The most recent data I’ve seen reports 8 million iPads sold to educational institutions. The speed with which schools have adopted this device has been remarkable, more so than any product in recent years. Though I’ve taken a more deliberate approach in adopting them than tech directors at other schools, Lab now has 278 iPads currently in service. With capital requests for 97 more next year, it seems like a good time to review what Lab has done to date and take a look at what role these devices are likely to play in the next couple of years.
Of the 278 iPads in service, 221 were acquired through the Computing/AV capital budget and assigned for use by students and teachers, primarily students and their homeroom teachers in grades N-4 for use in the course of daily instruction. Some of the remaining 57 were also funded through capital expenditures, though some were acquired from other budgets or through donations.
The mix of models includes first, second, and third generation iPads, though the iPad 2 is by far the most common model. All have been equipped with cases, whatever adapters are appropriate, and, increasingly, headsets.
A cohort of teachers in grades K-4 have had the opportunity to engage in a year-long program of professional development paid for with funds from the IS operating budget, including on site days, webinars, and online courses provided by Ed Tech Teacher, a consulting group with expertise in iPad deployments. Library Technology Coordinator Louis Coronel has also assisted numerous teachers on a “just in time” basis in developing technology integration strategies for using the iPads, which some have used more than others. Rob Koontz has put in many hours figuring out how to configure, support and manage these consumer devices using the limited tools Apple has made available.
There is no question that the iPads open up a whole new range of possibilities for instruction throughout the Schools. My focus has been on using available resources to put iPads into the hands of our younger students because I believe they are most likely to recoup the largest instructional return on the Schools’ investment in these mobile devices. Here are some of the reasons I believe this is so:
1) The touch screen removes the keyboarding barrier for young children, who can interact with the screen in a tactile way that matches up well with their developmental level.The form factor also makes it easy for children to share the device easily when working on a lesson with a partner. Their mobility also fits well with the commonly used teaching strategy of having rotating “center” based activities that find children huddled on bean bag chairs, up in a loft, or spread out on the rug.
2) Young children have been historically underserved by our existing strategies for providing computer access. The iCart laptops are rarely used by Lower and Primary teachers, and never by N-K. Laptops aren’t a great fit for doing what we do in those grades; when they are used, it is typically for doing PowerPoints or word processing, which tend to be in the third or fourth grades, and then only occasionally. The Lower School computer lab is often booked for classes and teacher sign-up use, but still has the same challenges in terms of keyboard use and sharing a screen. The iPad addresses many of these “fit” issues and gives this population of students and teachers an unprecedented opportunity to determine what level of technology infusion can enhance the instructional program.
3) As children are exposed to the world of mobile devices at younger ages than ever before, it makes sense that we would seize the opportunity to learn what role these devices should (and should not) play in the growth and development of the students we teach. There are a lot of conflicting opinions and data out there about what copious screen time means for kids as they grow. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools should be contributing to this national dialogue based on concrete experiences we have had in the classroom with our students, not just our educated guesses, intuitions, or the last journal article we read. Parents need our wise counsel as they struggle to raise young children in this media-saturated culture. If we have not taken the time and effort to investigate these issues for ourselves, how can we properly address their concerns?
As always, challenges accompany the opportunities new technologies present. In the case of the iPad, these include:
Support: iPads were designed for the consumer market. iTunes works quite well for the individual iPad owner, but for enterprise operations like ours who need to manage them in large numbers, Apple’s tool kit is crude at best. We are fortunate to already have a suite of mobile device management tools in place (its name is Casper, sold by JAMF Software), and we are learning how to use it to manage the fleet of iPads we have, but even as good as Casper is, supporting them is not a trivial endeavor.
Connectivity: Some iPad apps assume a network connection, yet our younger students are not eligible to claim a CNet ID. Even if they were, you can imagine the situation comedy that could result from a group of Kindergarten kids trying to log on to the network (this spoken as a former K teacher myself).
Our workaround for this has been to set up what amounts to a parallel network of Apple Base Station routers that serve their own network addresses without a log in. These base stations are in or near every homeroom that has iPads. To secure them, the iPads’ MAC addresses, a unique identifying number assigned by the factory to each device, must be entered into the configuration files of each base station nearest the rooms in which that iPad is likely to be used. This workaround is far from ideal because, in addition to adding expense, support load, and a point of possible failure, it ties the mobile devices to a geographical location — precisely the opposite of what we’d like to see happen with a truly mobile device, especially when we think about using iPads assigned to homerooms in special area classes spread around the Schools (remember, the iPad is designed to be a mobile device). We have made initial contact with UC IT Services about finding a different approach for the Shapiro center, and they have not pointed and laughed at us, but I mention it so readers understand the challenge.
The Apple Rabbit Hole: Apple is legendary for retaining tight control over its closed, proprietary systems for managing what content can go on its mobile devices and what cannot. The iPad is no different. If you go all in and follow Apple down their rabbit hole, you are obliged to go in whatever direction they choose and don’t have any other option than walking away from the product if you don’t like it. This makes me anxious in the rapidly changing world of mobile devices.
Cost: iPads run a minimum $425 each (including case, adapters, and basic app purchases) with an anticipated useful life of three years, a half year shorter than laptops and a full year shorter than desktops. They are additions to the overall number of devices and replace nothing. Only once has a user replaced a laptop with an iPad.
Though the capital budget for computing has not remained completely flat, over the past 4 years increases have been modest, as has been the case for budgets across the University campus. A one-time payment to retire two years of iCart laptop lease payments made it possible for us to do what we have done with iPads so far. Sustaining growth over time will take some creative accounting and cutting costs in other areas.
In closing, let me say that in spite of the iPad’s clear applicability to our instructional program across the Schools, it is simply not reasonable to expect that we have the resources to increase our hardware budget by 30% and ratchet up support demand proportionately to adopt them on a school-wide basis for faculty or for students. The only viable strategy I see at this point (other than not adopting them at all, which seems very unLablike) is a targeted, tightly focused adoption strategy that puts what we can afford where it’s most likely to make the greatest impact on student learning, which, in my view, is clearly in the hands of younger students.
I certainly welcome others’ opinions, concerns, or questions about what I’ve said. Feel free to comment or stop by to see me.