How Much Are iPads Really Helping Kids in the Classroom?

The drive to increase technology use in classrooms has many asking whether the investment is more fizzle than bang, and whether it's too early to tell how wisely the money is being spent. Education author Peg Tyre has investigated the use of iPads, one of the most popular classroom additions, in TakePart. She concludes that iPads in education may offer some new teaching techniques, but by themselves, they may not be better than traditional, cheaper methods.

The classroom used to be about chalkboards, textbooks, teachers speaking directly to groups of kids, and worksheets. The iPad can take any of these roles: but in which role is it most effective?

When iPads replace textbooks, they are perhaps least effective. Downloading an e-book to an iPad does the same thing that a textbook does, but one book is probably less expensive per year than the iPad. Tyre quotes another education writer, Lee Wilson, to the effect that textbooks may be about 20% the cost of iPads, and textbooks can be used many years in a row without electronic damage.

Substituting for the teacher may be among the iPad's most effective roles. Of course, the teacher must record, upload or otherwise choose the material that the tablet presents. But once a lecture or film is on the tablet, the teacher can walk away while a group of students watches it. If the teacher only works with the students after they have learned the material presented on the iPad, she is using the "flipped learning" model in which her role is to explain, correct, and give mini-lessons as students work on projects or homework that responds to the lesson. Some schools have been using this model exclusively and can integrate technology like tablets effectively.

Tyre explains that there are other ways the iPads in schools can fill part of the teacher's role:

Other schools, including a rapidly expanding chain of charter schools that serve low-income children, are employing what they call a "blended learning" model. It works like this: The classroom is broken down into small groups. Some kids work with a qualified, credentialed teacher, while others are shepherded to a computer room, where, under the watchful eye of a paid-by-the-hour supervisor, they zoom ahead or redo a lesson using interactive, adaptive software.

But all too often, administrators with dreams of kids using iPads in the classroom shell out thousands of dollars, only for the devices to end up not being used very much. Their capabilities are vast, but the actual materials developed for them are still limited to what's on the market. It isn't clear that iPads are a good use of most education dollars. At Florida's recent educational technology conference, attendees heard about a start-up website that aims to create consumer reviews for and by teachers. EduStar hopes to allow teachers to tell how their tech devices are actually changing (or not changing) kids' classroom experiences. Without real understanding of how a device can be used, schools can too easily fall into buying whatever is the latest fad or buzz.

Tyre reports that investment in education technology has soared in recent years.

In 2005, investors put about $13 million of venture and growth capital in the K-12 market. In 2011, venture capitalists poured $389 million into companies focused on K-12 education, according to industry analysts GSV Advisors, a Chicago-based education firm that tracks the K-12 market.

"Is it a bubble?" asks industry analyst Frank Catalano. "No, but there are signs it's getting to be a bubble."

Every new technology, from the radio to the early Macs and smart phones, has been touted as something that can be used to revolutionize teaching. And each generation has seen a few good changes come and go, for example as the classroom movie projector allowed students to see far more scientific and historical footage for themselves. But each generation also sees hopes rise and then be disappointed as education remains more or less the same. The jury is still out on whether iPads for education will be a success story or just another passing fad.

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