About a year ago they started mentioning that classroom technology was expanding. We have our interactive whiteboards, now it was time for iPads and netbooks to enter the fray. I cringed. Mostly in a "one more thing to worry about" sort of way. Nowadays, it's not so bad. After spending a summer ruminating about how the heck you make 4 iPads work for 30 kids and then finding a way to make 4 into 14, things started to click in place.


You're Doing It Wrong

Getting students to the task should be frictionless, or as frictionless as possible. It should also enhance what you're doing and not be TFTS (technology for technology's sake). This is what I'd call the paper test. If you ask yourself "can I replicate this with paper?" and the answer is yes, rethink the lesson, or stop forcing the issue. There are natural avenues for iPad use. Typing up notes is not one of them.

  • Ok kids, go to my edmodo page and...
  • Ok kids, create a log in for this website and...
  • Ok kids, sign in to your e-mail account and...
  • Ok kids, take a picture of your work to e-mail me and...
  • Ok kids, watch this instructional video and...
  • Ok kids, I want you to take notes and...
  • Ok kids, open this e-textbook and...

Why am I hating on edmodo/e-mail/logins? Well, they create friction. You know some kid will forget the password. You know edmodo will pick the wrong time to be unresponsive. You know some kid will have no idea how to attach a picture to e-mail. Then there's this ball of absolute ridiculousness. 23 steps to distribute and collect an assignment (a PDF of a worksheet no less)! Running to the copier and collecting the papers is the better choice. You want the time spent with the technology to be time spent learning/doing and not fiddling/troubleshooting. The first time I waited ten minutes for a netbook to login was the last time I booted the thing.

A lot of people get real excited with the concept of ShowMe. There are merits to having a student learn how to teach. But is dictating a lesson to an iPad enhancing the activity? Could they do that with chart paper? Could they do that in small groups? And isn't the idea that math is mastered through a headless narrator just reinforcing that thing we don't like to talk about? Also, have you tried sharing stuff with ShowMe? Logins! Hooray!

Oh, and Geogebra is a disaster on iPads (blame Java). Desmos is ok (logins!), but they need a native app desperately. The sooner you accept what iPads don't do well, the sooner you dive into what makes them shine.

Get to Work

Getting to the assignment has got to be the fastest part. A Dropbox or iCloud is key to quick starts. I have a Dropbox account (separate from my main one) tied to each iPad the students use. Once I have the images/PDFs together, it's as simple as putting them in a well-named folder on the Dropbox. I spend a few seconds showing the whole class where to find the file, and the task is underway. If I want them to assemble data in Numbers, I prep templates for them in advance. Each iPad is tied to the same iCloud account. Creating a spreadsheet on one propogates it to another. Because Numbers is quirky, I prep a template for every group that will need one, named appropriately (time taken = time to prep 1 template + time to hit copy x times). If you're more a Google Docs kind of person, Google Drive for iOS has been making progress. I need to re-examine my use of Numbers though, this year it set off the TFTS beeper.

For collection, iCloud auto-updates progress. A group says they're done with their spreadsheet, a tap later and all iPads (and my computer) have their data. I had students upload videos to Dropbox. It was easy. They spent longer picking out their best video.

Know what kind of device ratio you need. Creating videos or taking pictures is an easy 5:1 idea. Reading notes? Sketching? Researching? 2:1, TOPS. I mean it.

Chill Out

Some restrictions are going to be necessary. Once you sign into an iPad with an Apple ID, you can disable the ability to make account changes (preventing a kid from signing in their account). You can disable e-mail. You can disable messages. You can disable deleting apps. You can disable FaceTime. You can disable the camera. You can set a passcode for altering the restrictions.

No matter what you do, kids will find a way to fiddle. They are curious, they want to fiddle. Don't discourage this (provided the task at hand gets done). If they open Facebook, kindly tap the tab closed and have them move along. Do not lose your mind. If they take goofy pictures with their friend, delete it later when class is over. Do not lose your mind. A good way to reduce that sort of thing is to enable Photo Stream. Any iPad signed into a given Apple ID will auto-share any photo taken, making a public projection (from your iPad) of that goofy photo very easy. Seems to do the trick.

Do not think you have to use the iPads every day. If it takes two months before you find another way to compliment a lesson, so be it.


Determine a way to share results. A student will assign value to an activity if they know others are going to see it. If the task involves one student typing some notes on an iPad that no one will ever look at, it doesn't inspire quality products. SketchBook Express is iCloud enabled, Photo Stream quickly displays photos taken by anyone, Dropbox gives you a central point to view video. Or invest in an iPad AV Cable or AirPlay solution. Show the students you are interested in what they are making and that the exercise is not TFTS, never to be discussed again. Do not have them submit electronic versions of worksheets.


There are no magic apps. Do not repackage an old way of doing things in a shiny digital wrapper. Do not make them download your PowerPoint to read for homework. Think fast, how many times did you read those Chem 101 notes you downloaded in college? Or listen to those English lectures you recorded. Yeah.

As much as I liked the process of self-teaching, it could've been replicated with pencil and paper. But I had to learn that lesson by trying the idea. Do something unique. Taking pictures, making vidoes, learning sophisticated search techniques, running statistics through WolframAlpha are just some of the activities that are new and novel. Do not ban WolframAlpha because it gives them the answers, show them how to verify what happened. Teach them how to read the high-level vocabulary WolframAlpha uses in its results. Show them how to graph an equation with a Google search. Find a way to integrate your content into a new way of doing things, don't force students to digest a PDF of your perfect worksheet you made 5 years ago. Early in the year I kicked myself for giving students too much information. Learn to take facts out of the problem. Present the kids with just the question you want to answer. Teach them how to fill in the blanks and then give them the internet to do so.

On my mind currently is polar equations. Their graphs are pretty, the traditional TI-84 way of examining their graphs is not. Giant color displays give my students a new way to explore these. I have no idea if the iPad will enhance the experience, but it won't hurt to try.


Where I think a lot of iPad activities stumble is the idea that you should use them to consume a worksheet/website/video, things that paper can replicate. Where an iPad in your classroom shines is when you start talking about what kids can create. We spent the first part of the century getting teachers the internet in their classrooms. Now every student is getting a chance at that experience. Teach them how to use it. Don't assume they have any idea what's going on because they're young and you're not. Instead of putting a bland right triangle on the board, make them go find some. Instead of analyzing some bland quadratic equation, have them create one. Teach them how to sketch. Teach them how to go CSI Miami on a video. Teach them how to take a screenshot. Teach them how to teach someone else. Let them play with the camera. Show them all the crazy ways to interpret Maps. Shoot, have a discussion about how an iPad works in the first place.

Lastly, know when to keep the iPad in the cabinet.

AuthorJonathan Claydon