In 1968, Alan Kay wrote about his idea to create “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.” The device was the Dynabook, and it had all the features of what we now call a laptop or tablet PC. Kay intended it as a way to introduce children to digital media.
The Dynabook embodied the earliest idea of mobile learning. The origins of a personal computing device began with an educational vision. Today, with the Apple iPad, that vision has the potential to become a reality.
Across the U.S., universities and schools see the iPad as the device that will truly take classroom education into the digital era. Greg Smith, CIO at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, says, “The iPad appears to be the perfect device for information at your fingertips, which places it in the role to ignite change.”
iPad champions hope it will initiate the change that will soon displace one-to-many teaching pedagogies in favor of one-to-one, always-on learning that will engage students. In particular, educators feel that tablets will change education because they dovetail with the goals and purposes of education in the digital age.
Let’s look at the features that make the iPad such a great learning device.
Touch screen usability
The touch screen of the iPad has extended Human Computer Interaction (HCI) in a way that mimics human gestures. The iPad touch screen enables intuitive touch to interact with computers, bypassing mouse-click and PC learning requirements, and getting straight into the action. While adults with ingrained technology habits consider the lack of keyboard a problem, digital natives have a different perspective.
Kids who haven’t learned to read or operate a remote are picking up the iPad’s interface with remarkable speed. According to the June 2010 Ad Age article, “How the iPad Became Child's Play – and Learning Tool,” after using the device, toddlers as young as 18 months try to interface with TVs and monitors as if they were touch screens too, indicating how intuitive this technology may be to the iPad generation.
Single screen user interface
The iPad does not give users the ability to read information from multiple sources simultaneously on a single screen through windows. This perceived shortcoming makes the iPad prone to criticism as a productivity device. However as a learning tool, the iPad’s single-screen interface reduces elements of interruption and potentially enhances user orientation to a specific task. An abundance of features can be a disturbance to the cognitive process, and educators often prefer mobile devices without distractive features like messaging and phone calls.
The single screen user interface may help students stick to their assignments, as closing and launching other applications takes time and teachers can monitor it in class. In fact, teachers at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Kamuela feel that the iPad’s flat screen also makes it harder to hide surreptitious surfing.
See the sidebar for a summary of the things that students and teachers like about the iPad.
A better eReader
The iPad’s Book Reader is one of its most popular features and is already outpacing Amazon’s Kindle according to data released by Student Monitor, a firm that researches consumption trends among college students. Their March 2010 survey of 1,200 students at 100 colleges indicates that of students who reported interest in buying an eReader, 46% said they favored the iPad, versus 38% for Kindle. Nationally, that works out to around 782,000 students who might soon buy the iPad for its eReader capabilities alone.
Convergence and productivity
Long ago, schoolchildren only needed a slate and chalk for all learning. Similarly, today’s tablets can provide for every kind of learning requirement without external devices like a mouse or keyboard.
Modern educators are voicing the need for learning to be more contextual and engaging. Mobile phones and digital whiteboards add a level of interactivity, but not a lot of computing power, and a laptop is not always convenient.
The iPad fills this gap by enabling a host of activities such as referencing, collaborating, and creating content. In an August 2010 Wired.com article, “The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” the transformation from open Web browsing to specialized apps was a change driven by the Apple model of mobile computing. The iPad leverages this trend by providing personalized choice of content, a big plus for student users.
The iPad runs nearly all iPhone apps, plus specially designed iPad apps. Students have access to study guides, dictionaries, and class planners, as well as subject-oriented educational apps. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. The iPad can run a wide variety of education apps, and organizes content and apps into learning folders.
While the debate continues, there’s no doubt that the iPad has taken personal computing to the next level. Considering computing devices began with a vision of revolutionizing education, it’s not surprising that many of the iPad's features appeal to educational users.