iPads in the Science Classroom: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good

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I know of a couple of cases where high schools are switching to the use of iPads or other tablets, replacing existing computer infrastructure with the handy and very cool computing device. When it comes to technology, I’ve never been particularly impressed with school administrations, and K-12 technology departments tend to be a little under-resourced as well, so it does not surprise me that this decision is being made. It is, of course, the wrong thing to do.

I’m not talking about using iPads, I’m taking about canceling funding for future hardware cycles of laptops and desktops so the existing machines will only be available for a year or so, and using that budget item to buy and deploy iPads instead. Or, as may be the case here and there, transitioning from traditional cpu’s to iPads over a short time frame with the assumption that all existing technological needs being met will be met with the new hardware with little difficulty.

From a teacher’s point of view, this is roughly like taking your Subaru Outback into the garage and saying “Could you change the oil and put on new wipers please? Oh, and while you’re doing that, make it into a Honda Accord, as well?” (Only the teacher is the mechanic.) iPads and Android tablets may eventually replace laptops, but at the moment, there are no configurations of personal device and hardware that will do more than a few things needed in a modern science classroom, and the system is not set up to institute the needed wholesale rebuilding of IT infrastructure in the classroom’s learning plan. In fact, the gap between what can be done and what should be done in this case is so large that it could be argued that a rapid transition from laptops and desktops to iPads or Androids is unethical. I would even go so far as to question the motivations of anyone pushing this sort of decision.

Let’s look at the problem in more detail. Don’t worry Apple lovers: I promise to conclude at the end that iPads are needed in every classroom. But doing it wrong is not an acceptable option.

The Bad

iPads are great. They can be used in the classroom setting to great effect. But they can not be used today in science classrooms to replace laptops or other traditional computers for several reasons. First, there is equipment in many science classes that can not at present be hooked up to iPads, and that require laptops, such as the full range of installed Lab Pro technology.1 Second, many of the computer based activities used currently in science classes are web-based applications that use Flash. You can’t use Flash on an iPad. Third, much of the use of computers involves simple document management and collaboration. iPads are very bad at this at the moment. Fourth, although there are some great apps currently available for use on an iPad, only a very small number of the current classroom computer uses are replaced with these apps. A science teacher who covers two or three classes may have between 20 and 40 specific computer based applications not counting basic text document and spreadsheet work across the entire year’s curriculum (including Lab Pro activities, web based activities, and installed software). At the moment, three or four of those could be replaced with existing iPad apps, and a few will never be replaced. On the other hand, eventually, other wonderful and amazing apps that take advantage of the iPad or Android Tablet technology will come on the scene. But the process is a slow one. Seriously; Tomorrow there will be students in the classroom; they are not going to go away and let us get this new technology ready for them. A whole bunch of new ones will be showing up in September. A wholesale change would require taking a year or two off, but that is not an option. An iPad/tablet revolution is insane. An iPad/tablet evolution is inevitable and should be really cool.

There are other issues as well, some of which may be more specific to a certain implementation or that may be easily enough dealt with that they can be ignored. (Am I missing any other large issues?) There are also issues that are more about funding and program implementation than technology. For instance, the replacement cycle for hardware in K-12 public schools is long, while the obsoletion cycle for Apple hardware generally is short (or at least shortish). Will some school systems find themselves with iPads bought just before the next model is out, four years later, unable to run the OS or key applications? Probably not often, but quite possibly now and then.

The Ugly

I am under the impression that teachers are being asked in some cases to pick up the slack. In cases where iPads are meant to replace laptops rapidly, teachers would have to implement iPad based solutions to each of their current IT based activities. This brings us to something that a lot of people don’t understand about teachers, and by “a lot of people” I include school administrators and IT experts. Consider the modal science teacher already mentioned, who, conservatively, has 25 uses of computers over two or three courses in a given school year. For each use, an iPad application has to be implemented. Assume the applications all exist now. Very conservatively estimated, a total change in the tool requires three hours of reworking of lesson plans. So, this teacher is required to spend about 75 hours making this change, at minimum. When does the teacher do this? Where in the school year is this time carved out? Where in the day?

