How A Classroom Of iPads Changed My Approach To Learning

Recently, my wife and I had the opportunity to take our kids on an overseas family holiday.  About a third of the way through our trip as I tiredly walked to yet another airport terminal, I found myself thinking, “I know how check-in works.  Someone at a counter will tell me what to do, so I can turn off and just go with it.”  On entering the terminal, we found self check-in kiosks and one distinctly disinterested attendant hiding behind a counter at the far end of the hall.

We struggled through the process – our first encounter with such a system – telling each other what to do, making a simple process much harder than it really needed to be. It occurred to me later that my prior experience and expectations had made it harder to adjust my thinking.  This reflects our day-to-day experience in schools.  Teachers are very busy – often juggling many tasks.

We tend to rely on what we know as one way to manage demands on our time. The danger, of course, is that by doing so we may miss or fail to see the full potential of important opportunities

This anecdote serves as an illustration of an important realization made at this stage of our journey with iPads in learning at Redlands College. The limitations of previous technologies – the styles of device and modes of deployment – controlled expectations that, in time, lead to a way of thinking about how information communication technologies (ICT) fit into learning. In essence, previous technologies created a paradigm that could easily constrain thinking.

The first step to realizing the full potential of iPads as a tool and an environment for learning is, therefore, identifying and challenging paradigms.

Previous Modes Of ICT Provision Create Paradigms

computer lab schoolComputer laboratories have a very important role to play in schools, however, desktop computers in bookable rooms also create a negative expectation: laboratories are for specific uses in specific subjects. As an added complication, timetable constraints often make access to computers in laboratories problematic.  Laptops in trolleys untether ICT from specific rooms and make it available in a wide range of locations.

Without a one-to-one deployment, however, bookings are still required and the inconvenience of collecting and returning the laptops represents a hindrance. ICT in trolleys can be seen as a tool that requires specific planning and preparation. 

As a consequence, the following paradigm emerges: ICT in learning is a highly specialized tool targeted at specific, pre-planned activities that require teacher direction.  Computer laboratories and laptops in trolleys were our dominant modes of ICT deployment for a considerable period of time, entrenching this paradigm.

The true value of ICT in an one-to-one context is that it is a multifaceted and highly dynamic tool that can facilitate and enrich learning.  It also has the potential to facilitate learning in ways that were previously unimagined and, in some cases, were once practically or pragmatically impossible. To recognize the opportunities of one-to-one deployment of iPads to support learning, the existing paradigm needs to be challenged.  

By way of elaboration, the following stories from our journey illustrate the positive benefits to learning when paradigms are challenged.

Anywhere & Anytime Learning

The phrase ‘anywhere anytime learning’ is commonly used to herald the virtues of one-to-one ICT in education.  At Redlands College we are discovering that iPads can indeed facilitate and enrich learning anywhere, and anytime.  This challenges the paradigm that ICT must restricted to specific locations in schools. Students can now access a wealth of information, utilize a range of communication modes, and create content in every classroom and, indeed, in every location on campus.  They can also use these tools off campus: at home and while on excursions (see article on our iPad portal ‘Using iPads In Scientific Fieldwork’).  

The other wonderful thing is the opportunity to embrace and deeply engage in incidental and spontaneous learning opportunities, challenging the paradigm that ICT requires special preparation by teachers. Need an image or more information about saffron? Need detailed data about recent earthquakes? Need to see an original Shakespeare manuscript?  Need a virtual tour of another city help to contextualize its geopolitical history?

These things, and a lot more, are made available in any learning context via an iPad, more efficiently capturing teachable moments and exploiting curiosity.

Apps & The App Store

In schools, software purchases tend to be restricted to volume licensing of important though expensive productivity suites and deployment of specialist software that is either subject- or task-specific. Purchasing decisions often require a great deal of consideration to ensure compatibility and reliability, as well as factors relating to the time and resources required for deployment and later, patching.  The apps and the App Store challenge this paradigm in significantly beneficial ways.

From a facilities management perspective, apps and the App Store are a game changer for IT staff.  Once purchased from the App Store, apps are installed directly to the device. This is highly efficient as does not require packaging of images; there are no issues with compatibility nor driver complications. Importantly, updates are managed by the App Store and only require a simple tap to download. 

In terms of availability of targeted educational software (i.e. packages to support learning of specific conceptual process or skills), the App store is a boon for software developers and this has positive benefits for educators.  Traditional publishing models meant that publishers were unable to pursue useful ideas for educational software due to the realties of profitability.

