Mobile Computing | Spotlight

Ushering iPad into the Classroom

A number of built-in features, tools, and add-ons are helping to propel Apple's iPad into the classroom. Technology analyst Denise Harrison looks at the benefits of iPad in education and predicts some unanticipated applications

Tablet devices are hardly new; Apple's own Newton, introduced in 1987, could fairly be called an ancestor to the iPad with its tablet form, tethered pen touch interface, and easy portability. Even though other manufacturers marketed tablets based on the Newton operating system, for a variety of reasons unrelated to the quality of the technology, the Newton never made it past the left side of the adoption bell curve.

Apple iPad is smoothly and quickly gliding that slope. In fact, according to analysts, iPads will soon bring in more revenue to Apple than its traditional computers, coming in second only to the iPhone.

What the iPad has that the Newton didn't is an existing user base and familiar user interface. For the first time, it is possible that the child who learns to play cartoons on a device (iPhone, iPod touch, and now, iPad) could be using the same touchscreen interface a decade hence to create a high school report. Uses for higher education and business could make the iPad, and iPad II, iPad III, etc., constant companions long into adulthood.

iPad's adoption is aided by the fact that iPods and iPhones are plenty past "The Chasm," and users are comfortable with and supportive of the interface. Buying the iPad is viewed as a simple, logical step up to the latest model of iAnything. In addition, the developer community is perhaps more vibrant than any software community ever, owing to accessible development tools and the ready-made marketing channel that is the App store.

The prognosis for iPad's use in the classroom is good, said Sandra Sutton Andrews, research director in the Applied Learning Technologies Institute at Arizona State University. "The concept is perfect for education--a lightweight computer, relatively inexpensive, capable of being used almost anywhere: in your hands, on a table, attached to a wall, built into a tabletop," she said.

Andrews's job involves investigating uses of technology in education--especially emerging technologies. She designs and conducts research, teaches university courses, and works with K-12 teachers to help assess and satisfy technology needs. One of her next anticipated projects is setting up an iPad laboratory for a deeper examination of features and benefits.

"Add to this the fact that creating apps [for iPad] is not difficult, and at that point everything changes in terms of possibilities," she said. "Educators are already finding new uses for the available free or inexpensive commercial apps and are creating new apps that teach, engage, and even collect data. What's more, the educators behind these apps are making their resources available at no cost to other educators."

Other features on the plus side for education include:

  • Good, some would call it excellent, color reproduction;
  • Natural platform for e-textbooks;
  • Large, 9.7-inch screen with 1,024 x 768-pixel resolution;
  • 3G and WiFi for "always on" Internet access;
  • Accessibility (support for closed captioning, voice over screen reader, full-screen zoom magnification, and support for nine languages, for example).

"Accessibility to [students] with disabilities is possible to a surprising degree, given that accessibility once lagged behind when new technologies emerged," said Andrews. "Apps for children with cognitive disabilities have already been created by your fellow educators. There are built-in accessibility tools such as zoom and high contrast display. The built-in VoiceOver screen reader works as well on the iPad as on the iPhone, and Dragon Dictation is also available."

While iPad looks, on the whole, good for teachers, students, and classrooms, on the down side, iPad doesn't yet support Flash (an omission familiar to owners of other Apple iOS devices), and some complain about the dearth of physical connectors, such as dedicated USB ports and SD card slots.

Sam Farsaii agreed the lack of Flash support is a negative. Farsaii, chair of ISTE's SIG1to1 special interest group for 1:1 technology in K-16 education, said he hopes the Flash player support problem will be addressed with HTML 5. Farsaii has a long list of what he likes about the iPad for education, including its portability and lightness, flexibility, and ease of use. He also cited long battery life, instant on, ease of software download, screen resolution quality, innovative software at reasonable price, and wide availability of freeware as advantages. His only other suggestion, besides adding Flash support, is adding a camera.

Another complaint by some early reviewers is the iPad does not support full Mac OS X applications. This may not be such a bad thing, as we explore below, in a look at built-in features, optional accessories, and creative-yet-unadvertised possibilities of iPads in schools.

