The Apple iPad will not save your school

Administrators around the globe are looking for the ‘next big thing’ to save students from a mediocre or irrelevant education and it seems that many have decided that Apple’s iPad is the catalyst to an answer. ((Textbooks swapped for iPads by Irish school by Michael Grothaus (accessed October 13, 2011).))

Apple & education: take 2 (or 3)

Will Apple save your school? That was the hope back in 2002 when the first eMac was unveiled:

“By listening to educators and including their suggestions in the development of the product, Apple is showing why they have led the market for technology in education for the past 25 years,” said James L. Konantz, Asst. Superintendent, Instructional Technology, Los Angeles Unified School District.” ((Apple Releases 17″ CRT-Based eMac, for Education Market Only by Bryan Chaffin (accessed October 13, 2011).))

With all of the money spent on eMac labs and classroom computers, have schools succeeded in developing meaningful and relevant curriculum that closes the achievement gap, promotes higher-level thinking and prepares students for the 21st century? ((eMacs drive student achievement, MacWorld (accessed October 19, 201).)) The fact that institutions are clamoring for a new solution might indicate not. This time around though, devices are personal and personalized.

Apple hasn’t specifically marketed the iPad as a mass-deployed educational solution, yet schools across the country are raising, finding or borrowing money to make a huge investment in tablet hardware with the hopes that students will engage and excel. At a time when school budgets are being slashed and class sizes mushroom, some districts are spending $400,000 ((Inside a million dollar iPad school)), $790,000 ((In turnabout, teachers give students Apples, hope iPads boost test scores)), or even $1.2 Million ((District 303 makes multi-million dollar technology purchase)) on hardware purchases.

Early results…

iPads and education are all over the news as the 2011-12 school year gets underway, and they make for a great story: futuristic, easy to capture on video, a combination of portability and individuality. iPads look different enough (and are exciting enough) that teachers, parents, administrators and even students want to believe that they are the solution we’ve been searching for.

Early reports from pilot projects in 2010-2011 look promising, but it is important to examine how these initial roll-outs occurred and who was involved.

…from early adopters

In his book Crossing the Chasm ((Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.)), Geoffrey Moore “argues there is a gap between the early adopters of the product (the technology enthusiasts and visionaries) and the early majority (the pragmatists). Moore believes visionaries and pragmatists have very different expectations.” ((Crossing the Chasm Wikipedia entry (accessed October 13, 2011).))

Moore’s theory is relevant to the educational iPad revolution going on in 2011. Innovators and early adopters see a product and begin generating ideas of how to use the new technology in their own practice (or classroom). These visionaries thrive on creativity and operate in unknown territory. They could build exciting classroom experiences out of anything: GPS devices, water filtration systems, Swiss Army knives, etc.

In contrast to early adopters, the majority have a completely different set of expectations when incorporating a new technology into the classroom. These educators prefer proven track records and use existing lesson plans or curriculum units to engage students. They prefer to spend energy creating successful learning environments that foster 21st century skills without an emphasis on interacting with the latest technology.

Both groups of educators have strengths and are required for a healthy educational environment, but the iPad revolution is throwing big money into a technology that has only been tested with innovators and early adopters. There is no road map for success – curriculum is currently underdeveloped and tied to specific App purchases. The majority is being asked to “teach like an innovator” without a framework to thrive within.

Roger's technology adoption curve - image from Wikipedia
Roger's technology adoption curve - image from Wikipedia under Creative Commons

Is it possible that the early study findings ((iPads Make Better Readers, Writers by Margo Pierce (accessed October 13, 2011).)) are actually the result of innovative teachers, ((A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute by Matt Richtel (accessed October 23, 2011).)) not the technology specifically? And are the current standardized tests being used to measure “success” going to capture the higher-level learning that educators are trying to foster anyway? ((Schools, technology, test scores, and the New York Times by Scott McLeod (accessed October 20, 2011).))

We can all be inspired by Adam Bellow, and his message is the perfect example of the enormous chasm between innovator-based philosophy and majority-based implementation plans:


…based on target student populations

Some deployments seem to be operating under the assumption that what is good for one student is good for all students. Yes, there are quantitative studies that suggest that 1-to-1 iPads in higher education have positive results ((Students and iPads: ACU study shows positive results by Brett Terpstra (accessed October 13, 2011).)) but that doesn’t mean that 5-year-olds will meet the same results – to say nothing of their ability to make active decisions about the care of the devices.

RSS readers: please click here to watch 60 minutes segment on iPads & Autism.


One of the most promising and exciting applications of iPads in the classroom has to do with special-needs students ((Adapting to the iPad, called education’s ‘equalizer’, by Alesha Williams Boyd, USA Today (accessed October 19, 2011).)). A technology that allows people to improve communication and express themselves more fully is undeniably a worthwhile educational investment, but it doesn’t mean that a child with dyslexia is automatically going to stay on task and enjoy reading.


Adding up the costs

So is the iPad a fundamentally different device that will change education in a way that a $300 laptop cannot?

 item rough cost
base model iPad $500
third-party insurance $79-99
case $6-$100
keyboard $40-70

After $626+ per student (not including tax) the iPad can function as a traditional laptop at around or above the same price per unit. Some schools are going further and supplying stylus, earphones, microphones, SD cart adapters and other peripherals. Note that, as with any new technology purchase, this price is just for the actual hardware. There are still costs involved with software, set-up, support and training – costs that can easily rival the initial purchase order. The iPad isn’t necessarily a bad investment, but it is a significant one, especially considering that computing devices are subject to planned obsolescence. ((, (accessed October 20, 2011).))

