Just give me one good reason to use a tablet in the classroom

I’ll start with a confession: I don’t really get iPads. This came as something as a surprise to me as, by and large, I’m pathetically geeky about Apple products. I use my iPhone 6plus all the time and have just bought one of the new ultra-slim Macbooks. I fully expected to dig iPads, but my problem is that I just can’t really a see a use for them that can’t be handled more efficiently or effectively by either my phone or my laptop. Anyway, that’s just me; I’m happy to live and let live and if you’re an iPad aficionado then more power to you.

The point of this post is my growing amazement at the desperation of the education establishment to chuck money at tech companies. I’ve written before about my take on edtech and the sunk cost fallacy. Essentially, my views on students using mobile devices in the classroom remain unchanged:

I’d rather they spent time in lessons learning. Mobile devices are, on the whole, a distraction and I would much prefer to see the teacher utilised as an authoritative source of knowledge. Although I can see justifications for asking pupils to read electronic texts and to publish their work online, there is always an opportunity cost; time spent on these kinds of stuff is time that cannot be spent on higher impact activities. As far as I can see, the research on edtech is fairly neutral. That said, if individual teachers feel passionate about the use of technology, I wouldn’t want to stand in their way – though I would fiercely resist attempts to compel teachers to use technology for its own sake.

While I’m sure there may be schools where the use of iPads has been thoroughly thought through and where the experience of staff and students has been enhanced through their use, I’ve yet to see this in practice. What I do routinely see is schools investing vast swathes of cash in iPads and then looking around for something to do with them. Tablets, like most edtech, are a solution in search of a problem.

That kind of thinking leads to nonsense like this article on 20 ways to use a tablet in the classroom. The 20 suggested uses include 360-degree videos, taking photos, shooting movies, making comics and music (with no experience needed!), recording radio shows, making notes, using Angry Birds to learn maths, using augmented reality to… well, just because, setting up a class blog, and several other predictably pointless activities. Check out the full list yourself if you can be bothered.

Now, I’m not denying that you can do all these wonderful things, what I’m asking is why you would want to. Almost all the suggestions are superficial gimmickry. None of them will ‘transform learning’ unless by that we mean, retard it. They’re just fun. The raison d’être seems to be that school is boring; learning stuff is dull so you need expensive toys to drag children out of the stupor induced by dry old frauds banging on about history and science and other tedious guff like that.

One genuinely useful thing you can do with your iPad is to use it as a visualiser to model and deconstruct students’ work. This though can probably be done better and more cheaply with a purpose-built visualiser which start from about £150.

40 Responses to Just give me one good reason to use a tablet in the classroom

  1. I agree with much of what you say. However, we have also found them time saving and useful- mainly as quick and easy internet access. I’m writing from a primary context- which might possibly make a difference. We bought enough to have 6 per class-if you want more you borrow from peers. This means every class has 6 always ready to use – no time wasted booting up, logging on etc.
    First thing whilst rest of class are doing times tables rock stars on paper, one group ( rotating each day) does same on iPad. This is helpful because it records which tables students get wrong over time – as well as motivating students to,practice online at home to go up league tables. Later that morning during guided reading, one group might use to research something they are learning about in say geography. This is part of a properly planned ‘information literacy’ scheme of work- not random ‘ Google studies’ session, I hasten to add. The scheme covers using non fiction books as well as the Internet and reflecting which is better for what. A useful preparation for independent study, I would have thought and enables us to cover more humanities and science than then timetable allows. The information they find is sometimes published in an e book and then available to be read by peers. I wouldn’t go to the stake for the merits of publishing in e-book but the info they found probably wouldn’t actually get written up otherwise- again- curriculum pressures are ridiculous and finding time to write it up by hand is hard. However, this tends to be for younger kids- year 4 and below.
    If in the course of any lesson we need a definition of a word then the online COBUILD dictionary is brilli at and gives much better definitions of words for children than other dictionaries. It puts them into real sentences. Yes sometimes we use the class computer but having students able to quickly check the meaning of a word mans know that they’ll get a definition they will understand is really useful.
    One last really time saving use is using ‘explain everything’ or similar to record your voice plus what you write on the whiteboard. Then when a pupil comes in half way through the lesson for whatever reason or has been off sick they can replay what you have just taught them. Also really useful if you have attention loving students who don’t listen during your instruction because they love having individualised attention when you are forced to re- explain. Instead, now you dump iPad on their desk and say- just watch this. Works a treat!
    But any old cheap android tablet probably just as good for most of these rather than expensive Apple kit- I presume.

