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iPad Learning for All the Wrong Reasons

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In Long Island administrators are seeking to reduce textbook costs by replacing their purchase of paper with the iPad, according to The New York Times. Perhaps some quick math problems on the iPad's oversized calculator would have shown the folly of justifying a luxury personal slate on cost grounds.

At an outlay of $56,250 for 70 iPads with textbook savings coming in at $7,200 a year, the idea is that the purchase pays for itself in just under eight years. By this time, the technology will be out of date and the students will be graduating from college.

Crucially, the applications that are really required to revolutionize learning have a) yet to be built, b) will be designed by professional learning companies, who will c) charge healthy sums for them. Whose iTunes account on the student iPads will pay for this? A modest $2.99 education app for each of four school terms, for every student in a trial comes to around half the annual textbook costs.

It's not just on dubious cost grounds alone, of course, that the justification is being made. Teachers love the iPad, they say, because it allows them to move learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Teacher Larry Reiff now publishes all his lessons online.

But this isn't thanks to the iPad.

This is thanks to the Internet, and millions of educators already publish their courses online through learning environments or their personal sites. You don't need an iPad per se to do this, you need any device, including the much cheaper and more likely student-owned smartphones that, increasingly every holiday season, we see our youngsters hiding at the bottom of their school bags.

Where the iPad -- or any light weight slate such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab -- can make a difference is opening up the web to those working in schools who are on the move. Principals, teachers making classroom observations, and students out doing fieldwork may find them hitting a spot that laptops (with their slow start-up times) and smartphones (whose screens are a little too small to permit long-form typing or writing) fail to.

I liked Chris Lehmann's instinct to use his (personal) iPad and a Google Form to provide instant feedback on classroom observations as he does his rounds at Philladelphia's Science Leadership Academy.

I admire the work that Steve Beard and colleagues in Shropshire, England, have done to get students designing their own iOS (the operating system for iPhones and iPads) applications, and then testing them out for real. This is the kind of cross-curricular learning that cannot happen in any other way than through the requisite hardware.

But spending $750 to only harness the free apps limits the use of any device. You need to have a significant budget to invest in the high quality learning apps that exist and will exist in the future, and a clear means of getting those funds to students. The iPad is not any old computing device -- it's a personal computing device. The most disheartening practice I've seen is a return to the computing lab, something we realized a long time ago is not an effective means to integrate technology into learning:

Pinnacle Peak School in Scottsdale, Ariz., converted an empty classroom into a lab with 36 iPads -- named the iMaginarium -- that has become the centerpiece of the school because, as the principal put it, "of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids."

You cannot get the most out of an iPad without letting the student own it, and harness their personal accounts, tastes and media for some creative learning. Putting it in a lab like this takes away from the iPads principle boon: it helps us move further away from the office metaphor of learning and into new, personalized, anytime anywhere learning metaphors.

The iPad itself is a great device -- I love mine and it's changed the nature of computing on our couch. It is the ultimate in personal computing; it is not, as my wife and I have discovered, very good at being a shareable device despite the efforts of crack designers BERG London to make it a non-personal computer. It has helped me read more in a casual manner (rather than feeling I have to carve out a time, place and tome to 'get some reading done'), and this would be a welcome side-effect in any schooling environment. The collaborative annotation of literature has been eye-opening and allowed me to understand some texts I've read before in a new light.

But educators should not get confused between what the iPad offers and what it represents might offer us. Jump on the personal computing bandwagon pronto, for sure. The educational benefits are there (despite what the NYT might claim) and the iPad is still the most beautiful, most appealing and most app-laden device to try it out with.

Some of those experimentations are about the right size -- a few classes or a whole small school filling up their boots with iPads makes sense, provided some sturdy action research is taking place alongside. They should learn from those who've been there already, such as Ian Stuart and the students of Islay High School who've been using Ultra Mobile (personal) computers for the past few years with interesting results.

Above all, they should use the internet (through their iPad or maybe just on a plain old PC) to share what they get up to, the impact it really has and, if it has no impact at all, or if the impact is proving hard to decipher, they should let us know that, too.

This post was originally published on Ewan McIntosh's edu.blogs.com