How to have more meaningful iPad professional development

Effective professional development requires less of a focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of technology, and more on the pedagogy of using it.

“Leading Change” column, July/August 2013 edition of eSchool NewsIn last month’s column, I argued that the power of the iPad in education lies in harnessing its creative and mobile abilities through the use of versatile, “evergreen” apps and the web. Yet, by and large, school leaders aren’t doing enough to put teachers in a position to excel in iPad classrooms. Often, the substantial investments schools make in purchasing iPads are woefully out of balance with the minimal investments they make in preparing teachers to use these new tools effectively.

Many school leaders simply give teachers iPads and expect them to integrate them in innovative ways. Yet, when new tools are introduced, they’re often used to extend existing instructional practices. Remember the interactive whiteboards that appeared en masse a decade ago? Years later, many are still be used as glorified projectors. As HarvardX researcher Justin Reich points out in “The iPad as a Trojan Mouse,” introducing a shiny, enticing iPad is only an initial step. To create real change in education, we must ultimately address pedagogy and best practices.

The real challenge for educators is not learning a particular device or app. It is learning how to create relevant and meaningful learning environments.

When I begin a workshop on iPads, teachers quickly learn how to take a screen shot and record a video—among other skills. However, when I ask teachers how they could use various iPad features to improve teaching and learning, I am often met with silence. It doesn’t occur to many that a student can take a screenshot of their work at any point as a means of formative or summative assessment. They don’t think to record exemplary student actions and behaviors and show them to other students, or ask students to demonstrate critical thinking skills by recording their problem-solving process on the iPad. Without guidance, meaningful applications of the iPad are a foreign concept to many otherwise experienced and successful educators.

(Next page: What educators need instead)

While the nuts and bolts of the iPad can be quickly learned, understanding the educational potential of various apps and web tools takes considerably more time. What educators truly need is a sustained professional development environment in which they can explore and study strategies for empowering every student with a portable, internet-connected multimedia device. This requires a great deal of thinking about curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher collaboration practices.

For inspiration, The Park Tudor School in Indianapolis has created an engaging video on “Learning and Creating with iPads in Kindergarten” at, in which students use iPads to explore and present the world of butterflies. It outlines an admirable inquiry-based, student-centric, and collaborative approach to iPad integration. Administrators need to focus on helping educators create similar innovative instructional environments more than they need to provide operational workshops.

While many schools provide one day of professional development at the beginning of the year, the reality is that meaningful professional development must be ongoing throughout the year. At EdTechTeacher, we provide a blended instructional model, which includes on-site workshops, online courses, live webinars, and just-in-time support. We also bring our experience of working with schools across the country and sharing their practices and approaches. However, we’re fully aware that there are other effective professional learning models. One of the most popular forms of participantdriven professional development in recent years has been the Edcamp model, which allows participants to lead and select sessions based on their particular needs and interests.

Whether professional development is externally or internally driven, faculty must be given the opportunity to collaborate with their peers—in close proximity and online—as this is the best pathway to lasting change. These interactions not only lead to comfort, confidence, and creativity among educators; they model the lifelong learning attributes we’re trying to foster in our students.

Effective professional development can take many forms, but it requires less of a focus on the “nuts and bolts” of technology, and more on the pedagogy of using it. This process takes time, not a few short hours or days, and should be a continuous investment throughout the year. The key is facilitating communication and collaboration among educators and exposing them to successful practices. If we help teachers interact and share, both on-site and online, we can help them grow professionally.

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a leading professional learning organization.

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