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Has the iPad revolutionized education?

By Margaret Adolphus


Slim, sleek and stylish, the iPad is the ultimate multitasking device.  It's a Web browsing enabler, an ebook reader, an iPod, a video recorder and viewer, a diary, a notebook and many more.

With so many technological affordances in one device, it is small wonder that the iPad has roused a great deal of excitement in the educational world.

The non-profit organization Educause (2011) had this to say about its significance:

As a single device that is smaller than a laptop, the iPad combines robust computational functionality with a screen large enough to serve as a legitimate replacement for printed text- books and other course materials, with the added benefits of interactivity.

This article looks at some of the major uses of the iPad in education, with the exception, however, of ebooks and etextbooks, this being a subject in its own right to be covered separately.

The iPad is not the only tablet device on the market, but it is one which for the most part will be discussed here, unless we refer specifically to programmes carried out on other brands.  However, much of what is true for the iPad applies to other devices.


A new age of learning?

In terms of size and functionality, the iPad lies half-way between the smartphone and the computer.

With a larger screensize than the former, and therefore more suitable for more tasks, it is more flexible than the latter in that it is not locked into one operating system with a number of bespoke pieces of software.

This means that you can personalize it by downloading task specific "apps" according to your need.

Apple's creation of apps, small pieces of specialist software for use on mobile devices (increasingly moving to computers as well), was arguably one of the most important developments in the history of computing.

It is in the power of the app, and the versatility created by the vast choice, that the real appeal of the iPad to educators lies. So much so that according to Kevin Kiley of Inside Higher Ed (2011), when the iPad was launched, some faculty and administrators believed that it heralded a new age of learning.

The early adopters

Several schools, colleges and universities, particularly in the US, used the iPad for entire programmes, sometimes even distributing them campus-wide.

Some didn't even wait for it to be piloted by others: New York City schools, for example, ordered 2000 devices, costing $1.3 million (Ferenstein, 2011).

Other examples include:

  • The School of Medicine at Stamford University, which provides all its first year intake, and Master of Medicine students, with iPads.  There were four reasons for this: "student readiness", the facility to annotate course content and take notes in lectures, any place, any time access to high quality information, and the desire to go green and replace printed syllabi and PDFs with a "sustainable practice" (Dilger, 2010).

  • Seton Hill University, which also issues iPads to freshmen, and George Fox University, which allows its freshmen to choose between an iPad and a MacBook Pro. An example of an app used by Seton Hill students is Art Authority, which allows one to browse through art galleries.
  • Memorial University of Newfoundland, which used iPads pre-loaded with texts and apps for a blended course in English Directing (films etc.). Students were generally positive about the experience.
  • At the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development, all freshmen, and their instructors, were given iPads. The objectives were to encourage student engagement, and explore new ways of teaching and advising.
  • Reed College has tested both the Kindle and the iPad: course texts were loaded onto the devices and students asked whether or not they preferred them to print textbooks.
  • Scottsdale Community College journalism students used their iPads for research and for interviews.

Some organizations used Android rather than Apples tablets: the University of Southern Mississippi gave Honours students 1000 Samsung Galaxy, and some Seton Hall University students had Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet PCs.

What does the research say?

Institutions that adopted the iPad generally did so because of its portability, its interactivity, and etextbooks; they also wanted to encourage innovative learning.  But what does the research say about the iPad's educational effectiveness?

The Pearson Foundation carried out a survey on students' views on the educational value of tablets, and found that eight out of 10 students responded positively. However, students were less positive on etextbooks, preferring print to digital (Kiley, 2011).

Students reported that the iPad was useful for discussing texts in class, because of ease of navigation, annotation, portability, as well as being easier to "wake up" than a laptop (Kolowich, 2010).

Similar features came up in the Reed College evaluations, this time of faculty.  The annotation feature was used to mark student assignments.

It did, however, have a number of shortcomings, such as lack of file management system, difficulty of creating content due to the touch keyboard, and lack of flash (Marmarelli and Ringle, 2011).

The Sloan Consortium's 2011 Annual Conference on Online Learning included presentations of a number of trials of the iPad, some of which are mentioned above.

Students are using their iPads for course-related activities, but chiefly briefer tasks such as taking notes.  For larger projects, such as essay or report writing, computers were preferred (Venable, 2011).

