The State of the iPad in Education: a Giant Mess

A few weeks ago, I wrote an analysis of how Apple’s secret weapon in the 7-inch tablet war, if Apple were to enter that market, would be in education. I cited Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, who has reiterated that sales of the reduced price iPad 2 to K-12 schools have been particularly strong.

However, pre-existing conditions with schools, especially K-12, have created many difficulties. It’s not an easy matter in the U.S. for schools to simply buy a tablet for each student, load them with educational apps and e-textbooks, and enjoy the benefits of tablet technology. In fact, the whole situation is in a rather messy state, and Mr. Cook’s glowing sales report doesn’t begin to go beyond the surface.

In the course of my research, I was introduced to a particularly accomplished fellow, Christopher Dawson, who has spent years trying to introduce advanced technology into schools. We Skyped for awhile, and right away, I knew that I wanted to share his perspectives and experience. Here’s how our conversation went.


TMO: Tell us a little bit about you, your background, what led to where you are now, and your current efforts.

CD: I started thinking about educational technology and the ways it could be used to enhance education when I was 15. My summer job was as a teaching assistant at the University of Washington in a math program for middle school students. At the time, our use of Wolfram Mathematica and graphing calculators was fairly cutting edge.

Christopher Dawson

Since then, I've stayed close to the academic world, working as a statistical programmer, teaching high school math, becoming my local school district's technology director, writing about education technology for ZDNet, spending a couple of years heading up U.S. operations for WizIQ (a virtual classroom and learning systems provider), and most recently shifting my focus to writing and advocacy around the smart use of technology in schools.

TMO: Apple's Tim Cook claims to be doing quite well selling iPads in the K-12 education market. Can you explain what that really means?

CD: He's right in a way. If schools are buying tablets, chances are that iPads are at least on the short list of devices being evaluated. However, this doesn't mean that iPads are heading into every 5th-grader's backpack around the country. Many schools purchase rolling carts of iPads for specific activities, just as they used to purchase carts of laptops as portable computer labs. Others are just issuing iPads to teachers, purchasing small numbers for students with disabilities, or otherwise looking at small pilots.

TMO: Are K-12 students generally being issued iPads, wholesale, one-on-one? Or are schools, strapped for funds, leaning more towards BYOD? Or generally not buy them at all?

CD: This varies widely by district and by state. However, one-on-one, whether with iPads, with laptops,through BYOD initiatives, with Chromebooks, or via any number of other specific technologies, is very much in its infancy. Most schools simply can't afford to fund one-on-one internally, and education experts are still trying to figure out the pedagogy around one-on-one computing. There is no doubt that a lot of iPads are being purchased in K-12 schools; when most educators think of tablets, they think of iPads.

That said, bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives face huge hurdles for ensuring equity for low-income students and developing infrastructure and systems to handle an influx of devices. iPads are just plain expensive and even supplying the $399 second-gen iPad to every student is inconceivable for the majority of schools. That $399 cost doesn't even begin to address the less obvious costs of appropriate content and device management systems, school bandwidth, teacher training/professional development, and network infrastructure required to fully leverage the hardware.

TMO: What are the fundamental differences between tablet utilization in K-12 and college? With emphasis on curriculum, acquisition of e-textbooks, content creation, etc.

CD: Good question. In college, students are accustomed to purchasing their own textbooks, making tablets a great platform on which to view interactive texts that are increasingly available for purchase or even rental/temporary licensing.

In K-12, however, textbooks tend to be shared and cycled through classes year after year. There is no model for this type of usage in the world of electronic texts and many experts believe that even deeply discounted individual purchases of e-textbooks and related resources will end up costing schools more than dead-tree books. Until a publisher or distributor comes up with some sort of site-licensing model for content, this is going to be a major barrier to adoption of tablets in K-12 schools.

Image Credit: Apple

Similarly, the relatively independent nature of study and research at the post-secondary level means that tablet devices are great tools for on-the-fly study and research. In K-12, though, our educational system is built (unfortunately) around standardized tests and proscribed curricula from publishers, states, and local decision-makers. If these curricula aren't available electronically or don't fit with student-centered computing models, then schools often can't justify the expense of tablets.

