Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

The Impact of the iPad on K-12 Schools

on February 9, 2011
A student at Cecile Trost Elementary School in Canby School District learns with her iPad. | Photo courtesy of Joe Morelock

Across the country, schools announce iPad pilots, bring the mobile devices into the classroom and rave about their new tools.

“It’s really the first version of the iPad, and there’s a lot of bluster and a lot of sort of enthusiasm about iPads without a lot of concrete statistics and case studies to go by,” said Sam Gliksman, educational technology director at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif.

"People are jumping in left, right and center," he continued, "and what I’m finding is they’re great for some things, they’re a little limited in others, and it’s a different paradigm from using laptops. You can’t use them the same way, and I think that’s where a lot of people are jumping in and making a mistake."

To figure out how this device impacts schools, we'll take a look at pilot programs in two California schools and one Oregon school district. Keep reading to find out the technical and instructional implications of the iPad in the classroom.

The pilot programs


In the heart of the Willamette Valley about 23 miles south of Portland, Canby School District serves 5,000 students in nine schools. In May 2010, administrators and teachers started testing the iPad, which launched in April. In the fall, the district launched an iPad pilot that supplied 25 devices to teachers and about 300 to students for use in class.

The district started the pilot for a number of reasons, said Joe Morelock, director of technology and innovation.

  • Teachers and students learn with 2,000 iPod touches, so they're comfortable with Apple mobile devices.
  • Through that experience, Morelock knew the iOperating System (iOS) had enough power.
  • Because teachers already used iTunes, they could manage the iPads themselves.

One science teacher has a cart of iPads, so in each of his classes, every student uses one every day. In the Dual Language Immersion Program, two classes of fifth-graders have a device assigned to them. And on a smaller scale, the district deployed them at all grade levels in various subjects.

Northern California

About 108 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Vallecito Union School District in Avery, Calif., serves 720 kindergarten through eighth-grade students in three schools. In August, the district started an iPad pilot at Avery Middle School, which earned the title of Apple Distinguished School for the 2010-2011 school year.

When California released categorical funding for textbook adoption, district staff considered adopting new math textbooks, said Michael Wells, director of technology. But the staff members asked the middle school teachers, "If you could do something else with this money, what would you do?"

The teachers wanted a mobile computing device for each student. So the district's business manager, superintendent, middle school principal and technology director worked together to launch a pilot starting with 190 iPads for the school's 300 students.

Seventh- and eighth-graders have their own device, and eighth-grade students can take their devices home. Both fifth- and sixth-graders have classroom sets.

Southern California

About 31 miles northwest of Los Angeles, New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, Calif., started an iPad pilot in September with 45 or 50 devices to explore ways students could use them. During the school year, the staff members hoped to transition to e-books, said Sam Gliksman, the educational technology director.

Five history, religious studies and science classes either access iPads from a cart or go to a classroom that stores the devices in a closet.


Device advantages

Here's what the iPad brings to the table from the perspective of these three technology directors. 

Screen size, touch interface

The 10-inch screen renders content beautifully and has a nice large touch interface that students with motor skill issues can work with easily, Morelock said.

Battery life

The battery life made the iPad an easy choice for Avery Middle School, Wells said. Even with a 6-cell battery, a netbook would only last four hours. And that's not long enough in a 6 1/2- or 7-hour school day. The iPad advertised a 10-hour video viewing battery life, and that has proved true.

Predictable user experience

Students pull the iPad out, hit power, and jump into an app quickly. Because the process is so fast, teachers don't lose much instruction time. The apps also work well consistently, Wells said.

“I’m a fan of open-source, but one of the things that the iPad does better than anybody else is it gives you a predictable user experience," Wells explained. "You know when you open an application that it’s going to run. You know what it’s going to do. Everything happens the way it should happen 99.9 percent of the time."

Communicating, consumption

With the iPad, you don't have to worry about outlets, power cords or battery life, Gliksman said. And they're fantastic for communicating, e-reading and Web browsing.

Device limitations, challenges

But the device does have limitations and presents challenges that technology directors need to overcome.

Sharing devices

At the start of the Canby School District pilot, pairs of fifth-grade students shared iPads in the Dual Language Immersion Program. But Morelock quickly saw the need to assign each student a device, and he did.

