The PC is dead, long live the iPad
If reports from some schools are to be believed, then the interactive whiteboard, the PC and the laptop are all obsolete. The iPad is the new king of classroom technology.
Apple's ubiquitous device has sold more than 80 million units since its launch in 2010, single-handedly sparking a new market for tablet computers worldwide. Educators started seeing the benefits of the iPad as a teaching tool within weeks of its release, and soon found creative ways to introduce it into the classroom.
With the iPad already on its third generation and a smaller model rumoured to be released soon, increasing numbers of schools are equipping their teachers and pupils with the devices. In some cases, this has meant other teaching technology being overlooked or abandoned completely in favour of Apple's all-conquering tablet and its massive library of apps.
So what is it about the iPad that makes it so attractive to schools? And what are the potential downsides for those planning to switch?
Simon Pridham, head of the 200-pupil Casllwchwr Primary school in Swansea, says it is a more natural use of technology than other computing devices.
"The iPad gives you the world at your fingertips 24 hours a day," he says. "Take an ICT suite in a school - you take pupils into a room for an afternoon to use the computers, which they might have to share, and then they don't go back into that room for a week.
"That's not a natural use of technology. With the iPad, pupils have the internet, a camera, a notebook, a sound recorder and a range of other tools at their fingertips, instantly."
Pridham introduced iPads to Casllwchwr two years ago as part of a wider effort to increase literacy levels among pupils, particularly boys. He saw the school's existing ICT offering of PCs and whiteboards in every classroom as dull, dated and uninspiring.
Hoping to engage and enthuse his pupils with new technology, Pridham borrowed an iPad and began to explore its possible uses, including in helping to improve literacy. After quickly becoming convinced of technology's benefits, Pridham bought 10 iPads, one for each of his teachers, and then a further 20 for pupils to use.
Soon, every classroom was equipped with a widescreen television hooked up to Apple TV - a digital media receiver that can play content from a variety of sources - and a dedicated broadband line was installed. In September this year, every key stage 2 pupil was given their own iPad to use for the duration of their stay at Casllwchwr.
Although the devices are currently school-based, pupils will be allowed to take them home from the start of the spring term, providing they bring them back every day. And soon every teaching assistant will have their own iPad, too.
"The main benefit of the iPad is that it is instant and simple to use," Pridham says. "Take literacy, for example. The things you can do to enhance literacy with an iPad are incredible.
"You can use iBooks Author to create interactive books with the pupils, the GarageBand music app to enhance poetry and storytelling, and games apps that enthuse and excite pupils into reading."
Pridham says a recent Year 5 lesson on the water cycle provided a perfect example of what can be achieved with an iPad: "After researching the water cycle on the internet, some of the pupils went outside to take photos to illustrate their work, while others used art apps to draw it out on the screen.
"One boy used the camera to take photos of the sun, clouds and water, and then used an app to change them into an animation. He used word-processing to add labels and recorded his own voice-over, before screening it to the Apple TV in the classroom.
"All that from one device. And we are seeing that sort of thing every day. Children are becoming more engaged in their learning."
Pridham says other tablet devices simply do not compare to what the iPad is offering.
"For me, it's not about the Apple brand itself but what you can do with its technology and what it can offer," he says. "The beauty of Apple over Android is that everything is linked. You can have your iMac, iPhone and iPad all linked to a widescreen television via Apple TV.
"Also, the killer apps are all on Apple. You are not necessarily going to get all those apps on the other devices.
"In my opinion, the whiteboard is dead. All you need now is an iPad and Apple TV and you can do so much more. It is technology that truly engages and enthuses children. If you're asking pupils to come to school and use a PC and then they go home and use an iPad, they're not going to be turned on or enthused by what you have to offer."
Casllwchwr's approach seems to have paid off. In January this year it won the Third Millennium Learning Award from ICT association Naace, for pushing the boundaries of learning through technology. And in June it became the first school in Wales to gain Lighthouse status from Apple Education UK, becoming a beacon school for the use of Apple technology.
