Looking over the blogosphere, peering into the depths of Twitter, and even watching the national media, there is a growing debate about the role of iPads in classrooms, with some siding with Apple's new push to digitize textbooks, and others decrying the presence of a corporate entity monopolizing the field of education and charging outrageous amounts of money for their product. On that debate, all I will say is that this isn't new! The corporate entities are named Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Macmillan/McGraw Hill. I know products of corporate boogeymen, I work with products of corporate boogeymen, and Apple is just another corporate boogeyman...
In any event, what's missing from what I've seen thus are samples of how iPads can be used in a classroom and tangible, educational evidence of their costs and benefits. What, if anything, is their value-added to the classroom? Here's a sample from yesterday's World History class:
We needed to cover African geography from 900-1500CE or so. Students needed to learn where the Kingdom of Ghana and the Empires of Mali and Songhay were; how trade routes, both maritime and Trans-Saharan worked; how the Swahili coast was organized; and how they interconnected and why each was significant. In the past, this involved a paper map, colored pencils, textbook maps/atlases and several paragraphs of their handwriting on sheets of paper that I then needed to collect, take home, read, assess and hand back. The total time for this process was at least one class period (two if they were doing a freehand sketch of the continent) for the students to complete the map, another class period to write out everything, and then two-three nights of steady reading and commenting on my part before the work would be handed back as a two or more sheets of paper packet. So a full 4-5 days would pass before closure of the assignment was attained. This year, I used the iPad.
With the iPad, students snapped a photo of a blank map of Africa I posted on the whiteboard. (I could also scan it and share it as a .pdf if the camera images weren't good enough quality to use. But they were.) They then imported the photo into ShowMe, Educreations or VoiceThread apps, which allowed them to draw (using fingers or styli) the items onto the map that they were to locate. (Most used the map in the textbook as their source, but it was mis-labled, and they ultimately had to look up the information to make corrections.) In all three apps, students are able to draw over time; that is, they can put in the items in a sequence and then animate the final product so that items appear one at a time, overlaying as necessary. All three apps also allow students to record their voices and overlay that onto the map. So as they drew, or after they drew, students recorded their own voices explaining the items, what they were, how they interconnected and why they were important to this period of time.
Students then saved their maps, generated links, uploaded them to their blogs or emailed themselves and me a link. This process, in all three classes with 20 students at a time using the wireless network simultaneously, was completed in 30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes of class time.
Benefit to the teacher #1: I have reclaimed a full class day plus for other content.
Benefit to the teacher #2: I do not have a stack of papers to transport to and from my home.
Benefit to the teacher #3: I can assess their projects digitally on their blogs or via email--I don't have to worry about them reading my handwriting (or not); I can correct any mistakes I make cleanly without cross-outs; I don't have to read, I can just listen; and I don't have to puzzle through their handwriting.
Benefit to the teacher #4: I don't have to spend time out of my day at the photocopier, copying stacks of maps to distribute, but can use the time more productively. (No paper jams, running out of toner, etc. and no loss of my prep period on such a mundane task.)
Cost to the teacher: None I can think of.
Benefit to students #1: their projects can not be lost, misplaced, ripped or damaged.
Benefit to students #2: rather than get frustrated by markers running out, inadvertent marks being made, or mistakes occurring that would require a total re-start of the activity, they can erase as they go along, replace colors, and edit their work without pulling the old, "I need a new map." which sends me back to the copy machine and wastes their time.
Benefit to students #3: They are forced to put their information into the spoken word and record it, which required them to pre-think the significance and connections and rehearse what they would say, which led to their doing the work at a higher level. Most students jotted notes first to be sure they covered what they wanted to cover.
Benefit to students #4: They all receive high quality, rapid feedback from me (and from their peers as well, all of whom have access to each others' blogs.)
Benefit to students #5: When they go to study for tests/quizzes, the maps are easily retrieved, the information is in their own voices and handwriting, and is better imprinted on their memories.
Cost to the students: Some of the above benefits are also possible through composing a map by hand, and indeed, several students during our de-brief maintained that they preferred doing map work and composing responses in their own handwriting. Valid, but,
To my way of thinking, this is true of every type of assessment and activity; there is no one-size-fits-all for learning. So pedagogically an argument can be made that sometimes I should do map work with the iPad, sometimes I shouldn't. Or, I should allow students to choose their medium of expression, and let them gravitate toward what works best. Fine.
But the benefits to me the teacher are unequivocal. I gain time, which is precious in the school year. I gain clarity in my feedback to them, which is precious to their development. I gain organization, both my own and the students, which is critical to my classroom functioning well. Lastly, I cut down on resources used, which is precious to the school budget, and thus frees up scarce dollars from the money pit of photocopying.
The iPad is only a tool for learning. It doesn't replace me or my expertise. It just allows me to do more, better, in less time, at less cost.