Why the iPad absolutely matters

The following is a guest post by Matthew E. Rich, Ed.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

The following is a guest post by Matthew E. Rich, Ed. D., a principal at an elementary school in suburban Chicago. It's a great perspective from progressive educator. It's a bit longer than my usual posts, but well worth the read. Check back tonight for my response and take on the iPad in education, now a week into existence.

The most persistent question regarding the Apple iPad is why is it needed. I have a laptop, I have an iPod touch or iPhone, a netbook is cheaper with a wider range of capacities, so why is the iPad necessary. One of the greatest challenges Zdnet readers and authors have is that we are so ingrained what the hardware and software is that we often forget that it is the client that needs to apply these seamlessly and smoothly in their work and home environment. As an educational administrator for the last eleven years, and principal of an elementary school for the past seven, I have worked in both Microsoft and Apple school districts. During this time I have had students and staff work with desktops, laptops, and tablet PCs. Yet after spending three clock hours on the iPad, it is clearly a game changer for education.

Here is why:

For Teachers and Support Staff:

Progress Monitoring Student Performance:

Education has become a field that requires teachers to manage a extremely large amount of data. Furthermore, teachers are asked to differentiate the learning opportunities for students so that each child may master a different essential outcome in the curriculum at a different time. Teachers can email their current class list to their iPad and in less than ten minutes create a spreadsheet on Numbers develop a date list with ranking fields and comment boxes for the 10-15 components that their children need to learn in an essential outcome. While this is no different than a regular computer, the game changer is in the implementation of the progress monitoring.

With the iPad, teachers can now easily walk around and record the information on an ongoing basis. Have you ever watched a teacher rotate around the room to observe student work with a netbook or laptop? It is cumbersome and artificial. The focus is always in the end on the hardware and not the student work. There is a stop point at which they need to put the machine down and type in it. With the weight, design, and simple kinesthetic input, teachers literally can input 3-4 taps and have recorded all of the student's information while maintaining focus and providing verbal feedback to the child.

This scenario goes further with the support staff. The most challenging component for students' behaviorally in school is the unstructured setting, specifically the lunch and recess. As a requirement of special education laws and the Response To Intervention initiatives, having authentic and accurate data streams is now paramount. Currently, teacher associates record student behaviors on paper and clipboards in the lunchroom and on the playground. Someone else (namely me the principal), records this information into our spreadsheet to monitor data performance. Why? Try bringing a laptop onto the playground. In this setting both size matters and simplicity matter. The teacher associates in my school played with the forms on Numbers for ten minutes and realized they could simply and efficiently record data in a non-cumbersome way. This will save me time as an educational leader and allow them to take ownership of the behavioral data.

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For Students:

Learning Styles:

There are three learning modalities that students work through: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. All technology options provide fantastic visual and auditory learning opportunities. However, of the three technology options presented: desktops, laptops/netbooks, and the iPad, it is the only one that addresses all three modalities. Students are entering a world of virtual kinesthetics in which they can now manipulate information by touch and control spatial design. For example, my six-year-old son has difficulty with fine motor control. When I questioned his first grade teacher when the last time he had drawn her a picture was, she couldn't remember. Utilizing Doodle Buddy (free app), he was selecting to do pictures on his own. Touch matters! Having direct control of the art and the canvas, he was self-selecting to visually create. Furthermore, when speaking to his principal, she expressed concerned about the second grade unit on symmetry.

During the course of the year, the students spend four to six weeks on this concept with a lot of drawing and cutting. The touch capacity of the iPad changes that. The manipulation, rotation, mirroring, flipping all available within the device will allow the child to demonstrate the learning of this concept in a whole new way. And more importantly, each new iteration of the concept can be saved as a picture and easily emailed straight to the teacher.

Learning of Content:

Getting students on the same page is a challenge in the classroom. Each child moves at a different rate. Some students are ready in ten seconds and students take nearly ninety seconds to get their books and materials ready. The iPad changes this. In the morning, a teacher could email out to her class (one address as she would have her class in a group) the different passages that they were going to discuss during that day. The children could simply tap on these passages within the email and be brought directly to that e-book to discuss the material. Furthermore, the teacher could email out questions or a worksheet, once again one address, and each child could respond individually and email back their work to the teacher. Any laptop, netbook, or desktop could do this. Here is where operating system does matter and the iPad OS is a game changer, try teaching an eight-year-old to consistently save their work or to attach a file in a different mail client. This process adds multiple steps and takes time for our fifth graders to demonstrate consistently, not just our third graders. In Pages, Doodle Buddy, or countless other programs, the work is automatically saved and with 3 clicks within the program themselves, the mail is generated and sent to the teacher. The process is seamless and natural.

Digital Portfolios:

For years, schools have tried to develop digital portfolios of student work. As demonstrated in the learning of content section, the teacher is receiving most of the child's work through a digital modality now instead of by paper. Simply the teacher can maintain folders of student work emailed back and has created a digital portfolio of the students' work samples throughout the year. There is no more scanning or digital cameras necessary to record work. No more uploading. It is all right there in the digital format that can easily be shared with parents, students, or their colleagues during collaborative discussions of student performance.


