Blended Learning, Devices, Guest Post, IT Specialists, Teaching

Are iPads the Best Educational Tool?

iPad-for-education Guest Post By: Dan Cooke, IT Director for Kalamazoo Christian Schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan

At Kalamazoo Christian Schools we have been in the process of answering that question as we have adopted, implemented, and now evaluated a 1:1 iPad program utilizing more than 600 iPads within our district for our middle school and high school students (approximately 460 students in grades 5-12) and their teachers.

Like many others who are venturing down the path of adopting some kind of 1:1 program, we have learned some lessons along the way.

The good:

  • iPads are cool devices: an intuitive tablet that is great for young children and those who appreciate the tactile interaction or simply the “fun” aspect of using a unique piece of equipment.
  • There are literally millions of applications available, including a substantial number for free, many of which teachers will find useful.
  • A 1:1 program brings a certain amount of equity to an educational program: all students are working on the same devices, so you do not have issues of the “haves” versus the “have-nots” in your program.
  • Portable devices like iPads permit learning, research, and composition at any time and almost anywhere. You simply whip out your iPad and go.
  • The addition of equipment like Apple TV devices in a classroom permits anyone to project digital media to the whole class from an iPad.
  • When iPads work well, they are wonderful collaboration tools that permit everyone to get in on the learning taking place.

The bad:

  • iPads are expensive. Granted, they are cheaper than doing a Macintosh laptop program (you might be able to come close doing a PC laptop program), but still, when we started out in 2010 we were expending more than $550 per device (including a two-year warranty from Apple).
  • iPads are distracting. While students have instant access to “good” stuff, they also have instant access to “bad” stuff, or certainly things that are distracting, particularly games (the majority of apps on the AppStore are games) and social media.
  • While many management programs let you monitor what students are installing on a device, Apple has taken the stance that the majority of control for the devices remains with the user, so if you have a 1:1 program where the student basically “owns” the device (whether they actually do or not), they can install almost anything. This is not as great a problem at the middle school level where we more tightly restrict the age-level of apps (Apple give all apps an age-rating, similar to the rating system for movies), but the challenges are greater when you let high school students have more control.
  • A robust wireless connection on your campus is a must. Our district has buildings that are from two years old to almost sixty years old, and the technology capability of each varies wildly. Our program was implemented before a thorough evaluation of wireless connectivity had been conducted (granted, you can’t really test a system until you actually have hundreds of devices online at once), and we quickly discovered “black holes” in our oldest building where students could not connect to the internet. This required substantial network rewiring and deployment of additional access points to provide thorough coverage. While this had been considered in initial budgeting, it did not become a reality until after the fact, so we struggled through a whole school year with some classrooms unable to connect.
  • The dream of digital textbooks has not arrived. Some publishers do this, but most still do not, or they run on a system incompatible with everyone else’s.

The ugly:

  • iPads break – like crazy! As we have seen with our students, you can EASILY break the glass surface of an iPad by poking it, hitting a corner, or simply dropping it. With more than 600 iPads in circulation, our students annually break about 40 of them, which isn’t too bad, coming in at under a 10 percent breakage rate typical for other schools and businesses. But for a district like ours with minimal tech staffing, it means a lot of time is spent coordinating repair and replacement of the iPads.

So, like all good educators, we made a few adjustments along the way:

We went with a cheaper 16-gb model instead of paying for a top 32-gb model. Apple also dropped their prices a bit to be more competitive. In addition, we dropped Apple’s two-year insurance plan for a discounted rate with a local company (Genius Repair, now Tech Defenders) that repairs the iPad (instead of outright replacement with the Apple plan). Now that we have two years of history, I suspect we might even move to a plan of repair fees at a negotiated fee per device, instead of paying for coverage on all devices with a $50 deductible. This means prices will average about $120 a device now instead of the $50 deductible, but we will still be saving on the overall cost.

Form factor:
We are trying out some of the smaller iPad Mini models that are also less expensive.

Favorite apps (or applications, or programs on the iPad):
Since the devices are personal devices, favorite things are as personal as the users; however, we have settled on a few “standard” applications. For compositions, the leading application is Pages word processor from Apple (in tandem with their Numbers spreadsheet program and Keynote presentation program). Apple now provides limited online backup of documents, so students can access these documents both on their iPad and/or on a computer. But other companies are doing the same thing, and as a Google Education school, we are now transitioning to greater use of Google Documents, which then integrates with our Google-managed student email accounts. Everything on Google Documents has always been online (and always backed up), so once you learn the system it works quite well.

So what is the answer?
We are thinking of not putting all our eggs in the same basket. After three years of using iPads, we are now considering a blended option of using both Chromebooks and iPads, with Chromebooks in our high school, which has a greater emphasis on compositional projects. While iPads are a great educational tool, they are not going to be the answer for everything and should be approached in that manner. Chromebooks use the Google Chrome web browser as their operating system, so they are cheaper (you don’t license an operating system), and thus integrate well with our status as a Google Education school, so that may be a more viable option down the road.


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