1. Built-in Benefits That Ease Content Creation

Easy positioning for comfortable use
The iPad provides ease of use in two ways laptops do not. The form factor of a single light-weight (1.5 pounds with WiFi, 1.6 pounds with 3G) panel and touch technology facilitate class content creation from nearly anywhere--the beach, the subway, and the diner. One doesn't need to fuss with the cumbersome folding laptop screen (which, despite the nomenclature, users have had problems positioning comfortably on laps anyway). Users also don't need to concern themselves with setting the screen at just the right angle to avoid glare from lights or the sun. While the laptop's light weight provides portability, physical placement for use is still limited. iPad can actually sit on a lap, and is light enough to hold at an angle with one hand and work with the other, thereby leaving users unconcerned with the right surface at the right angle.

Always-on Internet
The second ease-of-use benefit of the iPad is availability of 3G and WiFi. Typically, an instructor working in, say, a coffee shop would begin a lesson and inevitably arrive at a point requiring Internet research. Lesson creation is put on hold until he or she has access to a hotspot or returns to the office or home for an Internet connection. The combination of 3G and WiFi means there is no need to pause work until an Internet hot spot is near in order to complete a project; an iPad user can seamlessly go back and forth between creating content and researching information on the Internet. (Notebooks and netbooks, of course, have the option of connecting via 3G, though this option is generally available through an add-on and is not an integrated feature of the device itself.)

Long battery life
The iPad's battery life is impressive: nine hours of battery on 3G and up to 10 hours on WiFi. Long battery life is convenient for content creation and playback; the iPad offers long periods of time between charges even when playing videos on full-color screens, which is a big drain on batteries.

The combination of ease of creation, flexible positioning, large color screen, long battery life, and the always-on Internet connection present advantages over notebooks and mobile devices that aid instructors in creating content with more fluidity and fewer interruptions--a relief for those who prefer the satisfaction and time-savings of being able to focus, when possible, on one project at a time.

2. Optional Accessories

iPad Dock
The iPad Dock could benefit from a different name since, unlike most docking systems for handhelds, the iPad Dock offers more than just charging and syncing.

One of the more education-friendly features offered by the iPad Dock is audio, namely, support for external speakers. The built-in speaker is considered by most to provide better quality and greater volume than the iPhone internal speaker, making the iPad audio adequate for workgroup listening, but the iPad Dock's audio line out allows connection to external speakers, giving sound a boost and enabling the iPad to be used the same way as any audio source device.

Next on the iPad Dock's plus list is the design. The iPad Dock doubles as a stand. When in the dock, the iPad sits upright at a slight tilt, comfortable for video viewing, and when paired with an external keyboard, the docked iPad can look and feel much like the screen for a desktop computer.

VGA connection
The VGA cable, which connects to the optional iPad Dock, is designed specifically for connecting the iPad to a TV or a front projector. Any visual on the iPad can be shown on a larger screen. Yes, notebook computers can do this too, but just as the iPad infused elegance into the creation process, the iPad does so for presentation delivery as well. Because of the form factor, which allows the iPad to be used with one hand, the instructor can actually walk around the room while continuing to control the projected images. He or she isn't stuck at the table or lectern where a laptop would normally reside.

The iPad Camera Connection Kit
In this age when students are taught to present content in visual formats, the digital camera and digital video camera are increasing in importance as classroom tools, yet sharing those productions with groups has not been easy. For the most part, photos are shared via phone or e-mail, and videos are shared via Internet sites such as YouTube. The iPad Camera Connection Kit, an optional connection to the iPad Dock, provides an easier, faster path from individual shoots to sharing with the class. Students connect the camera to the iPad, download images and videos, then using the optional VGA connector, students and instructors may display photos and play videos from the iPad on large screen TVs or projectors.

Long power cord
The peripheral 6 foot power cord is one of the most popular accessories so far. Anyone who has tried to power a mobile device with a short power cord appreciates the convenience of a long one. The popularity should hold true for educators as well, since most power outlets are located on classroom walls, and most classrooms are not equipped with table pop-up connection panels.

iWork optional apps
Apple offers several productivity applications that are tailored for the iPad and sold at the iTunes store. These three applications provide productivity capabilities similar to traditional Windows applications at fractions of the price ($9.99 each). Keynote, for example, is a drag-and-drop presentation creation app, and its presentations can be exported into PowerPoint. Pages is for word processing and supports Microsoft Word -supported file formats, including Office Open XML (.docx) and Office 97 or later (.doc). And Numbers allows users to create spreadsheets that can be exported into Microsoft Excel.

Apps for that
iPad application development for education will, no doubt, be hot. The ease of application development and the general affordability of the applications will be great news for instructors, whose toughest job could be deciding among them.

