Two educators put the research to the test. When (and how) are iPads most effective?

Popular mobile devices may come and go, but the iPad has remained a hit in the K-12 classroom. But even though they’re in schools, our work with teachers has led us to understand that while many of them would like to use iPads meaningfully in their classrooms, they can’t because of time, access, and training.

So for the past year and a half, we’ve both been working with teachers and university students integrating iPad technology into the classroom in a controlled way. While doing this, we came across several outcomes that made us question and dig deeper into what the research actually says about using them in the classroom. Do students and younger teachers use them more effectively? Do they work better for some student populations? It’s probably not giving much away to say that the most important learning outcome we found was that experience is the greatest teacher.

First, a note about who we are. Jeanne is a teacher (elementary and part-time professor) and Tanya is a university professor (former special education teacher) who loved using technology as a teaching tool. Jeanne wrote several grants to bring technology into her school and her classroom but she kept noticing that she was flying solo—very few of her school’s teachers were using iPads in the classroom beyond the usual Friday afternoon fun time and as a reward for being “good.” We wanted to know more about this resistance and hesitation when it came to the use of iPads in the classrooms.

Much of the work done on iPads in the classroom is anecdotal and practitioner based, with limited research on student use of iPads. Surveys of student use of iPads report overwhelmingly that students enjoy learning and stay more focused when using iPads (Mango, 2015). The research on teacher integration and the results are much more limited. More commonly, studies report that teachers are often resistant to truly integrating iPads into their classrooms because of the constraints of time and training (Clark and Luckin, 2012).

For our own work, we had our university assign 15 pre-service teacher interns to Jeanne’s elementary school, and we gave those students training in how to use iPads in the classroom and how to troubleshoot problems. Great idea, right? It was, but it was also full of hurdles and, let’s not call them mistakes, let’s call them, ahem, “learning experiences.” We synthesized the research and connected it to not only our findings but our own teaching experience. What follows are our top 5 take aways.

Research says that digital natives can do it! (Prensky, 2006)

We thought “younger” teachers and our interns would naturally know how to use iPads. But just because they know how to use Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to meet up with friends or keep current on the latest hipster fashion doesn’t mean they know how to design and implement lessons that effectively integrate mobile technology. Working with mentor teachers, we found that they had an assumption that young student teachers would naturally know the latest and greatest. The truth is that some do but many don’t, so training is essential! We gave our interns time to “play” on the iPads—with and without kids. We also gave them lesson ideas and activities for the classroom.  They became models for the classroom teachers and were able to go into a room and help a teacher not only implement their lessons but also help with planning ideas.  Our interns got very good at saying, “Hey, there’s an app for that!”

Research says that kids are digital natives too (Prensky, 2006)

Just like we made mistakes with assuming that millennial teachers would automatically know how to use technology we also made the mistake of assuming the kids would immediately know how to use the technology in an appropriate way. It became clear early on that the teachers weren’t the only ones who needed training. Our elementary students needed to learn how to care for and respect the iPads and the apps but they also needed to learn how to navigate Google, Safari, and Chrome. These search engines and web browsers may be well within our adult comfort zone but children need to understand the mechanics of how and when to use them.

Research says that iPads can improve classroom learning (Maich & Hall, 2016)

We found that iPads did improve classroom learning but not because they are iPads, if that makes sense. Success was more attributable to the fact that teachers who integrated iPads into their lessons tended to do more Project Based Learning (PBL), which has been found to improve student learning across grade levels (Cheu-Jay, 2015). Our teachers used iPads as a tool to become more innovative educators and this in turn led to improved classroom learning. We should note that as this finding became more obvious we gave our interns further training in PBL.

Research says iPads improve student engagement

When teachers and university faculty asked Jeanne why she wrote that first grant for the iPads she immediately said, “I was looking for a way to improve student engagement, but really when I’m saying that I think of one student: Edward.

Edward came to my class mid-year from another poor school across the state. He had many home and learning challenges that were well documented in his academic file. My problems with him started immediately: reluctant reader, disruptive behavior, a general refusal to work. I’ve been a teacher for a long time and I’ve had other students like this.  My approach is to find their talent or interests. Fortunately for me, Edward was a fabulous artist—he loved to draw, and I saw his whole body relaxing as he doodled while waiting for the bus. I couldn’t get Edward to do much, but when I gave him the task of figuring out an app that would allow our students to draw using the iPads he became a different student.  I told him that this was his responsibility and that he could also serve as a trainer for the other students. It was also his reward and in a way his therapy—when he was particularly upset or disruptive, focusing him on the iPad calmed him and allowed me to work with him in a much more productive way.”

We heard variations on this story throughout our research; the hard-to-reach, reluctant, oppositional Edwards all became engaged when introduced to opportunities that the iPad gave them.  Many of them read more easily on the iPads; they willingly did research for projects, and as we moved forward they could write and edit on the iPads using keyboards.

Research says that iPads have the potential to level the playing field for all students

We would most certainly agree! Our findings as researchers and teachers made it clear that all of our students could access iPads easily and eagerly.  All classes in our research site were inclusive with a diverse community of learners at every grade level including students with IEPs, 504 plans, autism spectrum disorders, and English language learners. Beyond that there are children who fall under the category of reluctant learners and at the same time (since the school did not have a gifted and talented program) many students who consistently perform above grade level.

The explicit intention of using iPads in the school was to reach this rainbow of learners.  How does one teacher differentiate for so many different children? Using a PBL framework we found that iPads could be used to support children in long term projects and in daily core subjects reviews. More specifically, we used iPads as a research tool, for reading books, practicing facts, writing books, sight word review, for creating videos, podcasts and slide shows, and the list goes on.

In the end, the research and our data merged.  The greatest truth was that the less a teacher uses technology, the less comfortable they will be with technology in their classroom—this is neither age dependent nor years of teaching dependent. We know many “old” teachers (present company included) who love the latest technologies and embrace them joyfully in our classrooms. What has been the most interesting outcome for us in our research is the number of classroom teachers who, with a little hands-on support, created technology-rich lessons with a minimum of training or professional development. The bottom line was that when we mixed training with support we created a successful and innovative learning experience for teachers and their students.

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