accessible for teachers who might not seek out podcasts or videocasts.

One of the instructors in our pilot, American Sign Language teacher Barbara Vinson, raves about the week she spent using the iPad in her classroom: “It’s a very engaging tool for any subject area” that can appeal to students more readily, even in subjects they aren’t as interested in. She found the speed of the iPad excellent: “Kids want immediate feedback. The speed of it helps students be engaged and ready for learning. If you miss that opportunity with kids [due to technology malfunctions], you’ve lost that window.” She envisions its real-world applications: “It can be great for a group project—in the real world, are you not working in teams on projects?” And Vinson even developed a unique way to make it easy to share her iPad with students. By just placing it under her document camera, she found, she could share the screen instantly with the class and avoid the limited portability of attaching it to a VGA cord.

We recently began the next phase of the pilot, during which we will be working with student focus groups to identify strengths and weaknesses of the iPads as e-readers and as research tools in libraries.

USAGE PATTERNS

As for using the iPads for library research, simple things, such as the speed of the Safari browser, are a big plus. Another ideal feature for working with students is that you can set specific websites as “apps” on the desktop. So your library homepage, database page, or research site can all become one-touch apps. No more trying to convince students to wade through link after link to reach a particular database site. The iPad makes searching using academic tools far more accessible for students.

Adding some brainstorming apps (such as Popplet Lite and Brainstorming by ideaWallets) allows students to use the iPad to brainstorm topics or reorganize their ideas. Evernote, Flipboard, or the Delicious app help students collect pages, graphics, and links relating to their research. And iSource MLA provides a quick way for students to assemble a list of their sources.

For librarians and teachers alike, the portability allows you to take your show on the road, so to speak. During our annual Back to School Night, I was able to roam the library using the iPad to demonstrate our databases, show off our website, and call up photos of the library construction, all while moving about and greeting parents. The portability and tablet-style design makes it a handy on-the-go tool for librarians working with students and staff on research; no more stopping to find a vacant computer to demonstrate a site for a student or teacher.

IPADS AS E-READERS

As library e-readers, there are obvious benefits to the iPad. Books display beautifully, in a way that is reminscent of reading in print. Books become even more portable. Imagine the difference between carrying 10 books in a backpack versus carrying one iPad. When reading, fonts can be enlarged easily. And students can read ebooks from websites via Safari’s browser—so most web-based ebooks would be accessible—or ebooks specifically downloaded to the iPad in iBooks, Kindle, nook, or other free ebook apps such as Stanza. There are some books that are apps in themselves as well, like Alice Lite; some magazines such as National Geographic have beautiful magazinelike apps. And a few textbook sites such as Inkling are starting to crop up, which will enhance the use of an iPad as a virtual textbook.

IPADS AS TOOLS FOR COLLABORATION

The last part of our iPad pilot will involve using the set of six iPads in small group assignments in classrooms, such as our AP Human Geography class. The iPad seems a natural collaborative tool for students to explore sites, gather and record data, etc. A number of school districts are also testing out iPads in classroom settings, such as Chicago Public Schools’ Burley Elementary, which is using them with first and second graders at literacy centers (www.convergemag.com/classtech/CPS-iPad-trial.html). Palm Beach County (Fla.) is also piloting iPads. It has compiled an excellent wiki with links to apps sorted by grade level and links to other schools doing iPad pilots as well (http://palmbeachschooltalk.com/groups/ipadpilot). We are also compiling a list of iPad resources, which I will continue to update on my blog as we continue through the pilot (http://futura.edublogs.org/ipads).

MANAGEMENT AND PRODUCTION CONCERNS

There are some definite management concerns for schools, though one positive is that you can manage a group of iPads from one passworded iTunes account if you prefer to keep the set of apps consistent. A negative is that iTunes does require a credit card account to be included when setting it up for apps, which can cause difficulty for some schools. However, gift cards can be used, and they could be parent-donated items. And Apple is working on education pricing for volume discounts. It recently announced its initiative for schools. More information can be found at www.apple.com/itunes/education and http://volume.itunes.apple.com. Apple is indeed beginning to recognize the struggles schools face with purchasing via its pricing structure.

Other management issues come up especially if the iPads are circulating and are not assigned to individual students. One example is how to manage the content within each app. If students are checking iPads out and using various notetaking tools, do you erase the notes each time the iPads are returned? What do you do about bookmarking and notetaking in book apps? And how do you handle app installation in general? In an ideal world, of course, every teacher or even every student would have his or her own “learning device,” which would make management much easier because each user could manage his or her own device.

Another thing to note is that an iPad is different from a laptop in terms of production. While you can purchase Apple’s Keynote and Pages for the iPad and you can use notetaking tools or image editing apps, their functionality has a different feel than similar applications for a laptop. It might not be the tool of choice for intensive amounts of writing or for editing a video (not yet anyway). But like the iPhones that many of us carry around, it can quickly become the go-to device for book recommendations, maps, answers to questions via Google’s apps, keeping notes and reminders, reading and highlighting ebooks, and more.

As our campus instructional technologist, Dustin Windsor, points out, “Soon we’ll be able to open up their backpacks and take out the massive textbooks, the laptop computer with its assorted cords and peripherals, and replace them all with an iPad loaded with the tools that the student or teacher will need in the course of a day. But now, they’ll be able to collaborate with their colleagues through book highlights in the Kindle app, Twitter and other Web 2.0 tools on the internet, and all the while keeping track of their assignments and personal appointments through one of a hundred productivity applications.”

Watching students in our own library using their personal iPads, I am struck by their enthusiasm but also by the collaborative ways students engage over their iPads—sitting together to watch a video, leaning over a chess game, etc. Our students increasingly learn collaboratively. As Don Tapscott points out in Growing Up Digital , “The individual learning model is foreign territory for most Net Geners,who have grown up collaborating, sharing and creating together online.” We want technologies used with students to be, as Chris Lehmann says, “ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” Ultimately, because of its ease of use, the iPad can become one of those technologies that melt into the background; then it becomes about the collaboration, exploration, teaching, and, most important, the learning that happens through it.

Carolyn Foote is a librarian at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, and a past presenter at Internet@Schools. She can be reached via her blog Not So Distant Future (www.futura.edublogs.org) or her email (technolibrary@gmail.com).


 
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