I know two teachers that recently took on an AP class. The AP program required by the College Board had changed and the class they took over followed the old guidelines. These teachers are required to change the course to meet the new guidelines. When do that do it? As it turns out, they do it at about 8:00 PM through midnight a couple/few nights a week. These teachers leave their houses before 6:00 AM, teach through mid afternoon, meet in the afternoon to do other teacher stuff, go home, then they grade and work on their lesson plan for the next day perhaps taking an hour and a half off to eat and spend some time with their families, then at about 8:00 PM they get on the phone with each other to work out changes in the curriculum required to fit the new standards. Oh, sure, the school gave them time last summer to “remake” the course to the new standards. Two days each, I think it was. In fact, these teachers are taking a pay cut. Normally there are things teachers can do for extra pay, a few hours a semester. Teachers usually do these things. But when a course has to be overhauled and the teacher is doing it on private time, there is no way to take on this extra work. So, the teacher gets to work until 1:00 AM instead of 8:00 or 9:00 PM for less, rather than more, pay.

Teachers are never, or almost never, compensated for the work they do to compensate for everyone else’s great plans for how to improve or change the system of education. In the case of replacing desktops and laptops with iPads, the situation is particularly egregious. Here, the employees in the IT department are getting LESS work to do, while the teachers are getting MORE work to do.

If I was a teacher in a school about to implement a wholesale changeover to iPads or tablets, I’d be talking to my Union.

The above scenario assumes that there are apps and hardware interfaces in place. But as discussed before, there are not. What happens when one September the teachers show up and the school district has tossed the old laptops rather than maintaining them, and all the shiny new students have shiny new iPads, and the instructions to the teachers amounts to: “Make this work”? One thing that will happen is that teachers will not be able to do a lot of things previously done on laptops with the iPads, so instead, they will use notebooks. No, not that kind of notebook…THIS kind of notebook:

A notebook. Together with an iPad, you can do anything, almost!

Which is fine, but not if the intention of full iPad deployment was to move towards a paperless system!

The wholesale and rapid implementation of iPads or any similar hardware to the exclusion of laptops and desktops would be very ugly indeed. Where school districts are thinking of doing this, they should think again. Keep the desktop and laptop systems in place, maintain them, even plan on going through with the next replacement cycle. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen in many school districts. Administrators will go “Oh, shiny!” and authorize the complete shift of funds from traditional computers to iPads and order the teachers to make it work. The IT people will gain considerably because they will have less work to do (and there may be other benefits to them as well) and the teachers will be tasked with the impossible and blamed when things don’t work.


The Good

Having said all that, iPads and other similar devices are great and they should be deployed and used. However, for now, it has to be done one use at a time and one app at a time. Until teachers have a choice of several options for most of the in-class uses, instead of zero options for almost all potential uses, iPads can be used selectively. Apps that do things teachers want to do will emerge.

Make no mistake about it: The commercial software industry largely ignores educational uses, as does the OpenSource community frankly, at higher grade levels. There are dozens of ways to download a video or rename a batch of files or read your emails but there are only one or two applications that demonstrate population genetics and one or two that demonstrate genotype-phenotype relationships suitable for high school. All those web-based Flash apps to study genetics or ecology or geology are produced by the educational community itself and various volunteers often at Universities, sometimes under grants, sometimes not. Small specialized companies have come and gone. I’ve never seen anyone effectively use a specialized learning application produced by Microsoft or Sun or Apple or Hewlett Packard in the High School science classroom. So, we really don’t know if this will work. Still, I remain optimistic that in the particular development environments of Android and iPad and similar systems, the software can emerge and be useful. In fact, it can be competitive and diverse. Probably.

I have to add something to make this all very clear. If you look at the apps that are out there, there may seem to be more neat apps for science education than I’m letting on. However, science teachers don’t get to design their courses around a list of cool apps that happen to be available. They are required to develop courses that meet standards that were written by people without iPads. The truth is, many of the cool looking apps are not as usable as one might think. And, really, there are not that many. This is not a failing of app developers or of teachers. It is simply a function of the newness of the technology.

There is a second major use for iPads or Androids which, I predict, will make them very useful between now and the time when more than a few useful educational apps are available, and also, might pay the bills for iPad implementation while still maintaining traditional computers for the time being. I refer here to eBooks. We can discuss eBooks in schools and how they can be implemented another time. For now, suffice it to say that eBooks can be cheaper than paper books, especially if the market develops to provide them as chapters for mix and match curriculum development or as custom products more flexible than currently done in print, rather than as whole packages. Textbooks represent a sizable chunk of money in a K-12 budget, especially in High School. Textbooks on iPads or Androids could be cheaper, more adaptable, and better for all the technological bells and whistles that could be implemented, making them a superior choice at a much tighter time scale than other learning apps. In one estimate, that I made up in my head earlier today so this is a very rough guess, a complete changeover to eBooks could save about $100 per year per student. Leasing an iPad costs about $100 per year per student. So there you go. (Having said that, no, the teachers can’t write the damn text books in their own time so don’t even think that!)

