The Impact of the iPad on K-12 Schools

Find out the technical and instructional implications of the iPad in the classroom.

by Tanya Roscorla / February 9, 2011 0
ipad 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.


These devices were designed to have one or two at home, not 30 in a classroom. And that's why managing that many devices presents a challenge.

“They’re made for consumers, and we’re using them for education,” Morelock said.

Some management pieces are still working themselves out, especially with shared carts. Because of the personal nature of the iOS, moving presentations or word processing documents from a shared iPad to linked storage is difficult.

He's still trying to figure out how to create services that make it easy for kids to save their work. That's not a challenge with the students who have their own device, though.

Developing an image, buying apps and synchronizing them presents a challenge for administrators, Gliksman said. When teachers want to get new apps, it's not simple to put them on iPads for students.


No support for Flash websites is a big minus, Gliksman said. Schools use popular Flash-based apps such as Glogster and VoiceThread, but they don't work on the iPad.

At Avery Middle School, Flash has not been an issue, Wells said. Students wish they had Flash because that's what they hear people say on the news and because they play Flash-based games.

But video sharing company Vimeo adapted to HTML5 quickly, and other companies will continue adopting the standard. And from an instructional perspective, Wells doesn't want students to access Flash-based games during school.


The iPads move slower on the production curve, and most of the apps tend to focus on short session tasks that have limited objectives.

"I wouldn’t necessarily say that you could go out and do live project-based learning assignments on an iPad," Gliksman said. "There’s not the ability yet to do that on the iPad, but I think it’s coming.”


Gliksman had hoped to transition to e-books during the pilot, but hasn't found enough content yet.

Access to quality digital textbooks proved the biggest challenge at Avery Middle School. The iPad doesn't provide a way to play a CD, and most of the textbook publishers weren't ready or interested in providing digital alternatives.

While Wells knew digital textbooks would be a challenge going into the pilot, he hoped the publishers would be willing to work with him.

And a few of them did provide the classes with some digital textbooks. The students also access online content as well as 25,000 books through the iBooks app at no cost.



Because Avery Middle School adapted iPads early, the first version of the operating system didn't have a print option.

“Whether you agree with it or not, teachers would like to print,” Wells said. "The world isn’t quite ready for a completely paperless cycle, but we’re getting there.” 

The iOS 4.2 release does allow users to print from iPads — as long as they have an AirPrint-enabled printer. To overcome this challenge, Wells used a plug-in that allows any printer to be compatible with AirPrint. While the printing process is slow and wonky, it does the job.


Teaching, learning with the device

Students at Cecile Trost Elementary School in Canby School District work on their iPads in class. | Photo courtesy of Joe Morelock.

We've covered the advantages and challenges of the iPad in schools. Now let's look at how the device affects teaching and learning, and whether these three pilot programs will continue.   

Avery Middle School pilot

When Avery Middle School started the iPad pilot, the district staff adopted a philosophy that the device is a tool in a student's arsenal.

“The device itself can’t replace good teachers, it can’t replace good curriculum, it can’t replace good classroom instruction,” Wells said.

Each day, teachers upload curriculum onto a wiki, where the students find out what they're doing for the day. That component alone has empowered the teachers.

Before, differentiated students colored outside the lines on a picture. But now, the teachers say, "I want a picture of a bird, and here's five different apps and 15 websites. Generate a picture of a bird." 

“And the results that we’re getting have been extremely exciting because students who weren’t engaged before in the learning process have all of a sudden found that there’s a place for them," Wells said, "and they’re actually excited about writing, they’re excited about the projects that they’re creating and working on.”

As a result of the collaborative, differentiated learning environment, homework turn-in rates and student engagement have increased.

The district would like to provide a device for each sixth-grader so that they don't have to share anymore, but is having a hard time finding funding.


New Community Jewish High School pilot

At New Community Jewish High School, the astronomy teacher likes the iPad because of the tremendous resources available on the Web and astronomy apps. With one of the apps, his students identify constellations in the sky.

Another teacher breaks students up into groups, has them take notes using the Evernote app and projects them on the board for everyone to discuss and share.

On the student survey, 74 percent said they preferred laptops for these three reasons:

  • Typing is easier
  • They can keep multiple windows open and switch between them more easily on the laptops
  • They can move documents and information between class and home easier than they can on a shared iPad

About half of the students currently bring their own mobile devices, and others access laptop carts of MacBooks.

In the future, the school will continue to promote and expand the use of the devices. Gliksman probably will look at a hybrid approach of supporting iPads for everyone who's comfortable with them and supporting other devices so students have a choice.

Canby School District pilot

Now that the Canby School District has had a year to practice and test the devices, it plans to double or triple its investment in the iPads. The kids are excited and engaged, and the parents are excited too.

Morelock receives notes from teachers all the time saying, "You wouldn't believe what we just did today." Some teachers place study questions and curriculum goals on a blog so students can find their assignments. Others embed videos, make e-books using the open standard EPUB (short for electronic publication), and create individual blogs where students respond to literature they read.

In the classes where each student has an iPad, teachers have changed the way they teach, which is impressive, Morelock said. They think more about the way they organize the classroom, don't have every student working on the same thing at the same time, and moved to a more individualized, student-centered approach, Morelock said.

“It allows them to be more like an orchestra conductor working with this section and then that section.” 

A new wave of devices

The iPad has advantages, limitations and challenges as a first generation device. As Apple releases newer versions, and as other companies jump into the frey with competing devices, schools will continue to explore how they can help students learn.

Have you started an iPad pilot at your school or district? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments below.