One drawback mentioned was the capacity to distract; interestingly, another study reports that the difficulty of switching between applications (hence surfing the Internet) proved an unintended benefit in keeping students focused on the class (Ferenstein, 2011).

The above studies concentrate mainly on user experience, particularly of the functional aspects of iPads. Do tablets actually assist students learn, particularly in metacognitive tasks?

This was the question that drove research by van Oostveen et al. (2011):

"How the [sic] students perceive the relationship between levels of technology usage and the meaningfulness of the learning experience?"

Defining "meaningfulness" against criteria proposed by a number of educational theorists, and acknowledging the usefulness of many of the affordances mentioned above, the study's findings were that there was little evidence of "meaningful learning".

However, as the authors themselves note, this was just one study, and the tablet PC used was not an iPad, and did not have a touch interface. Read the paper here.

Using the iPad in teaching and learning

Whilst there may yet be no conclusive proof that the iPad stimulates the deeper aspects of learning, its affordances offer plenty of scope for creativity. 

In addition to its portability, accessibility and ease of navigation, the iPad's other advantages are its relatively long battery life, and its crisp full colour visual display which is excellent for graphics and photographs. 

There are also assistive tools, for example an audio reader for those with a visual impairment.

Content: using and generating

Generally speaking, the iPad is more suitable for searching, browsing and annotating content, rather than creating it.

Ebooks will be dealt with in a separate article, but the following are useful for reading text:

  • iBooks, Apple's bespoke ebook reader, unlike the Kindle, can display colour. Objects can be enlarged, and it is also excellent for reading PDF documents.

  • Kindle, Amazon's ebook reader, is fine for books in black and white only; you can store a large number of books, and vary the background and type size.

There are a number of word processing and spreadsheet apps:

  • DocsToGo, which is a cut down version of the Office suite.

  • Pages is a more powerful word processing application, with templates, layout tools, and touch commands. You can store in folders or on iCloud.
  • OfficeHD is another document editor, enabling you to view, edit and create Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.
  • Numbers creates spreadsheets.

The iPad is also becoming popular in labs for collecting, recording and analyzing data (Venable, 2011). The iPad 2 has an excellent video recording facility, making it a useful vehicle for assignments and portfolios that rely heavily on digital material.

There are also many apps that carry various types of content.

  • World History Documents includes 350 primary source documents and speeches, from the Bible to Obama, as well as 19 audio and video recordings.

  • ElectricLit was created to keep literature vital in the digital age, with video-enhanced stories by contemporary authors.
  • Classics gives the "100 most popular books" (although it doesn't say according to whom). Has bookmarking and highlighting facility.
  • is a must-have reference tool with nearly two million words, definitions and antonyms, as well as audio pronunciation and spelling suggestions.
  • World Atlas provides complete world coverage, and you can also download continent maps.

Interactivity and exploration

The iPad is not just a reading or recording device: one of its major strengths is that it provides for interaction and exploration, both of which are excellent for learning.

The Elements: a Visual Exploration, is created from a print book and indicates the potential of ebooks. The home page shows the periodic table; click on an element and you get a 3D image which can be rotated, so that all sides can be seen.  Further facts are also available through a link with Wolfram Alpha.

Image: iPad screenshot 1

Star Walk for iPad is an interactive astronomy app which will label stars as you point your iPad at the sky; it also has excellent graphics and won an Apple Design Award in 2010.

Cram is based on flashcards and offers a good, interactive way of learning new vocabulary.

The iPad's ability to display rich content is one aspect that makes it useful in distance learning. Additional advantages include cloud computing and the ability to chat over IM and VoIP, and perform a wide range of tasks that a computer can do (DCCCD TeleCollege Online Blog, 2010).

Using the iPad in teaching

The ability to create presentations, and to navigate with ease around varied content including PDFs, photos, pod and vodcasts and videos, make the iPad useful for lectures and seminars. It can also be linked with an interactive whiteboard.

  • Slideshark allows you to view and show PowerPoint presentations.

  • Explain Everything and Educreations allow you to create screencast presentations or video lessons. Explain Everything allows you to include both videos (your own and imported) and live web pages, and has an excellent editing facility.