Casllwchwr is one of a growing number of schools to give every pupil an iPad. One of the first and most widely known was Cedars School of Excellence, in Greenock, Scotland.
In 2010, the 100-pupil independent school was already equipped with a dozen iMacs and a dozen iBooks, but teachers were increasingly requesting flexible access to the internet for their pupils.
Fraser Speirs, the school's head of computing, at first considered the iPod Touch as a personal device for each pupil, but the inability to connect to a physical keyboard or a projector rendered it unsuitable. The newly released iPad could do both and seemed to be the answer to the school's problem. Cedars made a leasing agreement with the local Apple Store and started receiving iPads for its pupils.
"The extent of our ambition at the time was to put word processors and web browsers in pupils' hands," Speirs says. "We have always been known as a computer school and for using a lot of technology in the classroom, so parents were comfortable with the idea of using technology.
"The challenge when we started was to explain what the iPad was and what the educational benefits were."
For Speirs, the most important benefit was that the school would remain "relevant" in the eyes of its pupils. Much like Pridham at Casllwchwr, Speirs was concerned that the school's existing ICT provision would put pupils off.
"Pupils used to share each computer with up to four of their classmates," he says. "Now we are teaching them with the same tools in hand that they have in real life. Society is rapidly going mobile and we want to mirror that.
"Many pupils these days have their own smartphones and you are a hostage to fortune if they bring their own devices into school. We wanted to pre-empt that problem."
He is also not tempted to switch to other tablet brands. "It's not worth it," he says. "Those tablets comparable to iPads are more expensive, while those cheaper are not comparable. The big problem with the Android platform is it just doesn't have the apps that Apple does. For us they are the key thing. We use a lot of high-end, powerful creativity apps."
Speirs says that, at Cedars, pupil engagement with and enthusiasm for learning has increased "dramatically" since the introduction of the new technology. When the three-year lease on the iPads runs out next year, the school will probably move on to the latest model, but Speirs says there is no question of reverting to laptops or even of buying a different tablet.
"The software is simpler and so much more powerful on the iPad," he says. "Teachers and pupils' enthusiasm is for the iPad. There's no doubt in my mind that iPad is the way I would go every time. It's evolved so fast in the past two years while the development of laptops and desktops seems to be static."
In fact, Cedars may even cut back on the non-iPad technology it has.
"We are probably not going to refresh our suite of Macs," says Speirs. "We have got them and nobody's using them. In many ways we are getting simpler and more lightweight. I imagine we'll have no server or desktops, just wi-fiand iPads."
A common concern among both parents and teachers at schools switching to the iPad is pupil security, both online and physically when they take the technology outside school.
In terms of online security, both Casllwchwr and Cedars filter their entire networks rather than each individual iPad.
At Casllwchwr, pupils are not allowed to access the internet without teacher supervision. Although Pridham acknowledges there is no way to block any device or network completely, he is confident the school has made its iPads as safe and secure as possible. It deploys a web-filtering service that sifts out 60 different areas of the internet, including gaming, social media and pornography. Teachers can even specify individual websites to block.
This term, Casllwchwr is educating its pupils - and their parents - on using the iPad safely before they are ready to take it home next year.
As regards physical safety, both schools have insurance as part of their lease agreements, and advise pupils to give up the iPads straight away if they are threatened outside school, rather than try to fight for them.
Thankfully, in two years Cedars has not had any iPads stolen. Speirs disputes that expensive hardware might make his pupils targets: "Many are already carrying expensive smartphones in their bags anyway, so this is no different," he says.
Schools may be concerned about the cost of the iPads, but the leasing agreements that both Casllwchwr and Cedars have in place are affordable, say the teachers.
Cedars' agreement works out at #163;12.50 per iPad per month including insurance, while Casllwchwr is leasing 120 iPads, each with insurance and casing, for a total of #163;23,500 per year for three years.
Casllwchwr's parent-teacher association raised money for the first batch of iPads, but grant funding has helped with the latest lease. Swansea council is also providing funds and it is hoped that the Welsh government could soon help.
The iPad is certainly not suitable for all schools. For every teacher who waxes lyrical about its benefits, there's another despairing over its limits.