  2. David says:

    Thanks for this….I completely agree. To see the height of absurdity, one of my students showed me an assignment from his English class, which is covering the Romantic poets. This teacher uses the poetryfoundation.org webpage and asked the students to access Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” on their Chromebooks. Go there and what does one find? The baloney the techies talk about as “enhancing” the educational experience–sharing on social media, “related content”, links to other relevent poems, audio files, etc., all of this distracting from the actual poem itself.

    Talk about laying waste our powers…

  3. Amanda Triccas says:

    I read that article too and thought it was written by someone who had no experience in classrooms. We’ve got iPads in Y7 and I’d say the benefits for me are the ability to create very quick starter quizzes in Socrative which give me instant feedback on what they remember from last time and indeed from longer periods thereby allowing me to use interleaving flexibly and with minimal effort on my part. Yes I could do the same on paper but this saves much time and is way more efficient. As a history teacher I can also generate information which I’d either have previously photocopied in black and white so I can distribute to them more carefully selected materials in colour (where needed) at no cost. Pupils can’t lose these materials easily. i use the iPads about 40% of the time at the moment. I also like it when certain homework tasks are submitted via Google classroom as I can assess work without carrying books home and also often get them done the night they were submitted. It’s also better using an iPad to replace a desktop computer in the classroom as there’s no tedious login time and for visual materials it’s a lot more flexible e.g. Zooming into maps, images etc. I’ve used a visualiser and an iPad and the latter is more flexible and robust. I’d agree that the “iPads are fun” argument is guff. I’d posit the argument that they allow me to do what I want to do with my teaching in a more effective way for much of the time and also save me a lot of time.

  4. JdV says:

    Motivation. Despite all our efforts, some children find learning very difficult and become turned off and disaffected. Using an ipad can overcome that partially. I realised how powerful it can be while watching one of my SEN pupils show another pupil how to do something on the ipad. I don’t think he had ever been in that position before. He loved the Geography we were learning and remembered the lesson at the end of the year. I feel that we have to use all the tools at our disposal and tablets are just one of those tools

  5. ijstock says:

    Yep – all that money could be much better spent on more teachers.

    I have a few good uses for tablets as a geographer – for example accessing some of the large databases that are out there, but even that needs only a handful of machines. Certainly not enough to justify whole-school investment.

    Mostly a fashionable waste of money – and they still won’t do my marking for me!

  6. Is great to use for the following (which is what learning is about):

    Retaining: I use it in the lesson to create flash cards. These flash cards can be used at home. Whilst flash cards et al can be done on physical cards, the students lose them and they are hard for me to check (A lot like ‘Knowledge Books’) but students using generation to record original knowledge. Also some great quizzes we do which give instant feedback, record results, and allows us to share answers.

    Understanding: Great tool to use for me to capture deeper understanding of concepts. Some useful apps and so forth – especially modelling answers digitally.

    Transference: Great for creating schemas and looking at patterns. Some really useful tools again.

  7. Hi David,

    The Guardian article you refer to really does not help the cause of those of us who have good reason to believe tablets can and do make a positive difference. Its suggestions are superficial, banal and, as you demonstrate, quite easily dismissible.

    However, I do think you are wrong in dismissing tablets so easily. As I’m pretty certain you would agree, in order to think critically about something, you must first know about that thing.

    Could I point you towards a couple of things I’ve written in the past that cover some of the issues you and some of your commenters have raised?

    Firstly, this on opportunity cost


    Then this on ways in which tablets can be used to support teaching and learning


    And finally this on how tablets are actually used (as opposed to how the guardian piece, you and some of your commenters think they are used)


    Would love an opportunity to discuss this properly. Take care.


    • David Didau says:

      As I say in the post, “While I’m sure there may be schools where the use of iPads has been thoroughly thought through and where the experience of staff and students has been enhanced through their use, I’ve yet to see this in practice.” I’m more than happy to accept that this is the case at Surbiton. Your claim about how tablets are actually used runs counter to my extensive lived experience. They are actually used badly up and down the land every day. I think that Guardian article is actually fairly representative and I had training whilst at Clevedon School which was remarkably similar.