3. Unintended-Yet-Beneficial Uses of iPad Features and Accessories

Educators are discovering that students are not always fluent in traditional office-type applications the way the average employee is today. iWork, Apple's productivity software suite, could be the great equalizer and could even make knowing other productivity software irrelevant for many day-to-day tasks. iWork may not have it all, but it has enough, especially when one considers the price: Mail, maps, note pad app, and Web browser Safari are included; the presentation, word processing, and spreadsheet apps are just $9.99 each.

The built-in calendar affords instructors the same features most computer calendars provide. Instructors can create events (such as test dates, presentation dates and times, and activities). We had a theory about how the iPad calendar might be used to keep students and teachers informed of lesson plans and important dates. We checked with Apple, and the company told us, indeed, the instructor can invite all students to an event, such as a due date, and, as students respond by confirming participation, the instructor will be able to know the student has been advised of dates he or she needs to keep in mind. In the case of K-12, parents can be invited to events as well to keep them informed of homework assignments, test dates, and due dates for special projects. As dates change, all parties are notified. Even if all students don't have possession of an iPad, they can obtain this information by accessing a shared iPad in the class (more below).

If all students have iPads or access to iPads or other iOS devices, instructors can communicate with them as a group using Calendar or using individual or group e-mail, with all involved parties benefiting from uniform interfaces and functionality. These methods of receiving data, appointment requests, and messages might just help prepare young students for the work environment of their adulthood.

iPad mounts
Mounts designed for the iPad are hitting the market, and while a mount is a simple solution, this functionality will begin to encourage creative uses of iPads not found in the marketing materials. For example, iPad displays on inside or outside walls of the classroom can, at a glance, provide students and parents with curricula; assignments by week, day or month; test dates, and student presentation dates and times. By checking a mounted iPad daily, students and parents without their own iPads can access the same information about lessons and assignments as those who do.

A table-top mounted iPad sits upright and might be used for calendar information, and also for on-demand videos related to current lessons or to facilitate group collaboration, for just two additional examples. Wall- or table-mounted, the iPad can show fun videos of class activities, list spelling bee results, display sports scores and team videos outside team rooms, and deliver a slide show of science fair projects. Any school-wide or group/class-focused information can be displayed on a mounted iPad.

Using Calendar, an iPad mounted on a wall outside a meeting room could display room reservations, providing a rather affordable room reservation solution. Apple confirmed that, with shared calendars, a group of teachers and administrators who have been granted access to designated calendars will be able to remotely reserve a conference room. Other teachers will be able to see the times already booked and reserve their own times for using the room as well.

Mounted iPads bring a number of potential uses for the classroom. Considering the affordability and the uniformity and ease of the iPad interface, we can expect K-12 and higher education educational technologists to use mounted iPads to bring many new applications to Apple's latest innovation.

MobileMe software syncs between devices automatically, without having to physically connect those devices. This means that updating contacts, e-mail, and calendars can be done from anywhere to anywhere. Any update an instructor makes on a home computer, or an iPad, can update any other iPad or computer. A teacher, therefore, could change the lesson plan at home in the evening, and the updates will automatically appear on a mounted iPad or computer in the classroom set up for public, or class-wide, use and display. (Due dates of assignments, test dates, and other calendar invitations updated remotely will change for individual students as per usual e-mail functionality.)

Another feature of MobileMe useful to the classroom is the cloud-based iDisk, which enables file storage and sharing online. This allows teachers or students to upload and share files that can later be accessed by students via computer, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

USB support on the Camera Connection Kit
The iPad Camera Connection Kit has two ways that users can import photos and videos from a digital camera: the camera's USB cable or directly from an SD card. The camera kit's USB capability has unintended, and beneficial, consequences not lost on fervent iOS users.

Many fault the iPad for its omission of a USB port, but a number of clever people are finding ways to use that port in ways other than advertised. Chris Foresman, writing for Ars Technica, collected stories of successful experiments including the camera kit USB port to power USB speakers, headsets, microphones, and keyboards. As Foresman mentioned, it does bode well for expanded USB support in later versions of Apple iPads.

Will It Float?
Is iPad the killer app? For the general public, probably so, at least for a few years. For education, we won't learn pros versus cons until a few pioneers weigh in. Multi-touch has for some time been present in kiosks, Smart interactive whiteboards, and futuristic movies. The real killer app is touch technology, which is (finally) here to stay.