Can the iPad Rescue a Struggling American Education System?
Matthew Stoltzfus could never get his students to see chemistry like he sees chemistry until he added a digital component to his lesson plan.
Stoltzfus, a chemistry lecturer at Ohio State University, struggled for years to bring complex chemical equations to life on the blackboard, but always saw students’ eyes glaze over. Then he added animations and interactive media to his general chemistry curriculum. Suddenly, he saw students’ faces light up in understanding.
“When I see a chemical reaction on a piece of paper, I don’t see coefficients and symbols, I see a bucket of molecules reacting,” Stoltzfus said. “But I don’t think our students see that big bucket of molecules. We can give students a better idea of what’s happening at a molecular level with animations and interactive elements.”
And many such students are getting this multi-faceted education on tablets. Tablets are reinventing how students access and interact with educational material, and how teachers assess and monitor students’ performance at a time when many schools are understaffed and many classrooms overcrowded. Millions of grade school and university students worldwide are using iPads to visualize difficult concepts, revisit lectures on their own time and augment lessons with videos, interactive widgets and animations.
“In the shift to digital, it’s not just about replacing textbooks but inventing new ways of learning,” Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said. “Some of the education apps being developed for iPad are approaching learning in an entirely new way, and that’s exciting.”
Sallie Severns, founder and CEO of iOS app Answer Underground, told Wired that tablets’ simplicity, ease of use and the massive range of academically minded applications available are drawing teachers and educational technologists to the platform in droves.
Tablet-based learning is no longer the niche it was a year or two ago when we saw a handful of early adopters jump on board with iPad pilot studies in selected grades and classrooms. Schools and teachers are embracing the technology in a big way. A Pew study of 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers nationwide found that 43 percent have students complete assignments using tablets in the classroom. A PBS LearningMedia study found 35 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed nationwide have a tablet or e-reader in their classroom, up from 20 percent a year ago.
The iPad is the most popular tablet option among educators. Apple sold 4.5 million of them to schools and other educational institutions nationwide last year (it sold 8 million internationally), up from 1.5 million in 2011.
Tablets have proven especially popular in elementary education, and they’ve been a “revolution” for kids younger than 8 because they’re fun and intuitive, said Sara DeWitt, Vice President at PBS KIDS Digital. The taps and swipes are easy to learn, so kids spend more time learning their lessons, not their hardware.
“The iPad has given us an opportunity to make technology transparent,” she said. “The touchscreen interface is so much more natural than a mouse and keyboard, kids can jump right in.”
That said, there’s more to using a tablet in the classroom than handing them out at the door. Teachers and school district administrators must decide how to best integrate them into the curriculum, considering things like the number of tablets per classroom, which grades receive them first, what content is accessed, and when.
“How tablets are integrated into classrooms is key to success,” Severns said. “Planning, preparation, implementation and evaluating apps are key to using this new technology.” While adoption is broad, the ways educators are using them varies from class to class, school to district.
Apple’s iTunes U is one tool making iPad-based course integration easier by helping teachers create and curate a wholly digital curriculum. Teachers can pack iBooks textbooks (including titles from major publishers like McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), audio and video, documents, and even iOS apps into a single package that students navigate as they progress through the course.
When it launched in 2007, iTunes U was a source for audio and video lectures students could use on their iPods, but Apple introduced a new app in January 2012 that leveraged the capabilities of the iPhone and iPad, adding in iOS apps, iBooks, and video to the mix. Downloads have topped 1 billion, and iTunes U is used by more than 1,200 colleges and universities and more than 1,200 K-12 schools and districts.
Severns said iTunes U is “paving the way for how educators teach and students learn” because it allows for unprecedented ease in distributing and accessing academic content. Simply log on and it’s there.
Still, it can be easier or more beneficial, particularly in K-12 classrooms, for teachers to just round up a collection of dedicated apps (there are more than 75,000 education related apps in the App Store) for students to use. There, tablets are often supplementary rather than being used for the bulk of coursework, so a full blown iPad-based course (like with iTunes U) isn’t necessary. Tablet time is often a reward, where students will get to play a game that isn’t just fun, it’s building on skills and concepts they’re focusing on in class. iOS has built-in controls that can let teachers lock an iPad into a single app and place restrictions on functions like browser access to ensure kids are learning, and not goofing off.
Third party apps also can take advantage of the social networking opportunity inherent to mobile devices. Students can ask questions of each other and the teacher, something Severns said is absolutely necessary to ensure everyone understand the information.
Stoltzfus, the chemistry lecturer in Ohio, said the social networking aspect allows him to poll students mid-lecture to determine how well they’re understanding the topic. He can adjust his lesson on the fly, which he said is “where tablets can really really help us in terms of progressing in pedagogy.”
We are approaching the day when tablets won’t be an option, but a requirement.
Arkansas State University, for example, requires all incoming freshman to have their own iPad. But as tablet adoption proliferates amongst those students and schools with the money to buy the devices, low income students and cash-strapped schools may be left behind. That could deepen the divide between those with access to the latest learning tools and those with traditional technology and limited Internet access.
We’re seeing this kind of segregation already, but some of it is self-imposed. Many college freshmen, for example, are using iPads in class while many upperclassmen prefer their laptops or even pen and paper for coursework.
“Five years from now when young students come into college, the expectation is going to be a lot different than it is now. They’ll be used to using tablets in middle and high school,” Stoltzfus said. “We have to be the ones that are pushing the limits.”