      In fact, your school makes an interesting case because parents actively choose to send their children there and I’m sure some make that choice because of your tech policies. This is not the case in state schools. My biggest problem is not that tablets can’t be used to good effect, it’s that the opportunity cost is currently too great.

  8. Fiona Banham says:

    On a positive note they are very useful for visually impaired students. Text can be enlarged to appropriate size without the need for the student to be placed next to a huge amplifying machine. Student can take ownership of own equipment, another step towards breaking down barriers and promoting independence.

  9. CKS says:

    Can you elaborate on the phrase “I would much prefer to see the teacher utilised as an authoritative source of knowledge”? – Before iPads or the Internet, we still went down to the library to use encyclopedias, which in my mind means I have never been the “authoritative source of knowledge” in my classroom.

    However, I respect your opinion, so can you expound on what you were thinking when you said this?

    • David Didau says:

      I’d prefer knowledge to be mediated by teachers instead of uncritically consumed via the internet.

      • l4l1 says:

        It can also be curated – but that might just be another distraction …

        • Jared says:

          Yeah agreed. The curating of resources and the work flow efficiencies through platforms such as edmodo and google classroom make them incredibly useful.

          Here is an example of a lesson I taught with an iPad today.

          The learning experience involved reading a biography about Tim Winton, an information fact sheet about blue gropers and revisiting a blurb about the book Blueback (written by Tim Winton). Using these resources and their reading and hypothesising skills, they needed to come up with a plausible place in Australia (using Google maps, again linked straight to individual students) where the setting could actually have taken place (despite it being fictional). They then write a persuasive text, using Google docs, convincing others in the class of their reasons. All of these resources were curated by me from the web and pushed out as an assignment through Google classroom which students individually access on their individual iPads. Thus, reducing my teacher talk time and giving them more time to think and learn, and freeing me up to do my job- help them think and learn. The purpose of the assignment was to increase students prior knowledge of Blueback before we read it, because as you know, increasing prior knowledge of a text’s content before reading, increases comprehension of the text during reading.

          Yeah, for sure, I could have taught this lesson with photocopies and atlases. But I saved myself and students time, which, let’s face it is the most precious resource we have. I saved some paper and trees (which I then voided with the 28 lots of coal burning during the next lot of iPad charging up). And I have all their work in the one place to analyse and inform my next lessons.

          You don’t like iPads, and I absolutely agree that they are used badly a lot and can be a distraction and a waste of time. There’s certainly legitimate arguments for not going overboard with tablets or laptops until your school has a well thought through plan. But in this article, you seem to have a pretty narrow scope of their potential in the hands of experienced, thoughtful and creative teachers. That Guardian article is not current educational technology research I would have to say. And when our curriculum incorporates use of digital technologies into achievement standards and content descriptors, you kind of need digital technologies. (Australian by the way)

  10. David I was going to joke about how much fun you were missing with all the login problems and associated hassle of technology. However as there are so many in favour of tablets I will declare that after 20 yrs of teaching which included using and training others in technology, I have come out the other side. It used to be difficult to say you were antitechnology because you would be judged as incapable of using it. However as the general standard of using tech has gone up it is now safer to say you’re against without being called a luddite etc. On balance if I had to chose between say a computer projector IWB in the room OR none of these, I may well chose none. Certainly IWBs are overrated and I write as one who knows how to use them. Even when I was in school I remember an old councillor saying we need more computers in schools. (((He may have been right then as we only had one!))) But the point is … They’ve been saying this ever since. Politicians don’t need to know what’s going on with the tech as long as they keep suggesting it and promising to throw large amounts of money at schools. Set of iPads or MANY sets of good text books? Let me see ….

  11. I completely agree with this! My 6 year old daughter is expected to do reading homework on the ipad every week and her school just raised money to buy more ipads when they have a library that is in desperate need of books. I worry that we are teaching our children to become too reliant on technology when we should be teaching them about the enjoyment and learning you can get from a book.

  12. wiltwhatman says:

    If we don’t capture users for Apple for profit and deliver them to their captive ecosystem at a young age who else will?

    We want someone responsible, like Apple, mining their data, mapping their location, and monetising their content and digital footprint, rather than those loose canons over at Google, or some forked Chinese variant of Android.

    What else would we be spending the 400 quid a pop per tablet on? Shcool meals? Nutrition programs? Teacher training? Teachers pay? Doors and walls? Red pens and handholding?Gah!

