Does Apple's iPad 2 belong in your school?

By Jonny Evans

A UK school has announced it will be Europe's first to equip all students with Apple [AAPL] iPad 2's, and while critics slam such moves as a waste of cash, others believe that enabling pupils to get to grips with learning while using technology they actually like will actually boost education.

Seldom iPad ask, 'is our children, learning?'

Honywood Comprehensive School in Coggleshall, Essex sent out letters to 1,200 parents this week informing them their children will receive an iPad 2 by the end of the year.

Honywood isn't the first school to be equipped with iPads -- there's many iPad-equipped schools in the US: Clark County School District has spent over $1 million on buying iPads in the last six months; Hillsborough County School Board are spending just under a million on the same; and these devices are all over higher education.

Use of the tablet has been successfully implemented in school districts in New York City, Chicago, Scottsdale, and San Francisco.

How are they used?

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In some districts, iPads are already replacing text books (Digital textbooks are already being offered by companies such as CourseSmart) and acting as exercise workbooks and mobile language labs. iTunes U offers access to educational materials, while apps including iMovie and Garageband can be used for project work and music theory.

iPad delivers 'Learning Plus'iPad already comes with a screen reader, support for playback of closed-captioned content, and other innovative universal access features, but Apple seems set to increase these features once it brings in technologies it has reportedly licensed from Nuance.

It's all in the apps.

Take the newly-introduced Scene & Heard app ($49) from TBox Apps. This has been developed to help teach children with augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) needs, particularly for kids with differing degrees of autism. The software is being sold as a Visual Scene Display communication aid. An aid that uses personalized photos, video and other assets to help kids communicate.

"The user uptake of the iPad as a communication device, is growing at an exponential rate, and we wanted to provide a solution that truly integrates the possibilities available from the device," said Swapnil Gadgil, director, TBoxApps, in a statement provided to me.

"The iPad is intuitive, easy for people with complex communication needs to learn and to use, and provides a powerful platform for contextual based communication."

Kids, parents or teachers can use their own photos, images, videos, text and audio to build an interactive scene, enabling AAC children to interact with the device, the image and to communicate -- even to organize their day.

cafe_scene_tick_mark_1_.png

There's lots of ways an app like this can help boost communication. Look at the image above: in that case the use of symbols and touch can enable a child who may otherwise be unable to express themselves the customarily overlooked luxury of making a choice from what's available in the shop.

Getting it right

That's the good side of iPad use in education. Properly applied, digital technology can enable learning among kids who might otherwise be hard to reach.

Take another example of such solutions in use. Westmark School. This place teaches 3rd to 12th grade school students with learning differences, such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD). The pupils, "learn fractions through brightly colored, jungle themed pie charts. They study the periodic table of elements in an interactive, visually rich interface. They ask their iPads how to spell and define words. They practice cursive writing through a tracing app and follow along in their Mr. Popper's Penguins books as their iPads read the text aloud."

It's about delivering educational relevance, argues Westmark School third-grade teacher, Karla Rivera, "I think that if we don't use this kind of technology, we're doing a disservice to the children," Rivera said.

"This is what they're growing up with. This is what they're using. They are learning how to do research in a different way. They are learning how to work in a different way. So we need to teach them the skills to meet those needs."

Reading, writing, arithmetic

Of course, badly applied digital technologies do not boost learning and become an expensive peccadillo.

Clark County School District is facing a storm of criticism following revelations that many of the million dollars value of purchased iPads are being used by school administrators.

Many in the district are angry because they feel that the devices are being purchased even while basic reading and writing supplies aren't seen as being high enough on the purchasing agenda.

But experience in the higher education sector has shown that use of devices such as iPads can reduce student costs, reduce paper costs and boost attentiveness, learning ability and otherwise enhance the learning experience.

An earlier Australian research project at the Victoria Department of Education found use of iPods generated, "Improvements in all curriculum areas and also in behavior, motivation and responsibility by the end of the project."

Application, apps, and technology

At least at the top, Apple says it tries to ensure it sells solutions into schools, not just technology. "We try to show how new technology can be applied positively within the learning experience, so when teachers return to their schools they can apply these solutions, regardless of platform," Apple's director of EMEA education markets, Herve Marchet, told me a few years ago.

Vacaville Christian Schools will launch its own iPad education program in August. CEO Paul Harrell accepts times are tough for schools, but puts it this way: "If we use the iPad, we're giving our students a classroom without walls. It opens up the entire horizon. Teachers will actively engage their students through a tool that they're used to and that's attractive to them. While the iPad may seem challenging to us, for our student's it is natural. Kids are digital natives, we are mostly digital immigrants."

The power of relevance

I'm not beating an iPad-only drum. There's a good case for all kinds of properly-applied technology in schools.

But, before getting into the usual mud-slinging and platform-focused back-biting, stop to consider what Apple's then UK and Ireland managing director Mark Rogers said in 2005. He offered this insight into Apple's education team he said, "A lot of people we employ have been teachers, they have been involved in the education system, and they passionately believe that the technology can help assist the learning process of the students.

"Much of the bad behaviour in schools is because children are not engaged in the learning process. We aim to deliver solutions to help engage pupils," he explained.

Surely it stands to reason that a pupil that's interested/engaged, attentive and actually in the class has a better chance of learning than one who is not interested, not engaged, not listening and not there?

Are you in school and using iPads? Are you a parent who wants to see better use of tech in school? Perhaps you think technology in the classroom is a waste of money. Let's discuss it in comments below. I'd also be most pleased if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I could let you know as new reports get published here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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