The limited size of the educational market meant that only broadly applicable software with a verified market was published.  Most educational software packages for computers attempt to be everything for everyone. Given the diversity of learning styles, curriculum content and forms of engagement, this is difficult to achieve, and when it is, the product is often expensive. The App Store allows a unique opportunity: developers (including teachers) can create specific apps to support specific learning opportunities and then self publish to an international market.   Teachers can now find apps for specific tasks and, just as importantly, use a range apps matched to the range of learning styles of students.

Interestingly, as the user is now the consumer, we have observed our students are selecting apps that meet their specific learning needs.  Students, understanding their personal needs, are identifying, analysing and evaluating apps accordingly. The value of this cannot be understated: the students are engaging in self-directed higher-order thinking for their own purposes!

What Happened When Students Got iPads

At Redlands College, we have given our student’s responsibility to care for and manage their iPad. The figures indicating how well our students have accepted this responsibility are amazing: only 2% of the fleet has been damaged (none irreparably), and 2 of 620 iPads have been lost (none at school)! 

We believe that this is due, in large part, to the fact that the iPad is a personal form of ICT and our students have accepted a high level of personal responsibility for their device. The paradigm that the technology in schools needs to be insulated from the actions of students can be challenged.

Given that students have access to their iPad at school and home, they have time to learn to use and become familiar with it.  Their skills improved dramatically, nullifying the paradigm that students need to be taught how to use the tool.  Indeed students can instruct their teachers about how to use the tools. Teachers can focus on developing the conceptual processes required for learning. 

With a powerful tool providing access to a wealth information and apps that allow for a dynamic range of content creation, new opportunities exist for students to direct their learning.  Project and inquiry based learning is much easier.  New or more diverse ways to demonstrate learning – podcasts, video, and animation, for example – are also more readily achievable.  

Wonderful pedagogical ideals – such as project- or challenged-based learning – that were previously made difficult by restricted access to ICT and dependence on teachers directing all facets of the process, are now possible.  The students have the tool and know how to use it; as teachers, we can focus on cognition, process and creativity.

The Road Ahead

By recognizing that our prior experience with ICT had created paradigms that constrained our thinking, we are starting to glimpse new learning opportunities made possible by one-to-one integration of iPads. Rather than viewing iPads as substitutes for other technologies (including paper), it is our view that iPads can be used as tools and environments for learning that allow for deeper and more diverse engagements.  Our journey with iPads in learning continues.


  1. john hobson

    October 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    I don’t disagree with any of the sentiments but I’m not sure what has happened that is new and couldn’t as easily have been achieved by netbooks or even BYOD. The compelling reason to go down an iPad route has yet to be made.

  2. Phil Casas

    October 5, 2012 at 12:23 am

    I have to agree with John. The learning involved, and the shift from the previous paradigm to anywhere anytime learning as fantastic and to be comended – but this is where I find device specific rhetoric to be quite restrictive.

    I am an administrator and ICT coordinator in a Western Australian secondary school where our philosophy is – the right device, in the right context, at the right time. We run labs of Win 7 and Mac desktops, trolleys of laptops and Macbooks, 250 1:1 Take-home Win 7 / Office 2010 netbooks, a heap of iPads – and let the curriculum task and teacher skill set determine the device.

  3. Niels Jakob

    October 5, 2012 at 9:44 am

    The iPad itself has nothing to do with ‘a new way of learning’ – and the iPad is hardly the best 1:1 device.

    1:1 is, in my opinion, a wrong way of integrating technology in education, as no device is tTHE multifunction tool that is needed, for 1:1 schools to succeed.

    If one wants to give each student a device, let it be laptops, and let the students have a class-set of iPads (or maybe even iPods or smartphones) for their fieldtrips.

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  5. Antwon Lincoln

    October 14, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Well written article. I agree mostly with the paradigm shift with app purchases. Education software companies are now competing with developers who just have a creative idea. I have this first hand from my position. Schools funds are being shifted over to the iTunes store. I am in contact with many developers on trying to figure out how to compete in this crowded space . An how to get the attention of teachers.

    It is an interesting time in education technology.

  6. Chris Blundell

    November 29, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    It is worth noting that our provision model at Redlands College is twofold: core learning technologies (iPads) that are available to support learning in every context, and specialist learning technologies (Windows and Macs, desktops and laptops) deployed in response to the subject-specific and curriculum mandated needs. See for additional information. This, in our view, matches the tool to the need.

    Genuine integration of technology in a 1:1 context requires paradigm shift, irrespective of the type of technology. iPads are ideal in the sense that they seamless integrate with the classroom context, are readily available and reliably accessible.