By guest blogger Ben Van Dusen of the University of Colorado at Boulder
By now everyone has heard the sizzle of Apple’s new “magical” device, the iPad, but many are left wondering if there is any steak behind the sizzle. Is this a device that is going to revolutionize our K-12 classrooms or will it wither on the vine like it’s beleaguered ancestor the Newton?
If the iPad is going to shake-up our classrooms it won’t be on its own. The strength of the iPad is its ability to easily integrate a wide variety of digital resources into a single intuitive package. Imagine a classroom where the students are engaged in small groups working collaboratively on a single document. The students are simultaneously using the google doc app while the teacher is monitoring their progress both visually and digitally. Students walk home with light backpacks now that they’ve turned in their out-of-date static textbook for dynamic digital textbooks. When they get home they access their homework, the day’s lecture notes, and an enrichment video all through their Blackboard app. The homework is submitted digitally through WebAssign where students receive real-time feedback on their answers. The educational applications for the iPad are too numerous to list here, but teachers have the opportunity to create a suite of applications specially tailored to fit their students’ needs. While many of these uses for the iPad have been tried before on other devices, the iPad has the potential to create a tipping point with its portability, price, power and intuitive user interface. There are also specific applications that take advantage of the iPad’s unique hardware, such as the Star Chart application that allows a student to see the names of the stars and constellations by pointing their iPad in any quadrant of the sky.
Digital textbooks are shaping up to be a killer application for the iPad by providing dramatic improvements over standard textbooks on several fronts. Most students are stuck using textbooks that were over-written to cover any material a course could possible review while also being generic enough to be accepted by any audience in any state. Because of the significant expense of buying new textbooks, students are often saddled with worn textbooks full of outdated material, especially in subjects that frequently change, like the sciences. Digital textbooks allow teachers to produce dynamic books that cover the exact materials for the course, in the order they are taught, include problem sets specifically tailored for the course, and provide interactive simulations directly in the reading. The best part is organizations, such as cK-12, are creating digital “flexbooks” and allowing schools to use them for free. Schools can enhance student learning and save hundreds of thousand of dollars in the process.
Among my fellow Physics Education Researchers the biggest call for concern over the iPad is its lack of support for Flash and Java. The majority of the science simulators, such as the PhET simulations, are written in java and have yet to be converted to HTML5. That barrier to access, however, is coming down This winter, Adobe announced their release of a new compiler that can convert Flash animations into HTML5. There are also third party applications, such as Skyfire, that will play Flash video on iOS devices (actually Skyfire’s servers download the Flash video, convert it to HTML5, and then pass it along to the phone). The release has been such a hit that Skyfire has temporarily marked the product as “sold-out” because their servers couldn’t handle the stress of the traffic. Neither of these products are perfect solutions nor do they address the issues with Java, but they signal a new direction. It is only a matter of time before all of your current Flash and Java content will be iPad compatible.
With the iPad on the market for only seven months it is too early to know exactly what impact it will have on education. There is research being done on a range of applications of the iPad in K-12 education but the results from these studies are still a ways off. But with the expanding app store, the continually updated iOS, and the inevitable evolution of the iPad the future looks promising. Over the last decade no one has shown more foresight or caused more creative destruction then Steve Jobs. There is no better technology company to bet on to bring our classrooms into the 21st century.
Image: Glenn Fleishmann on Flickr