Media academic Tara Brabazon (2010) identified a number of uses for the iPad in teaching:

  • Small groups – screen size is ideal.
  • Vod- and podcasts can be downloaded from iTunes.
  • Useful for foreign language material as subtitles appear at the appropriate size.
  • As a teleprompter.

ProPrompter enables you to download a script onto your iPad, useful for lectures and less obvious than reading from paper!

Image: iPad screenshot 2

One of the most common uses of technology in teaching is the Learning Management System (LMS) , which provides access to course documents and communication. With the right software, this can also appear on the iPad.

Blackboard Mobile enables the student to see course information on a wide range of mobile devices.

Image: Image: iPad screenshot 3

Screenshot showing one of Blackboard Mobile's sample courses.

Apple, however, has itself got in on the LMS scene by creating, in January 2012, a revamped version of iTunes U, which, it claims, offers the functionality of an LMS.

The iTunes U app offers access to courses created by other schools (Duke, Yale and Stanford all created courses specially for the revamp), as well as allowing institutions to build their own courses.

Image: iPad screenshot 4

Staying organized

One of the first requirements for both studying and teaching is organization and time management.  There are plenty of apps to help with this.

  • Course notes helps you take class notes, and organize them so that you can later search them. You can also export them via email.

  • Evernote (free) allows you to take notes, compile to do lists, take photos (for example, of the whiteboard). The notes are searchable (you have to provide tags) and you can sync the notes across computers and other devices.
  • Voice memos allows you to record your thoughts instantly, as they occur to you.
  • iStudiezPro is an organizing tool that will help you keep track of classes, information on faculty, assignments etc. The day's tasks are then summarized in the Today view.
  • Things for iPad is another organizing tool or task manager which is quite expensive, but is easy to use with powerful features.

One of the main drawbacks of the iPad is its lack of file management. The following apps may help rectify this deficiency:

  • Dropbox is a free cloud-based service for storing files, which can then be accessed on whatever device.

  • Team Viewer allows you to view files remotely.


There are many ways in which the iPad can be a useful tool to help us in teaching and learning.

It is not without its drawbacks however: despite word processing apps it is difficult to write much without a physical keyboard; it lacks a proper file management system; it cannot view web pages with Flash.

Furthermore, the iPad does not support open source: all apps must be approved by Apple. The second version of the iPad does have a camera, countering one of the key objections to the first version.

However, providing one is aware of these drawbacks, and can design the learning experience around it, the iPad can be a highly useful adjunct to learning.

Sloan C's 2011 conference offered some advice to those wanting to implement iPad based programmes: start small and build, plan for technical support; look at what other people have done; get feedback.

Feedback, and sharing your experience, is highly important. The more we know about what users do, and don't value about using the iPad, the more likely we are to be able to pinpoint ways in which it can increase deep learning.



Brabazon, T. (2010), "The iPad and the academy", Times Higher Education, July 14th 2010, available at, accessed February 29th 2012.

DCCCD TeleCollege Online Blog (2010), "iPad and Higher Education", available at, accessed February 29th 2012.

Dilger, D. E. (2010), "Stanford School of Medicine equipping students with Apple's iPad", available at, accessed February 28th 2012.

Educause (2011), "7 things you should know about the iPad", Educause Learning Initiative, available at, accessed March 5th 2012.

Ferenstein, G. (2011), "Apple's iPad Officially Passes the Higher Education Test", Fast Company,, accessed February 28th 2012.

Kiley, K. (2011), "Tablets Yes; E-Texts, Maybe", Inside Higher Education, May 25th 2011, available at, accessed February 28th, 2012.

Kolowich, S. (2010), "Apple of Their Eye?", Inside Higher Education, December 22nd 2010, available at, accessed February 29th 2012.

Marmarelli, T, and Ringle, M. (2011), The Reed College iPad Study Summary of Faculty Evaluation Reports April 2011, Reed College, available at, accessed February 29th 2012.

Oostveen, R. van, Muirhead, W., Goodman, W. M.(2011) "Tablet PCs and reconceptualizing learning with technology: a case study in higher education", Interactive Technology and Smart Education, vol. 8 no: 2, pp. 78-93.

Venable, M. (2011), "Evaluating the iPad in Higher Education", Online College, available at, accessed February 29th 2012.