Finally, a quick word on cost. Cost is less of a factor than one might think in this sort of decision. Aside from saving that may or may not occur related to the use of eBooks, consider the simple fact that an iPad costs less than a student’s text books. A text may cost anywhere from 50 to over 100 dollars. Textbooks are used for a few years, and a student takes a few classes that use textbooks a year. So, over the course of a 4 year high school career, the equivalent of about 5 new textbooks must be purchased across various subjects, and that probably costs over $400. An iPad should last a few years. A new, fairly advanced Apple iPad MD328LL/A with 16GB storage and Wi-Fi costs just over 500 retail, would be less in bulk at educational discounts, and can be leased for about $100 a year ($400 per student per high school career). Other tablets are much cheaper and might be just as useful or even more useful, depending on the software that ends up being available. For instance, a 7 inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 with Wi-Fi costs about $250. That device may be better than an iPad because it is designed to work with a stylus. A typical notebook computer, which would give students access to those flash based tools on the web, allow them to manage documents via Google Docs and to use a word processor in a normal way (meaning, with a keyboard) and that would probably hook up to all Lab Pro interface equipment, costs about $290. Not as cool, but possibly more effective. The differences among these devices in terms of what they can and can not do well and the cost differences do not form a straightforward relationship at all, and in all cases, the decision as to what to invest in is always short term as far as the hardware goes. IT departments can adapt to any of these solutions. The hard part, and the important part, is figuring out what needs to happen in the classroom. That would involve asking the teachers and getting them involved in the process.

Which, as far as I can tell, usually does not happen nearly as often as it should. For no good reason.

1As I write this, I learn that Vernier has released iPad software for LabQuest 2 technology! That’s excellent. Most installed Lab Pro devices are probably not LabQuest 2, and the iPad software does minimal work with the data, but it does export it for use with the much more developed Logger Pro software which runs on a laptop or desktop computer. So there is movement in that direction, which is nice. At the moment, if you are going to continue to use Lab Pro technology and you want to use iPads, you will need to keep the laptops around, probably upgrade your sensor hardware, and change the curriculum a bit to match the wireless interface. The nice thing about the wireless interface is that all the students with their iPads can observe data on any given properly set up experiment in the room.

Feature image by Extra Ketchup. Photo of notebook by koalazmonkey

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9 thoughts on “iPads in the Science Classroom: The Bad, The Ugly, and The Good

  1. By the way, there is something funny about the photo at the top of the post. 10 points if you figure it out.

  2. The classroom looks like someone’s rec-room. Carpeted floors (in a computer room?!), stuffed toys on shelf with older students at the tables, computer towers perched precariously on edge of folding tables (recipes for disaster). And are the computers even plugged in? Hard to tell, but there aren’t as many wires as I’ve seen in real computer labs. So staged shot, screen graphics added later.

    Have an iPad myself because it was on sale for a good price, but am still a bit annoyed at the lack of a windows explorer type interface. I have DropBox and USB/SD card adapter port, but unless Apple in future versions puts in a file navigating system and allows me to view/move/rename files I’ll probably switch to an Android-based version when I need a new tablet.

  3. I think they are real computers actually running.

    You touched on the clue! Look closely at the stuffed toys!

  4. No ten points for me. I see penguins and a wizard which just reaffirms that this is a children’s room and not a regular teen classroom. What am I missing? Am I going to kick myself?

    Incidentally, look at the radiator on the right side with the wood panel protecting the wall I’ve seen those in numerous churches across Canada and the US as a young teen when i was part of a competitive team doing a Jeopardy-style competition except as a four person team against other teams (church of Christ denominations–yes very fundie). I wonder if this is one of those old church auditoriums or classrooms?

  5. Toys and books neatly lined up, something I haven’t seen in any classroom unless it was the first school day of the year? Teacher has OCD as even the computers are in alignment? 🙂

  6. Actually, if you click on the picture credit at the end of the post you can see the original. The penguins become a bit more obvious.

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