Schools still use assignment notebooks. Children still look at a daily schedule and muddle through piles of papers and books. Lost work and late work still occur. Parents still have to run back to school for the book or worksheet their child left. The iPad changes this. Here is where being both an e-reader and a tool for productivity go hand in hand. The iPad becomes the textbook, the worksheets, the schedule, and the assignment notebook. Instead of bringing home, or now as many school districts are doing because of the weight and injuries resulting from backpacks having a second set of textbooks at home, the iPad and its one and a half pounds are traveling back and forth. Weigh a child's backpack, it is frequently 20 to 40 pounds. The iPad simply isn't. With the iPad, it functions as a kinesthetic e-reader of textbooks and allows for the student capacity to effectively produce work utilizing word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, and submit work via email. Lost assignments go away because it is either on the iPad or has been submitted to the teacher that night via email. This is huge for parents, students, and teachers.

Furthermore, for children demonstrating difficulties for with transitions or recording homework, the parent and teacher could sync with their calendar and tasks allowing for monitoring that the child has the correct homework recorded. Finally, for many students, because it is typed in, they can read what their homework is as opposed to the illegible scrawl in their assignment notebook.

Assistive Learning:

In the Organization section I noted that a student would type in their homework tasks. However, this is not necessary. Utilizing Dragon Dictation, a free application, children could speak their homework into the iPad and with a few taps enter this into their tasks window. They could speak longer responses and have Dragon Dictation convert larger amounts of information into text that could be copy and pasted easily into pages.

For students with CP and other disorders in which their mind is fine but they don't have the capacity to move, it allows in a very inexpensive model for the students work to be recorded and converted to text. For all individuals it makes life easier, but now instead of the adult scribing the child's response, Dragon Dictation does it for them. While this child is an extreme situation, all children could benefit by having multiple choices for data entry, thus we can focus on their understanding of the concept rather than the form of the product.

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For Directors of Educational Technology and Administrators:


I have worked in both Windows and Mac districts. The current district that I work in is a Mac district. I am sure some network engineer can talk all about the wonderful differences between the two. However, in a fifty-minute class, it takes eight minutes to boot up and start a program on a Windows machine, two minutes for a Mac, and 30 seconds for an iPad. Learning time matters and the iPad is simply the best.

Furthermore, battery life matters. Between in-class learning and homework, in an ideal world a student would need a maximum of seven hours of on-time for one to one interaction. This includes all functions of learning. Desktops, laptops, and netbooks often can't do this. The proposed HP Slate looks to have a five-hour battery. Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook can but only function as an e-reader. The iPad is the only device that can meet this requirement of functionality.


In my current district we are a Mac laptop district with approximately a 1 computer to 3 students ration. Each Macbook is approximately twice the cost of an iPad. This does not include carts. For approximately $50,000 more, during our normal replacement cycle move to a 1 computer to 1 student ratio in a school of 500 students. Cost savings would occur in licensing fees (Microsoft Office Suite compared to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for the iPad) as well as other programs found at a far less inexpensive level at the iPad and the iPhone/iPod touch level, no longer purchasing or reduced purchasing of assignment notebooks, whiteboard slates for the classroom, geometry templates for the math classes, copy paper reduction, copy machine repair, and textbooks for the home.

Computer Set-up:

Regardless of the system, there are frequent times in which network techs need to touch every computer. In every system, the tech creates a model and transmits it to the computer. Frequently this still needs to be done at some point via wire. In the iPad sync model, the tech creates one profile, quickly brings it to the class and is able to put that model onto all of the computers far quicker than with a laptop or netbook.

Things that the iPad can improve on:

The iPad is certainly not a perfect device, however is by far the best option in general when compared to the desktops, laptops, netbooks, e-readers, and tablets either currently on the market or proposed to be on the market.

  • Multitasking: The lack of multi-tasking does hurt. It would be wonderful for a child to seamlessly move items from Dragon Dictation to a productivity software such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, or Calendar.

  • Task Management: A native task manager such as the one on ICal would be a game changer in terms of homework implementation and native syncing of tasks.

  • Typing: Better availability of cases that allow students to type at an angle. Children, and many adults, have absolutely no problem with the iPad keyboard. Many of them are already familiar with it from their parents or their own iPhone or iPod touch. They simply need to be able to at their desks, work tables, or on the floor be able to type at an angle in order to see the screen if necessary. Sometimes one can type in their lap, this would make life a lot easier as an option.


The iPad not only fulfills a wide-range of functions in the school setting but does it in a manner we have not previously seen. The elegance and simplicity of the machine allow for short training times while providing a level of technology integration simply unmatched by any other product on the market. Who would have thought in 1983 when my parents brought home our first Apple IIe for nearly $2000 that 27 years later I would be spending $598 for a 16gb iPad with Apple Care for my child? Think of the difference in investments and ask yourself is their any real device that can compete with the iPad for students and staff currently in the market space. If so, I want to see it.

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