An anonymous ICT coordinator at a secondary school in the UK recently wrote to PC Pro magazine, saying that he and his colleagues were "full of regret" that their "image-conscious" head was seduced by a scheme allowing them to replace their laptops with iPad 2s.
"Most staff are IT illiterate and jumped at the chance of exchanging their laptop for an iPad," he wrote.
But, he said, the same teachers were now finding problems with the iPad's technical limits, including the lack of such familiar software such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, in which they had created useful documents and resources.
Staff were also having problems transferring work to their devices because of the lack of USB connectivity, the teacher added. Although there have been benefits, he said, they would have preferred to have laptops as well as iPads.
PC Pro commented that the iPad experiment sounded like a "classic case of the chap with the chequebook" making decisions before considering the needs of his staff.
"With schools now given complete autonomy to spend their ICT budget as they see fit, you have to wonder if headteachers across the country are making similarly bad decisions based on little more than gut instinct, appearances and the latest fad," it said.
E-learning expert Donald Clark says there is a lot of "tech snobbery" around the iPad.
"The iPad is not particularly good for writing or note-taking in class, because touch-screen keyboards are not efficient," he says. "The screen is not particularly good for readability either, compared to an e-book reader like a Kindle. The problem with this Apple push is that the costs are so high compared to other tablets and technology that is coming along."
Clark, a board member of UfiCharitable Trust, which aims to improve access to adult learning through technology, says the argument that schools need iPads to stay relevant is "fatuous".
"That's like saying everybody should be wearing their trousers halfway down their backsides because it's fashionable," he says. "I think the reason teachers are so enamoured with them is because it reminds them of the slate. It's an evolution of the presentation medium of the slate, the blackboard and the whiteboard."
But views like Clark's seem to be in the minority, as more and more schools adopt the iPad.
According to reports from the US, the tablet is outpacing traditional PCs in sales to schools there for the first time. An industry analyst recently claimed the iPad was "cannibalising" PCs in sales to the K-12 (kindergarten through to 12th grade) market.
Pridham says the iPad alone is not enough to transform a school, and it can only be a worthwhile tool if it is used in conjunction with good teaching practices.
"Any form of technology in the wrong hands is not going to have any effect," he says. "With technology, pedagogy and curriculum together you can do wonderful things. The iPad hasn't changed our teaching, it has enhanced it.
"But you can't expect miracles to happen. After all, they haven't got magic dust inside them."
iPads in education:
Fifty resources for iPad use in the classroom: zd.netJVRR9B
- Cost - iPads are expensive, but they can be affordable for schools. You could work out a lease scheme with your local Apple store, or use your poverty or deprivation grant to buy in the hardware.
- Start simply - find examples on the web of people who have used technology in the classroom well, and learn from them.
- Begin with teachers - familiarise them with the technology by getting each one to focus on a single app for a week.
- Look at apps - search the app store to find one that works for you.
- Don't be driven by apps - start with what you want to teach and feed apps into that, instead of the other way around.
Ideas for how to use iPads in the classroom:
- Tell FaceTime stories - have older children read stories to younger pupils in different classrooms via the iPad's video-calling software.
- Start a band - get pupils to use different musical instrument apps to make music together.
- Create a Twitter story - start a story and have pupils write the rest of it, 140 characters at a time.
- Use the GarageBand music app to enhance poetry and storytelling.
Some useful apps for education:
- Book Creator and iBooks Author - both allow you to create and publish books.
- Brushes - a popular, simple painting app.
- GarageBand - a music editing app. It can also be used to record podcasts.
- Google Earth - use it to explore the world virtually and enhance geography lessons.
- iMovie - for film editing.
- iThoughts HD - a mind mapping tool.
- iTunes U - the world's largest online library of free, educational content.
- Keynote - use it to create and share presentations.
- Khan Academy - maths and science tutorials.
- Pages - a word-processing app that lets you add photos, graphics and videos.
- Star Walk - an astronomy app that identifies and maps constellations as you point the iPad at the sky.