Just Say NO to iPads For Education, Part 1: Wave of the Future, or Passing Fad?


A lot of people are claiming that tablets like iPads are the “Wave of the Future”, but what are they basing this on? When it comes to technology, the only thing we can be certain of is that nobody is certain what the future holds. Some technologies that have been declared the wave of the future have included Laser Discs and Palm Pilots. But these are only recent examples. We can see many such flawed examples of technological soothsaying in a US News and World Report article titled “The Perils of Prediction”:

“I think there is a world market for about five computers.”
–Thomas Watson Sr., founder of IBM, 1943.

“Computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1 1/2 tons.”
–Popular Mechanics, 1949.

And ninety years ago, there was similar hype about the use of film for education… In 1922, Thomas Edison declared, “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” And yet, almost one hundred years later, this still has not happened.

I personally do not think iPads – or tablets in general – are the wave of the future. In fact, I see very little purpose for them even today. Why? Well, my question is: what pressing problem do they solve?

When we look at the evolution of computers over the past century we can see that we started with bulky machines designed for work and business. The personal computer changed all that to be small enough and affordable enough to fit in any home or office. That was revolutionary, allowing people to get work done in ways not previously available to the average person. As technology advanced, people realized they sometimes had a need to take their computing with them, and this need was met through the invention of notebook or laptop computers. However, laptops have limitations, and two of those limitations have been their bulky size and short battery life. These problems were solved through the introduction of netbooks, which are essentially small laptops – they are capable of doing almost everything a normal computer can do, but they are more portable and have much longer battery life, capable of lasting a whole work day on one charge.

However, even a netbook can’t fit in your pocket, so it only makes sense that smartphones like the iPhone are so popular. The advent of the smartphone means that people can basically have a portable computer with them wherever they go.

So we got to a point where computers became portable enough that we could have one with us wherever we go. So the next logical step is to… introduce a device that is bigger and less portable than the smartphone? Wait, what?? This makes it kind of like a laptop, except not as powerful or capable of doing as much. Really?? That’s the wave of the future?

Who’s to say that the next step in computing won’t be a piece of technology that is even smaller, even more powerful, and more integrated into our everyday lives… like into a wearable set of glasses. In fact, Google is already spearheading this idea…

Some people say that the iPad has revolutionized computing, but that is hardly the case. The idea of using a touch-screen is not revolutionary technology. Capacitive touch-screens were invented in the 1960s — they were around before Apple was even founded. Here’s a picture of a capacitive touch screen from 1971:

Revolutionary? Wave of the future? Hardly. Microsoft’s Kinect system, which allows for real-time recognition of points in 3D space for a home consumer price… that’s pretty revolutionary. Google developing wearable computers with heads-up displays and augmented reality, or cars that can drive themselves… that’s pretty revolutionary. But there’s nothing new or wonderful about a jumbo iPod Touch.

And you simply can’t replace a real computer with an iPad. For one thing, you have to plug an iPad into a computer just to get it to run — this means it is a peripheral device. It is designed to supplement a computer, not to be used instead of a computer. And guess what? The apps you run on an iPad were not made using iPads… they were developed on actual computers. Without desktop or laptop computers — and people who know how to use them — you would have no apps to run on your iPad.

I’m not the only one to say that you can’t replace a computer with an iPad. Some pretty smart people who know a lot about technology have said the same thing… like this guy:

“I think the PC, this general purpose device, is going to continue to be with us.” — Steve Jobs

So… where exactly does the iPad fit in? It’s not as portable as a smartphone — it’s about the same size as a netbook or ultrabook laptop and has about the same battery life… and yet it is capable of doing much less. It’s not a stand-alone computer… in fact, you have to plug it into a computer just to get it to work. There are millions of websites it can’t access. So what, exactly, does an iPad provide that we didn’t already have? A touch-screen? Do we really need a touch-screen? What major problems do we solve by having a touch-screen?