The biggest challenge at New Community Jewish High School is sharing the devices, which students have to do because of budget considerations. For the device to be effective in the classroom, you need to have your own because it's a personal device that leaves a data footprint, Gliksman said.

In a Google forms survey of 126 students in the history and religious studies classes, Gliksman asked, "On a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful), to what degree has the use of iPads helped your learning in class?" Students responded with an overall average of 3.38. 

While the response was positive, it wasn't the ringing endorsement Gliksman hoped for.

He cites two factors that contributed to this response in a blog post reflecting on the results: Sharing the iPads doesn't allow students to make them their own, and there's a learning curve to acquire the skills you need to effectively use the touch interface.

The touch interface

When Gliksman asked them how well they could type on the iPad on a scale of 1 (difficult) to 5 (easy), the student overall average was 3.60. Most of the students said they typed comfortably on the on-screen keyboards, but they were writing short notes, annotations and e-mails, not long documents.

“The more they use it, the more they become comfortable," Gliksman said, "but I’m not ready to say that all kids would be comfortable using iPads all day long. Some of them just don’t like the touch interface and the keyboards.”

But in the class that used the iPads most, more students preferred iPads.

In Canby School District, students adapted quickly to the on-screen keyboard. That's more of a challenge for the teachers, Morelock said.

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on Mar 12, 2011
I'm a teacher and the systems administrator at a private high school in L.A. I dislike the iPad in education for various reasons. I've written a blog post about it:
on Mar 14, 2011
I agree that Jeff's article is very well written and thoughtful. It misses the point in my opinion, the iPad is not a desktop/notebook replacement. It is a 1:1 tool in a whole new paradigm.
on Mar 22, 2011
In Ludington Michigan there is a pilot program running this year with iPads 1:1 in a kindergarten and a 2nd grade classroom. The early (6 months in) impressions are amazing. The iPads used in a truly 1:1 fashion are empowering learners and teachers are seeing things they have never seen from students this age. The iPad appears to be a perfect tool to change learning in the lower elementary setting.
on Mar 22, 2011
I'm assuming that better software, lower costs, and more optimized hardware would make iPads or iPad-like tablets in general more useful in the classroom. What's the biggest missing piece? btw I'm not a teacher, just a tech developer.
on Apr 26, 2011
Interesting article, also enjoyed yours Jeff. As a teacher and systems administrator, I hear a lot of people talking about "changed learning" with this technology, and computers in general. I have no doubt these changes are real, but what concerns me is whether this change is actually where we want to go? This is all so new, it seems we are using our current students as guinea pigs? I read research finding changed brain function in childen using these technologies, but haven't found any research into whether this is advantagous, afterall, hindsight has taught us to ban drugs that also cause brain function changes? I watch developments like social networking, and I can't help remembering the story of the happy children running down the street after the Pied Piper... Just because we can, doesn't necessarily imply we should.
on May 18, 2011
For institutions that need help securing their iPads from theft, we offer several solutions that can help. More information can be found at
on Jun 9, 2011
This was a well written article. Our school will also be implementing an iPad trial this fall and I will work with teachers and students to integrate the devices in the class. I also just got back from an Apple study trip in Melbourne Australia and wrote a three part reflection of what I learned on my blog: It will be interesting to see the research that comes out over the next couple of years based on iPad trials. Dion Norman
on Jan 16, 2012
They talk about netbooks lasting 4 hours without specifying make and model like it would be the same for all netbooks.
on Jan 24, 2012
Don't forget about the accessibility of iProducts right out of the box. That means inclusion for students who are blind and visually impaired!
on Feb 24, 2012
Application management should also be discussed here (did not read anything about it in the article) as apps can make or break the learning experience. School tech administrators need the power to control the apps their students are using. Luckily, app blacklisting and whitelisting capabilities do exist:
on Feb 27, 2012
@john harrington: i don't agree. teachers should have the power to control which apps their students are using.
on Feb 27, 2012
@john harrington: i don't agree. teachers should have the power to control which apps their students are using.
on Apr 25, 2012
ipads are cool
on Mar 14, 2013
This case system was created for the iPad with students in mind. It eliminates the discomfort that comes with extended use and protects the iPad better than any case I've seen.