All iPads, all the time?

Can we survive in the classroom if we entirely replace laptop computers with tablets? Last summer we converted from laptops to iPads for the incoming sophomores at the Crimson Summer Academy. This summer we expanded the program to the juniors. (They kept theirs from last year, and the sophomores were issued new ones.) So I took this as an opportunity for a complete conversion of my own during the summer: I no longer travel to and from Cambridge with a bulky briefcase on wheels carrying a heavy laptop and other assorted paraphernalia. Instead I have been limiting myself to a small case that’s just over a tenth of a cubic foot! It has transformed my commuting life! The case comfortably holds my iPad with its lovely Logitech keyboard built into its hard case; assorted pens, pointers, chargers, and connectors; several dozen student papers for grading; and a magazine. That’s all I need!

“But what about teaching?,” I hear you ask. Can I really do everything I need on a tiny iPad? Well, it’s a full-size iPad, not a Mini, but I know what you mean. First of all, the keyboard is a life-saver. My teenage students get along fine with on-screen keyboards, but those of us who grew up with typewriters need the responsiveness and feedback of real keys. The Logitech one is perfectly satisfactory for me. Second, I am of course restricted to iOS apps instead of Mac OSX apps, but I haven’t found that a handicap. WolframAlpha alone lets me do half of what I need; Dropbox and Google Drive let me do half of the rest. Apps like Safari, Chrome, Codea, Mail, Numbers, Pages, and Keynote cover half of my remaining needs.

No, no, that’s not three halves! In each case it’s half of what’s left, so we still have to discuss one eighth of what I need. That’s all covered by GoodReader, Evernote, QuickGraph, YouTube, Prezi, iSSH, and PrinterPro. While I actually have dozens of other apps, those 17 do almost all of the work. When I go home, I can get my OSX fix from a laptop or desktop Mac, but the fact is that I don’t miss them during the day…ever.

So that covers my needs, but what about the students? They seem to function comfortably and productively. A side-effect of the reliance on iPads is that I have almost entirely stopped printing and photocopying documents. Worksheets for classwork and homework are all posted online, and students can easily look at them on the screen while writing answers on paper or in a typed document. (It’s tough to type math, but that’s a topic for another post.) I haven’t yet been brave enough to post quizzes and tests online as well, but that’s because of proctoring issues.

And therein lies the one remaining issue. Computers are distracting. Tablets are even more distracting. It can be hard to concentrate on teaching when one’s students might be surfing Facebook, reading Twitter, or chatting electronically. I understand that this is a big problem with laptops in college classrooms; it’s potentially just as big a problem with tablets in high-school classrooms. You can wave your hands and say that it’s just a classroom management issue, as one of my colleagues says, but that doesn’t solve the problem. More discussion later…


Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology