The iPad Paradox: Why it Can’t Really Teach Kids to Code

Logitech Crayon stylus for iPad
Swift Playgrounds 1.2 is out with support for five more languages on the iPad
Swift Playgrounds for iPad.

Thanks to the recent Apple “Field Trip” education event, there were many really thoughtful and well-researched articles about Apple in education this week. They may not have even been published if there hadn’t been the backdrop of what Apple announced to trigger further discussion.
Here are four that I thought were really good.

These four articles provide a great overview of Apple’s education standing, how the company fell behind, what it’s doing to catch up and some sober assessment of why the most recent initiatives may not be enough.

The iPad Paradox

However, I want to briefly discuss the last one from The Verge. Overall, I agree with the author about Swift Playgrounds. Apple is in a bit of a pickle with programming on the iPad thanks to the way it’s designed. I have pointed out before that, in the eight years of the iPad’s existence, precious little progress has been made turning it into a code development platform. The security of iOS gets in the way—a double edged sword.

And so when it comes right down to it, macOS is where you want to be to really learn to code. So Apple has had to wade through that conundrum carefully. The iPad is not yet the tool of the future for kids learning to code at a moderate level. That’s why inexpensive MacBook Airs are a crucial augmentation when kids arrive in middle and high school.

That said, I want to offer a (mild) counter argument. And that’s in the form of toy trucks for kids. When a 5 year-old plays with a toy truck, there are some learning elements going on. Imagination, visualization, interaction with sandbox sand, etc. That’s exactly what we want to happen. Later, as a young man, the person may learn to drive a real truck. (Pizza delivery!) Eventually, the former child may become a mature engineer and design trucks for GM.

In a similar fashion, Swift Playgrounds is exactly that. Play. An introductory toy that engages the mind of the child. Sure, no Java enterprise Java code will be written. But the point is to engage the child early in creative play in a fun, productive way.

Later, Xcode will come along soon enough. And that progression, that logic, seems notably lacking in Apple’s focus, perhaps, because it highlights the very limitation of iPads and iOS. It’s confusing to the casual observer unless one thinks it through.

Next Page: The News Debris For The Week of March 26th. Windows 10 security—no longer a laughing matter.

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If you like Python (one of my favorite programming languages), there are a number of versions of it on iOS, such as Pythonista, which comes with a nice editor and library support including numPY and UI/graphics. One nice thing about the iOS environment is that you can actually write programs in Python or other languages that interact with multiple apps (e.g. using x-callback-url) and automate your workflows. It’s quite nifty and reminiscent of using AppleScript or Automator on macOS. There are literally dozens of programming environments that have sprung up on iOS since Apple loosened its restrictions several years ago.… Read more »


Oh, and if you hate Python and love Perl like the guy above, there are also Perl versions on iOS.


At the risk of bringing the conversation back to the general – coding is a general skill that can benefit anyone who has to process data. If you use a spreadsheet, likely you’d do much better if you knew how to code. Builder, accountant, scientist – if they knew how to code and had the right tools, they would approach problems differently and be more empowered. You can get by with spreadsheets, if that’s all you know, but even that tips pretty quickly into VB. I had dreams of high school graduates with typing and HTML skills as basics. The… Read more »

Scott B in DC

John, see my response above. There’s more to the Real World than researchers. There is a whole commercial world that works very differently than academia who hire more people than universities. I learned Python and HATE it! I hate Python for the same reason I hate forced structured languages because it is a forced structured language. A language where form changes function is just too obnoxious for me. Even though I learned Python I still turn to Perl when I need to write string handling scripts. I have some really artistic Perl scripts that I used to do things for… Read more »

Old UNIX Guy

Scott B. – I’m not meaning to argue with you, but you’ve given me two examples. Would you really like for me to start listing the tens of thousands of counter-examples I could give you? Yes, there may be a very small handful of scientists who don’t need to code, but not only is that a small subset, it’s a subset that is getting smaller by the day. We all have to change with the times … Me – I’m a guy who has programmed in Perl for 20 years who is now learning Python. Maybe in the past coding… Read more »

Scott B in DC

I don’t know… I live in the biotech hub of Maryland and with my wife working in the industry and having helped every so often, I do not see a Real World need for programmers in the sciences. I checked the three largest companies in the area and their job descriptions for everything from lab tech to lab managers do not say anything about requiring programming capabilities. Same thing for the biotech hub in Loudon County Virginia. There are listings for programmers but not for biotech workers who code. Again, this is not an academic exercise, these are real companies… Read more »


Isn’t it the same as math? High school makes everyone learn math and those that don’t do so well in it often resent it. But those that do do well can make good use of it in whatever field they go into. (Well, some subset of math. Depends on the field.) Programming is just another tool that people should be exposed to and if they have an aptitude for it then it can be handy in many fields that are not traditional computer science fields. Spreadsheets are an interesting example. You can do a lot of programming-like things in them.… Read more »

Scott B in DC

Why does everything have to come down to a geek’s version of what is educational? Why does an iPad, or any device for that matter, have to be able to teach people to code? Does everyone have to learn to code? All of these articles are by geeks, targeted to geeks, and looking to perpetuate the geek culture. Sorry folks… being a geek is not for everyone. Everyone does not want to learn to write code! I wish these geeks would get their heads out of the bit bucket and look at the real world. In the real world, there… Read more »

Lee Dronick

Spot on! Or course we need coders in our society and everyone should at least a basic grasp of it just as we should for anatomy and physiology.

Old UNIX Guy

“Does learning the sciences require you to code?”

Short answer – yes. I know because I work in a University HPC center and there are very few sciences that don’t or cannot benefit from HPC. It’s not just the “traditional” fields like Physics and Astronomy where this is important … even the psychologists are heavy users of our cluster!

IMO, no student should graduate from high school without basic proficiency in coding and spreadsheets.

Old UNIX Guy

Scott B in DC

My wife has a PhD in biochemistry and she doesn’t code. Her lab doesn’t code. Neither does anyone in her division. She is not an academic. She works in a for-profit enterprise. A relative who is working on a PhD in archeology also doesn’t code. In fact, I wrote some Workflow scripts for her to help with data gathering. The data files are then uploaded to another system running a COTS product (I think she said it’s based on SAS). Using a spreadsheet is a generic skill unrelated to the coding discussion. BTW: I guarantee I am an older Unix… Read more »


I haven’t used Playgrounds, but I’d only expect it to teach About coding. Good fundamental concepts are a valuable starting point. Not everyone will want to code. As with any subject, there will be those with aptitude and this is a a way of identifying that. If everyone did Playgrounds, perhaps future politicians will have a modicum of understanding so we don’t end up with the situation where they just believe they can pass a law and we’ll all have encryption that keeps our information safe and the government can have backdoors that nobody else can have. Maybe. 😀 As… Read more »


Apple has some peculiar ideas of demonstrating how the iPad fits in the classroom.


Google finally got it right, ditch Android and use a real computer OS – not a mobile toy one for their tabs. Chrome. It’s so funny with all that money Apple gets further and further away from thinking esoterically. 🖥

Scott B in DC

What do you think ChromeOS is? Its base is the same as Android with Chrome as the windowing interface.