The Secret To Successfully Using iPads In Education

My brother recently built a shelf for my daughter’s room.  It is in the likeness of a boat that she will one day spend sunny afternoons on, cruising around Plymouth harbor.  He used a saw, a hammer, glue and other assorted tools that I couldn’t explain or name.  I am not a carpenter nor am I skilled at building anything with my hands.

However, I do know this.  When my brother started the project, he did not pick up his hammer and get inspired, engaged or motivated.  What was motivating was the final concept, the vision, the challenge and the knowledge that he would eventually create something that could be shared with another person.

What do hammers have to do with iPads?  iPads are exactly like hammers, they are simply a tool.  While the screen may shine and the intuitive nature of the device impress even the most cynical user, they are little more than tools in the classroom. 

30 Hammers Or 30 iPads

Granted, if we were to offer a set of 30 hammers and 30 iPads to a classroom full of students, we all know which tool they would choose.  And while an iPad may be more fun to use at first, may have more possible applications and can provide hours of mindless use, without and end goal, challenge or obstacle to overcome, the shine quickly wears off. 

Tools are not inspiring, engaging or motivating.  Challenges, new obstacles and knowing that you can impact some else’s thinking, perspective or understanding is inspiring, engaging and motivating. 

Collaborating with ones peers, problem solving and ultimately creating something to demonstrate ones capabilities or unique understanding, that is engaging. 

Increased Engagement Myth

Unfortunately, a good deal of discussion and justification for iPad use in the classroom revolves around the dreaded phrase, “increased engagement.”  I wonder what exactly students will be engaged in if there isn’t a particular end goal or challenge in mind. 

Certain they will be engaged with the options that an iPad presents to them.  They can email their friends, update their social networking status, take a few pictures and browse the web, they are clearly engaged in something, but I would argue they are not at all engaged with a challenging process to create and demonstrate their understanding.  

iPads Don’t Teach

Along with the myth of increased engagement, there is an unfortunate misconception that an iPad can teach our students.  Throughout the summer I ran and instructed a number of workshops on integrating iPads in the classroom with EdTechTeacher.  A typical request was for a list of apps to teach history or apps to teach science.  While there are content specific apps that can potentially aid in the process of introducing, reinforcing and reviewing new content, iPads don’t teach. 

What iPads do provide is a unique ability to have students create content in a mobile environment.  While creating content is not unique to an iPad, it provides unique capabilities that otherwise would be extremely challenging or nearly impossible to achieve in a traditional classroom setting without these devices.  Create podcasts and video by recording, editing and publishing to the web, check. Create blog posts anywhere, without being confined to a computer lab, check.  Create screencasts to demonstrate understanding and publish them to the web to share with peers, check.  Create, edit, share and collaborate on documents (with the latest update to the Google Drive iOS app), check. 

How To Actually Use iPads

After numerous workshops, working with hundreds of teachers from around the country on iPad integration, what has become evident is that the greatest benefit of using iPads in the classroom is not use see them as a teaching tool, but instead as a tool for students to demonstrate their understanding in many different ways. It is not that iPads are good or bad, they are simply iPads.  However, they can unfortunately be used in ways that at best wastes the money that was used to buy the devices and at worst degrades the learning experience for the student.  

What It All Means

If we can agree that an iPad is a tool, we can also then agree that it isn’t the best tool for every situation.  Back to the “iPad is like a Hammer” analogy.  When my brother created the boat inspired bookshelf, he likely used the hammer to pound in the railings and nail together a few pieces.  He did not however, use his hammer to paint the hull blue. I would argue that iPads should be used in the same fashion, as a tool that can help students solve specific problems, overcome certain obstacles and create content to demonstrate their understanding. 

Unfortunately what happens in many instances is that iPads are purchased and there is an expectation that they be used in the classroom without any particular end goal in mind. 

In other words, the tool is coming before the end goal or objective. 

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a carpenter and struggle to build things with my hands.  However, I am fairly certain that a carpenter does not start the day by looking at a hammer to figure out what he is going to create.  The same should be said for iPads in the classroom.  Start with the end goal in mind, the inspiration, the challenge and then determine if an iPad can be used to effectively, not to teach new content to students, but to allow them to achieve the end goal. To demonstrate their learning and share that understanding with their peers, a broader audience and even potentially the world. 

Join EdTechTeacher as we will be talking more about iPads and their impact in the classroom during the November 6-8, EdTechTeacher iPad Summit.


  1. Dave

    September 11, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Timely article! I’ve been presenting on this topic as it relates to Special Education and Assistive Technology, where iPads have taken center stage. In Assistive Tech, we have been having this discussion for years, as our goal of providing fair and equitable consideration of Assistive Technology should always be student-based and task-focused. Whether it’s an iPad, speech recognition software, or a $8000 communication device, we try to match specific features that a tool offers to the task that the student finds difficult or impossible to perform because of their disability. Just because it is relatively inexpensive and socially acceptable, doesn’t necessarily make it the go-to tool for every student. It depends on the features that the iPad and its related apps offer and what the specific student needs are. It is completely appropriate for some students, and there may more efficient, effective tools for others.

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  3. Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain

    September 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Thank you – I agree, especially about “engagement” (the E word). One thought though – the “goal in mind” might also come from the student. Fostering, guiding, and supporting this shift in teaching is tough – not much support there from PD and district goal-setting (not even from the CCSS). This is tool that has many possible identities, most of which are not being used well. Oh – and I still find a great deal of engagement in the hammer, as do my grandkids. About equal to the iPad (I offer both).

  4. ChinHuei

    September 12, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    I cannot agree you more with this article! Great article!
    In a classroom setting, iPad is a tool just like the small white board we used to have students practicing writing in classroom. I don’t give apps to students and ask them learn from the apps in classroom. iPad doesn’t teach for me. Students use iPad to create contents to show their understanding about the subject matters, which students is excited about. This is so true in my Chinese class and other foreign language classes as well.

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  7. Audrey Smith

    September 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I agree. The ipad can be a wonderful tool but we need to remember just that, it is a tool. It should not become the teacher :)

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  10. Marilyn Kimbrell

    January 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I agree that iPads are useful tools and not the teacher. To be successful in the classroom the teacher must have a defined plan and goal for the students which allows them to use their iPads to create, solve problems and demonstrate what they have learned.

  11. Sue Nodine

    January 22, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Our rooms are filled with tools. Those tools do not teach. However, we can use these tools to add quality to our teaching and learning. Using iPads in the classroom can be an excellent tool in documenting what a student has learned about a concept. They could be a the tool that helps to remediate or review a student on an unmastered skill. Our challenge as teachers is to not let them collect dust like so many of those previous tools we have been given.