Assuming a classroom set of 30 iPads (for 30 students) that have a product life of 3 years, how else might a teacher choose to spend $20,000-$24,000 to better their ability to teach? Add in training and support costs and that number quickly moves towards $40,000 per classroom. Extrapolate that to an entire school or district and the purchasing power is enormous – what if that investment was put into any other tool – curriculum training, on-site health care for students, library science, financial literacy, reading specialists, after-school care, teacher salaries, paid professional development, or arts programs?

What works: best practice from 1-to-1 deployments

Throwing devices into a classroom mid-stream with early/late majority adopters with a directive to innovate will not result in success. A one or two day “training” where educators watch a lecture-style demonstration of features will not change educational culture. Beyond slick video segments on the local news, educators working and studying 1-to-1 deployments are seeing two components that together are a strong indicator of success: a well-planned deployment process and targeted ongoing professional development.


Prior to devices in hand, there are a number of IT requirements that need to be addressed:

  • Infrastructure: bandwidth and wireless access points
  • Device management: OS configurations, backup policies, procedures for adding software and multimedia
  • Device restrictions: configured via Utility and during device imaging
  • Hardware identification: numbering systems, peripherals

There are also administrative tasks to tackle:

  • Who owns the device?
  • Insurance
  • Acceptable Use Policies
  • Policy for loaning & repairing device
  • Procedure for Apps requests
  • Volume licensing managers

For an organized and exhaustive list of considerations from an administrative and IT perspective, visit Sam Gliksman’s Preparing Your School for an iPad Implementation. ((iPads in Education, (accessed October 22, 2011).))

Ongoing professional development

As noted above, there are no specific road-maps for sustained successful classroom integration beyond hiring innovative teachers and providing exemplary training opportunities.

One well documented instance of exemplary teacher support can be found at the School District of Palm Beach County. This deployment has a centralized wiki that is used to record everything from App recommendations/rubrics to lesson plans to links to other iPad roll-outs around the country. ((iPadPilot, Shoemaker, Lander & Long (accessed October 22, 2011).)) The Palm Beach facilitators (Shoemaker, Lander & Long) wrote professional development into their grant proposal long before any purchases were made.

John Long and his colleagues have also spent time and energy creating a successful train-the-trainers model for teacher development, ((Tech Ambassador Program)) using small cohorts to experiment and share successes and obstacles. Over 8 years, the program has trained over 500 teachers who support the entire district with their expertise. The latest iteration of this ambassador program ((eMobilize)) is using mobile hybrid labs to engage students and integrate technology into the classrooms (and yes, they use iPads).


Ultimately, the ongoing success of an iPad deployment has very little to do with the iPad itself, and can be attributed to the concerted efforts from teachers, curriculum designers, IT support, administrators, parents and students. A common ground for all stakeholders is a position from which great things can happen…if it takes an Apple logo to get everyone to the same table, then so be it. The iPad will not save your school, you will…with an invested team moving towards a common goal.



14 thoughts on “The Apple iPad will not save your school

  1. This is a great article! Without the ability to teach in a pertinent, effective manner, an iPad may as well be a chalkboard eraser…

    Not to mention, they are more expensive then an actual laptop that will run real software.

    1. I agree that teacher ability is the key to good teaching using technology. I would rather do it using an iPad than a laptop. The iPad runs all of the “real” software you need.

  2. My school announced a salary freeze 2 years in a row and this September we returned to find iPads for every child. The teacher’s lounge is a mixture of excitement about iPads and frustration that we are being which tools to teach with.

    My classroom is successful – based on student & family feedback, admin and even testing scores. Now I have to spend hours rewriting curriculum to satisfy the school board. Ridiculous.

    1. What is ridiculous is the idea that students can be prepared for life if they are learning from a teacher that can’t send an email. iPads aren’t even the future, they are the now. Time to wake up and get started.

      1. Jess,

        Agreed, iPads are the here and now. Many students are already using them in a personal or family capacity. There is more to the educational transition that signing the purchase order; I hope that is clear as that is the point of the blog post.

        I’ve been in many exciting and relevant classrooms before where there wasn’t a piece of technology present. Those experiences have been just as powerful for the participants as anything I’ve seen done on an iPad.

        Thanks for commenting.

      2. Jess,

        I know how to teach. Not just because a professor told me, but because I’ve spent over 30 years in a classroom. My students grow up, graduate, and then bring their children back to my school and request me. My students are thinkers – they get into great schools and move on to be successful in their careers. Many work in the tech industry.

        Parents don’t second guess the way I do things in the classroom. Administrators shouldn’t either.

  3. Are our memories really so short? We just went through a spending binge 8 years ago with SMARTboards that are sitting idly by in classrooms across the US.

    It’s about the teachers, people! There is no magic solution to education and a solution can’t be bought. Hard work, time, talented teachers, safe environments.

  4. Technology is not going away. Teachers need to catch up to students and I for one am glad that districts are forcing the issue by providing iPads.

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