To see just how unnecessary the iPad is, we don’t have to look any further than their own advertisement touting its uses for learning:

  • Watching movies? We’ve had educational films in the classroom for decades. As we already mentioned, Thomas Edison swore educational films were the way to go back in the 1920s. Their popularity increased with training programs and initiatives started by the Army in the 1940s and 50s. And, of course, we’ve been able to easily access streaming videos online from any type of computer device for the past decade. Nothing new here…
  • Writing and drawing with our fingers? What, are we cavemen?? There’s a reason writing and drawing tools and implements were invented thousands of years ago. Never mind the fact that the iPad doesn’t give us an advantage here… it just lets us do what we’ve been doing all along with paper and pencils. Granted, it’s nice to save those natural resources and go paperless… but if you really want to do that, tablet PC laptops have been out for about a decade now — one example is my Toshiba Portege tablet I’ve had since 2004. These older style of tablets actually work better for writing and drawing purposes because they were not designed to be used with your fingers, so the stylus has a thinner point allowing for more precision, and you don’t have to worry about your hand bumping the screen. Some of them are even pressure-sensitive and respond to different levels of pressure to affect things like brush strokes. Sorry, the existing technology that was out worked just as well — if not better — than the iPad.
  • E-books are nice, but they are nothing new. Digital books have been around for decades, and they have long been supported with features like the built-in dictionary shown here. In fact, many of them used to be called CD-ROM Books, so that tells you how old this concept is. You can do this on pretty much any laptop, computer, tablet, or e-reader — you don’t need an iPad.
  • Interactive graphics and 3D visualizations of concepts like these science ones are great. But they’re not anything you couldn’t already do on a regular computer. I used to access multimedia supports like this on my Microsoft Encarta CD back in the 90s. Certainly anything we see here is something we could already do on laptop or desktop computers.
  • Learning and playing chess electronically is one of the oldest concepts around. I don’t see how the iPad makes it any different or better than it used to be. Electronic chess boards and chess trainer computers have been around for over 30 years! Heck, IBM’s Deep Blue computer was able to beat World Champion chess player Gary Kasparov 15 years ago in 1997. As a kid growing up I enjoyed playing games like Chessmaster. You could play this game on the Apple II in 1986. Once again, the iPad doesn’t bring anything new or innovative to the table.
  • Finally we have a truly useful and innovative purpose of the touch-screen tablet: music. Everything else we’ve seen could be done just as well or better with a mouse or a stylus pen, but the instantaneous and tactile nature of playing music makes the iPad a natural fit. This is one use where a touch-screen tablet is just a great idea. I have two music apps on my iPad — GarageBand and BeatPad, and they were both good deals at $5 each. However, you don’t HAVE to use an iPad for this purpose — you can get other, more affordable Android tablets that also work great for musical purposes.
  • And this one is just laughable. Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to domore with modern technology than they were able to do 100 years ago? Yet here we have an activity that essentially mimics using a flash card on the left combined with a slate chalk board on the right. Ridiculous. Since when does moving forward mean we simply mimic what we did in the past?

Now, I’m not saying that iPads can’t be used for education. Of course they can be used for educational purposes – but the problem is that many teachers incorporating them into the classroom have never tried any other technologies. So they’re not comparing apples to apples… they’re not even comparing apples to oranges. They’re comparing apples to… nothing. When people are seeing benefits of iPads with students, it’s not necessarily because they are iPads, it’s because the teachers are finally providing students with access to technology, whereas previously students didn’t have access to anything. The idea that one-to-one access to computer technology can provide benefits to your students is nothing new… educational technologists could have told you that, and in fact they have been saying that for over 20 years now.

But lots of things can be useful for learning. I could educate my students using a pile of rocks. We could…
Investigate the properties and characteristics of different types of rocks to teach mass, density, geological processes, or scientific classification skills.

  • Write in the sand to teach reading and writing
  • Break it apart or use multiple rocks to teach division, multiplication, subtraction, addition.
  • Does all of this mean that a rock is a really great educational technology?

Does this mean we should go out and spend $500 or more to buy a pile of rocks? After all, look at all of the cool educational stuff you can do with it!

Of course not… just because something can be used for education doesn’t mean it is the best tool for the job.

Sure, there are a few purposes where tablets may come in handy. For example, the intuitive touch-screen interface may be very beneficial for working with developmentally disabled students or very young children such as pre-schoolers, and there are certainly some great musical applications like we saw in the commercial. But we need to consider whether the iPad can provide more educational opportunities than other alternative devices can, and the simple answer is that it does not really offer any new or innovative educational functions… and yet it costs more than netbooks, laptops, computers, or even other tablets.

No, I don’t see iPads as being the wave of the future, but regardless of what the distant future holds, we need to be preparing our students to enter the world they will be living in today, or in the very near future. And what does the world of today and tomorrow look like? I will address that in my next video about Why iPads Do Not Meet Today’s Educational Needs. In the meantime, I’d love to know where I get a crystal ball like so many people seem to think they have… maybe I should ask the Magic 8 Ball.

Magic 8-Ball, are iPads the wave of the future?

Well, there you have it folks… that’s the definitive answer, because the Magic 8 Ball knows what the future holds just as well as your or I do.

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