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Want Increased Student Achievement Using iPads?

Don’t settle for just a few good apps.

Apple reports that 1.5 million iPads are used in K12. Given that there are approximately 55 million students in K12, the iPad has penetrated K12 faster than any other computing technology. And the tech tsunami doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We have seen this type of excitement before with desktops and then again with laptops, although their rates of growth in K12 were slower. Each time the expectations for what the computing device would do for education were sky high, and each time there was disappointment. Who can forget Winnie Hu’s May 2007 New York Times article, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops”? While the title was relatively low-key, the news was devastating to the educational technology community.

What Do iPads Have to Do With It?

Why would K12 administrators and teachers expect iPads to do what neither desktops nor laptops could do? What is so special about the iPad that could cause someone like Superintendent James Ponce of the McAllen (Texas) Independent School District to purchase 25,000 iPads and iTouches to go one to one across his district? His goal is “getting students college and career ready in today’s rapidly developing world.” Are finger-touch capability and lightweight, high-definition screens the magic bullets educators have been seeking? How about hardware and software? There are over 500,000 apps in Apple’s iTunes Store, a healthy number of which support drill-and-practice learning, but there are diamonds in the rough: MotionMath, Strip Designer, Brain Pop Featured Movie, InAWorld … Drama, and more.

Before you say we are anti-iPad, substitute any other mobile device for iPad and the argument presented here holds true.

In fact, Hu pointed out that the failure of laptops was due to (1) lack of educational software, (2) lack of curriculum that exploited the software, and (3) lack of professional development. So who is finding the diamond apps in the rough? Who is creating the curriculum and the instructional strategies surrounding those apps? How is the professional development delivered? If all this rests on the backs of teachers, who are already booked solid, who have limited experience using mobile devices, and who are not trained in curriculum and instruction development, then it is easy to predict what will happen. There will be no gains in student achievement. Now for the subtle part: What apps and how many apps are being used in the classroom? Do students use apps like the one mentioned in Hu’s January 2011 New York Times article that helps them learn about the use of color in Baroque art (great, but only if you are learning about color in Baroque art)? Or do the students use a bunch of general apps for purposes such as data collecting and graphing, Web browsing, concept mapping, creating time lines and spreadsheets, drawing and animating, and making movies?

Essential Learning Devices

Data from the one-to-one use of laptops and mobile devices clearly demonstrate that when students use their devices as essential tools for learning, using a broad range of apps for between 50 and 75 percent of the day, and outside class, then and only then does student achievement increase. In contrast, using one or two apps per day just isn’t enough to move the needle. We term the limited use of computing devices (30 to 60 minutes a day) “supplemental.” And based on empirical findings, student achievement tends not to increase with just supplemental use.

The bottom line is that after spending all that money and effort outfitting all the students in a class, educators should not settle for just using them as supplemental tools. Such use won’t achieve the desired goal. In contrast, when the students use iPads equipped with a broad range of general-purpose tools as essential learning tools, and and when teachers are provided with curriculum and instructional materials that exploit the capabilities of those tools, and provided that teachers receive ongoing, continuous professional development, educators then will see the achievement gains they so badly want for their students.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.

Visit Cathleen and Elliot’s Going Mobile blog.