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What the iPad Does– and Doesn’t– Mean for Education

Posted in Ed Tech on April 9, 2010 by

Alex Sarlin is Lead Verbal Developer for Graduate Programs at Knewton, specializing in GMAT prep.

The iPad is certainly one of the more polarizing issues in the technology world. Many, like the folks at Wired Magazine, are hailing the iPad as the second coming, a revelatory device that will usher in a completely new era of computing. In this reading, of course, Apple CEO Steve Jobs becomes our savior although others compare Jobs to Moses. After all, how often do people really bring tablets down from the mountains (of Northern California)?

There are countless other metaphors: Is Jobs the biblical serpent (who, of course, inspired the moniker Apple in the first place), asking his customers to leave their computers in their “dens” but take the “e” around with them? Or is he a false prophet, like the Big Brother-esque leader behind Apple’s most famous ad campaign, a figure of cult status boasting his way into a 30% cut off… well, everything?

All this hullabaloo is a natural reaction to any new technology, especially something being actively promoted as paradigm-shifting and “revolutionary.” Technology always giveth while it taketh away. The transportation revolution (trains, planes, and automobiles) created pollution and urban sprawl. The industrial revolution led to Dickensian chaos and Marxist unrest. Given a few minutes, we could probably come up with a few negative aspects of the creation of television or, say, nuclear weapons.

We who think about educational technology for a living tend to see the iPad in mostly positive terms; more computing in more places is good for us, and potentially, everyone. But to keep the polarized nature of the debate alive, at least for one more moment before the world renders its final verdict (which will probably closer to “hallelujah” than “ho-hum” at least once the really cool apps start appearing), here is an initial list of the pros and cons of the iPad as it is used for education:

The iPad giveth:

  • The ability to take full-size notes from anywhere, including directly off the web or from e-textbooks, while you’re on the go. And by “notes” of course, we mean drawings, sounds, charts, graphs, videos, and words.
  • Integration between on-the-go computing and home computing, without the weight of a laptop– an important feature for college students.
  • Educational video about anything, anytime, big enough to actually see.
  • The ability to “share” computing space. A group of students can huddle around an iPad, as they do with computers but can’t do with the iPhone. A teacher could hold one up in front of a class to show videos, charts, graphs, or pictures, and manipulate the technology in real-time.
  • Accelerometers and touch-screen technology, which make it an amazing tool for kinesthetic learners (in addition to visual learners, auditory learners, etc). This could very well end up the hidden legacy of the iPad in the educational sector: It levels the playing field for different types of learners in one shiny stroke.
  • App heaven. Although the education apps available so far leave something (read: everything) to be desired, there’s no doubt that the killer-education-app race is on. The increased screen real estate opens up a world of possibilities. Given the iPad’s ability to browse the web quickly, these apps will have to add educational value that surpasses the internet itself which means that straight information or reference apps are instantly pass (why compete with Google?).

The iPad taketh away:

  • Flash.
  • It also provides non-educational video about anything, anytime, big enough to actually see. We don’t usually hear teachers complaining that their students don’t put enough time into Youtube.
  • This e-book is also Facebook and Twitter and (god forbid) AIM… all the time. Although most wired students have already mastered the fine art of studying and doing homework while fielding a barrage of incoming instant messages, let’s see teachers trying to keep their students from texting when it looks exactly like taking notes.
  • The potential end of the promising e-book industry. One of the best things about the Kindle (which sees the writing on the wall and already has an iPad tie-in), and the Barnes and Noble nook is that you aren’t constantly tempted to put down your copy of Moby Dick— you know, the chapter that explains the 42 different kinds of harpoon tips at any moment to switch to something slightly more sexy, i.e. one of ten bazillion videos or a hundred gajillion games.
  • App hell (hmmm– that almost sounds like “Apple”…). The education section of the iTunes app store is vast, widely uneven, and mostly terrible in quality. There’s certainly no winner of the killer-educational-app as of yet. Don’t agree? Quick name one. In fact, the iPhone and iPod Touch have, to the amazement of those in the industry, almost given educational technology a BAD name. For the most part, the education apps are no more than a hodge podge of flash card programs, foreign language dictionaries, apps for babies (why?!), reference texts, and teeny little e-book readers full of classics– nothing that will actually appeal to kids.