Finally, tablets remain devices largely focused on content consumption. K-12 schools are under pressure to have students create more content and participate more actively in education. There are outstanding tools for content creation on both iOS and Android, but many teachers are still struggling to incorporate digital art or mindmaps, for example, into classroom outcomes. While students intuitively use on-screen keyboards and a variety of apps to express themselves, this is uncharted territory for many teachers, again creating barriers to adoption.

TMO: How has the commercial focus of Amazon/Kindle and Google/Nexus succeeded or failed in the education market?

CD: Overall, it has failed. The iPad is perceived (whether rightly or wrongly is up for debate) as a versatile platform for business, personal, and educational use. The Kindle Fire and Google Nexus have been positioned far more as consumer devices. In spite of this, the Google Nexus is arguably a very solid tablet for education due to it's size, price, and relatively open ecosystem/OS. The Kindle Fire, locked in as it is to Amazon's store and services, is a bit tougher sell in education.

TMO: What are the key barriers to the technology infusion of tablets, meaning iPads of course, in K-12?

CD: First, money and equity. iPads (and other tablets) really should be deployed as one-on-one devices that students keep with them all the time if they are to be truly effective. This tends to be far too expensive for schools to fund and getting subsidies to parents who can't afford iPads for a BYOD initiative has proved quite challenging.

Second, is pedagogy, teacher training, and teacher working conditions. We have been educating students in basically the same way since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Best practices and teaching methodologies around tablets, interactive content, open content, and the active use of Web resources are still being hammered out and, as teachers struggle to keep up, many look at the significant changes they will need to make to accommodate the new technology as a change in working conditions rather than a golden opportunity. I'm speaking in very broad strokes here -- there are lots of exceptions, but overall, this is going to require huge efforts and significant expense in teacher training.

TMO: How well is Apple's iBooks Author doing with its agenda of enabling teachers as authors?

CD: If we want to give it a grade, about a C. While it's fairly easy for teachers to assemble and curate content in attractive, interactive books (and many have done so), the lock-in to the Apple/Mac/iPad ecosystem has given many teachers pause. If they can't openly share great resources on any number of media, the incentive to invest significant time in its creation via iBooks Author is drastically diminished. It also doesn't work well in the mixed environments encouraged by BYOD movements.

TMO: How are e-textbook publishers dealing with the ebook revolution and local school districts? What is their current strategy?

CD: Their current strategy, by and large, stinks: Take dead-tree textbooks, convert them to PDFs, add some links and videos/simulations, and call them e-textbooks. At the same time, although they are cutting prices, these books are generally licensed to an individual student, with no mechanism for sharing, transferring, or otherwise realizing the promise of lower-cost texts. Their current strategy appears to be to milk the existing system for all it's worth before finally figuring out a new way of doing business when the right disruptor finally comes along.

TMO: How well versed are the school administrators you've been exposed to on the pedagogy of modern computer instruction, and what has been the result?

CD: Unfortunately, not very well. Again, there are awesome exceptions to this, but most administrators are far enough removed from teacher prep programs that new, interactive, outcomes-based teaching models are out of reach. A tablet in every student's hand enables drastic change in the classroom, from capturing backchannel chatter around a subject to encouraging critical analysis of resources gleaned on the fly from the Web. Most administrators, though, are not in a position to lead this kind of change and even many teacher certification programs still don't address these new pedagogies appropriately.

TMO: What is the future of online education, like Kahn's Academy and Coursea, and how might it propel, reinvigorate the idea of home schooling?

CD: Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera, and the coming of age of great tools for connecting educators and learners online mean that even mainstream public schools will increasingly rely on blended approaches to learning. Whether school districts will partner to offer wider ranges of courses with fewer teachers by moving courses online or schools will begin accepting certain courses taken independently online for credit, online education is absolutely going to actively supplement traditional approaches.

As more and more parents realize how broken our current educational system is, they will also turn to independent education in the form of "home schooling". I put this in quotes because the students will be able to be anywhere and much of their instruction may come from outside the home via the Internet. The resources are so vast already that it's relatively easy to ensure that children receive a robust education without a brick and mortar school to confine them. Home schooling is less and less about religious freedom and more and more about achieving higher quality education than may be available in the public schools.

