Goodbye Textbooks, Hello iPad

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A technology shift is under way. The PC’s promise to transform how learning happens in the classroom is being realized by Apple’s iPad. Students and teachers in grade school through higher education are using the iPad to augment their lessons or to replace textbooks.

The iPad is especially helpful for students with special needs. Its simplified touch interface and accessibility features help these children learn more independently; aftermarket accessories assist in making the iPad more classroom-friendly.

In March, I wrote about how my mother learned how to use her iPad for basic stuff -- like checking e-mail and browsing the Web -- without ever having used a PC in her life. Students at all grade levels are finding it just as easy to use.

Jennifer Kohn’s third grade class at Millstone Elementary School in Millstone, New Jersey, mastered the iPad with minimal training. For the most part, the students didn’t need to be taught how to use their apps, Kohn says.

Kohn uses the iPad when it’s meaningful to enrich, extend, or introduce what students are learning in the classroom. Her class has used their iPads to interact with storybooks, brainstorm ideas for creative writing, and to learn mathematics. Math Bingo, an app that teaches kids math through gaming, is one of the top selling iPad apps for education.

The students used netbooks prior to the iPads’ arrival, but the PCs were hard to use, sluggish, and would slow down over time, Kohn says. “The iPad’s one-button interface makes a big difference when working with kids. Its better for most things.”

Here’s a video of the Millstone kids with their iPads:

The Millstone experience is reminiscent of a story recounted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography of a an illiterate child who was able to instinctively navigate an Apple executive’s iPad despite never having encountered a PC or “smart” device before.

College students are also turning to the iPad to do what they do instinctively well: saving themselves money. Marianne Petit, a New York University staff member, recently began taking credits in pursuit of another certification, and uses her iPad in place of textbooks.

“The price of the iPad pays for itself after a single semester,” Petit said. “iPad books cost so much less…It’s a legal alternative for students who are using BitTorent [to pirate books].” Steve Jobs was exploring the textbook market near the end of his life, according to Isaacson.

There is also high interest in using iPads within clinical settings, Petit said. Aside from her studying, she works as a master teacher at the Interactive Telecommunications Project, an initiative of New York University’s Tisch School. Tisch has formed community partnerships to create assistive technology, and students write apps for healthcare.

“For a device without a tactile interface to be the most accessible device for people with visible impairments would have been shocking just a few years ago, but they’ve been so good developing interfaces,” Petit said.

Students who have special needs can benefit significantly from the iPad’s adaptability and ease of use, says Jennifer Lowton, director of GMPDC, a professional development center for teachers. She also works as an in-class consultant.

“Motor skills are not necessary. Three-year-olds are using them and instantly figured out how to swipe from left to right,” Lowton said. “The home button gets you out of anything.”

Lowton credits Apple for investing in accessibility features for students who have less defined motor skills. Apple recently released its Assistive Touch software for people with spasticity and motor impairments.

Other non-lingual interface elements such as + signs to add photos also make it easier for students to work independently, Lowton says. “It instills confidence in them.” PCs were more challenging for the kids to operate.

While PCs were sometimes helpful, students frequently struggled, because managing a mouse, double clicking, and the handling a large keyboard requires high motor skills, Lowton notes. Special education students and students who have motor issues often have low motivations because of those difficulties, but the “iPad comes over so many of those issues”

In practice, Lowton says students with communications issues–such as trouble difficult pronouncing words–can use apps that insert phrases to comment for them.

Some of Lowton’s classrooms use Evernote to take pictures of notes and upload those images to the cloud, so that they will never lose them. Students to whom English is a second language can use apps to translate anatomy and science terms .

Like the PC before it, Kohn noted that the iPad isn’t a panacea for educators: It has its appropriate time and place. “I don’t use them with every lesson or even day. It’s not always appropriate to lesson or objective of what I’m trying to teach,” Kohn noted. “You need meaningful apps used in the best way for kids – not just another thing to do with them.

Petit said that Apple’s App Store policies might hinder app development. “Tisch student have a lot of issues around…Apple’s openness for developers.”

It may also be difficult having kids handle iPads. The standard iPad cover proved insufficient for third graders: Apple’s Smart Covers didn’t protect the hardware from being dropped and didn’t elevate the screens high enough for comfortable desktop use.

Millstone Elementary uses an iPad accessory called the iPhome, a multisided foam case that can be positioned for hands-free use and stacks for storage in the classroom. “It’s not flat on the desk, and is easier for all of them to see and use,” Kohn explained.

Lowton recommends the iPhome for unique learners, because having the iPad become hands free limits interactions to tapping and swiping. “Students grab on to them and they just go,” she says. “The iPad is very slippery, and the smart cover wasn’t very smart for the classroom -- it’s just held on by a magnet.”

The iPad may also pose challenges for school IT administrators, and some are having difficulty pairing the iPad with schools’ existing technology investments/ iPad adoption is most difficult for schools that have standardized on the PC. File sharing, syncing, and printing are some of the primary issues, and not all schools have Wi-Fi.

“We have to find creative workarounds,” explains Lowton. Those workarounds include using cloud services such as Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Docs. Some schools have used Bluetooth dongles to share files in place of WiFi. iOS 5 and iCloud have improved syncing, but are not usable for large files such as iMovie videos used by students for digital story telling. Teachers may also have trouble deploying apps.

While network administrators may have difficulty managing, supporting, and tracking iPads, Lowton notes. “It’s less of a problem for the teachers.” And teachers are driving demand for the iPad. Lowton is presenting an iPad “boot camp” this month, and it’s already overbooked. “Schools are going over to eBooks -- paper text books are outdated and loading down students shoulders.”

“They want it all on device. Some schools are doing a 1:1 initiative with Kindles or iPads.”

The iPad is less than two years old, and it’s already proving to be a disruptive technology in education. Despite years of talking about going digital, PCs never were a suitable substitution for paper. The iPad and other smart devices just work better. The long reign of the traditional textbook could finally be coming to an end.

[Thanks to iPhome founder William Fitzgerald for helping to arrange speaking to the teachers quoted in this story.]

This story, "Goodbye Textbooks, Hello iPad" was originally published by Technologizer.

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