TMO: Are there opportunities for Apple, as a de facto leader in tablets in education, to do more than just make sales? In other words, are the problems we have now with legacy practices in education ripe for disintermediation by a industry leader? Or is Apple merely stuck with selling product to those who see a need for iPads?

CD: Apple actually could have done something really incredible with iBooks Author -- as just one example. If they had allowed distribution of work created in the tool outside of the Apple ecosystem in open formats, then suddenly they would have created a platform for real teacher-driven change. Instead, they just created vendor lock-in. Similarly, the publishers with whom they partnered for launch were the major publishers that have been pushing the status quo for too many years.

So yes, there are major opportunities for Apple (or Google, or Amazon) to do something brilliant with their hardware and software. So far, we're just seeing the same dropping prices and incremental hardware improvements that characterize most technology markets.

TMO: How might the practice of flipping create a new inroad for tablet technology? (Flipping involves kids viewing lectures at home instead of TV in the evening, then doing homework with a teacher’s help in the daytime.)

CD: When it's done right, flipping is an awesome approach allowing teachers to curate and develop their own multimedia content that students can view, review, and interact with independently. This frees great teachers to spend their valuable in-class time to lead activities and work with students one-on-one or in small groups where they can have the most impact.

What we generally find as teachers is that homework is of little utility, especially for students who are struggling. Students encounter difficulties in their homework, can't access resources for help, and give up, leaving a teachable moment behind and forcing teachers to spend in-class time reteaching and reviewing content instead of leading engaging activities.

Tablets like the iPad (and Apple's entire content hosting/distribution/creation ecosystem, for that matter), lend themselves to this approach quite handily. They provide a relatively inexpensive device that all students can have with them both at home and school and onto which teachers can push content. They can use these same devices for those in-class activities. And tablets promote a degree of what Intel calls "micromobility" in class, where students will naturally form groups and use the tablets for information access, taking notes, reviewing the flipped lessons, accessing e-texts, or using apps designed for in-class work.

So the short answer is that it's pretty easy to argue that tablets are the ideal one-on-one device for students. Which tablet remains to be seen, even if many students, teachers, and administrators believe that the iPad is the de facto choice for tablets in any situation.

TMO: Is there an iPhone halo effect? That is, kids with iPhones want iPads for school and put pressure on their parents.

CD: I don't think so, actually. Rather, I think the iPad creates a tablet halo effect. Kids use their parents' iPads, experience them at restaurants where they are used as virtual menus, see them advertised on television, or poke at them in an Apple store. iPads are their own device and do make for a great touch experience. The point, though, is that kids increasingly expect to use tablets and have a touch interface for more and more things that they do. My almost-3-year-old daughter walks up to windows and swipes her fingers across them. The iPad has been a big part of that sort of shifting mindset.

TMO: How do modern digital libraries (in contrast to Amazon’s offerings and Google's book scanning project) fit into education and the tablet future, if at all?

CD: Digital libraries are very much in their infancy and suffer from many of the same issues around DRM that schools face with e-texts. In fact, issues surrounding digital rights might make the barriers to entry in creating digital libraries too high for them to become widespread. Unfortunately, times have changed since public libraries were created for the public good.

If anything, however, can push the creation of digital libraries, it will be widespread use of tablets in schools. I'd like to believe that publishers and rights holders will step up and find innovative ways to make books and media available in the digital analog of a public library, but I'm not holding my breath.


As you can see from this interview, it’s not simply a matter of building tablets, selling them to schools, and letting developers write software. The institutional hurdles, set ways of education, standards in K-12 test scoring, local school district dictums, established law, traditional teaching methods and pedagogy, the status-quo in the e-textbook publishing industry, attempts by tablet makers to lock in customers and digital rights management all conspire to create massive challenges for schools, teachers, and technologists. How we’ll get through all this, in efforts to improve U.S. education, remains to be seen.


Christopher Dawson has been on the front lines of educational technology for 20 years as an educator, researcher, administrator, and entrepreneur. He has written the ZDNet Education blog for several years now and contributes at Edukwest, WizIQ, HuffPost Live, Ziff Davis, and elsewhere. In addition to writing and speaking about ed tech, Mr. Dawson is a vocal advocate for educational reform and the smart use of technology in schools.

Mr. Dawson can be found on Twitter where he's mrdatahs. And here’s the story behind that handle.