    • Jared says:

      Or even better, use Google’s education suite of apps, with Apple hardware. Share the monetising around. We can also get health in on it: have private health companies sponsoring our schools in exchange for a steady flow of posture realignments that students will need after stooping over a tablet all day every day.

  13. Claire says:

    I totally disagree with your thoughts here. The gimmicky ‘stuff’, although superficial yes, can actually be the only one thing that sparks a very disengaged student’s interest in a lesson – if it takes a gimmick to propel the learner into the rest of the learning for that hour or maybe potentially a series of lessons, I’m quite happy to use one now and again. In addition, the power and confidence the technology can give to learner’s with additional needs is fantastic. As someone has highlighted above, all students can be in a position to be experts and teach others from their own experience and skills. Finally, coming from a school where the majority of students have their own device, I have seen the benefit of using tablets and features such as iTunes U and iBooks in my own classroom – they have not only supported the learning of the students but have improved their organisation, time management and mindset. Yes, teachers could just ‘teach’, but I personally feel my ‘teaching’ and, more importantly, the learning of my students has benefitted greatly. For me, it’s about striking a balance. It’s another way to support my learners which isn’t needed every lesson but is on hand when required. On a totally different note – this is the technology of their generation. They’ll be going into jobs using it and those that can will have an advantage against a similar student that can’t. As teachers, we must prepare them for that world. A lot of teachers don’t have the skills to fully engage with the technology themselves yet and that’s why it can often appear a ‘waste of time’ or ‘a distraction’. When used well and with a purpose, the students embrace it and thrive.

  14. Hi there

    Here’s what I think:

    Tablets are agency machines: They enable students to co-create knowledge, to research independently, and to demonstrate personalized mastery. They enable teachers to spend their time coaching individual students, and honing application skills rather than being the gatekeepers and disseminators of knowledge. Tablets have the potential to revolutionize education because they democratize the acquisition of knowledge and skills, giving students real agency in their own learning.

    Of course, they are also useful in engaging students by making learning fun and relevant. But this is not the real purpose of tablets. Nor is it to simply replace paper-based activities with digital equivalents.

    Also, devices do not have to be tablets, although tablets tend to be the most convenient option for most grades and classes.

    And schools which issue tablets or require parents to purchase them, without the requisite intensive pedagogical training and the sincere reorientation of methodologies towards student-centered methodologies are simply wasting money.

    Here are some actual examples of how tablets are transforming education in South Africa: http://www.core.co.za/ipad-education/

    Thanks for the provocative post!

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Sean

      I like the idea of ‘agency machines’: very seductive.

      But are they? Don’t they just make us dependent on a different kind of authority? When you say tablets “democratize the acquisition of knowledge and skills” do you just mean they give students the ability to look stuff up on the internet? I’ve written before about what I see as the problems with that: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/myths/is-it-just-me-or-is-sugata-mitra-an-irresponsible-charlatan/

      I’m also dubious about the idea of “teachers [spending] their time coaching individual students, and honing application skills rather than being the gatekeepers and disseminators of knowledge”. I’d argue that being the mediator of knowledge is the most important part of the role. The coaching and practice ought to happen after students know enough to think about a new topic. I’ve described my views of teaching sequences here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/category/teaching-sequence/

      You’re right, of course, to say “schools which issue tablets or require parents to purchase them, without the requisite intensive pedagogical training and the sincere reorientation of methodologies towards student-centered methodologies are simply wasting money” but this needs to be balanced against what else schools might want to spend time & effort training teachers to do. Considering the time & expense involved, is using tablets really the best use of our resources? I’m sceptical.

      • Thanks for the reply.

        I agree that teachers need to be mediators of the knowledge students acquire on-line. And I absolutely agree that they need to be taught how to sift and evaluate the information they come across. I too have written about both of these things a number of times.

        I didn’t say that iPads are simply about ‘looking stuff up on the internet’. I did say that it was about a broader shift in students being able to take charge of their own learning by producing and co-creating knowledge.

  15. Here’s a little video on a very special young man I have the pleasure of teaching this year:

  16. […] writing this piece on my exasperation with the way iPads are fetishised in education I’ve been inundated with […]

  17. Eduardo says:

    Hi David.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, as I find it a great place to have my ideas challenged. This is the first time I comment.
    I am a physics teacher turned ICT coordinator (somewhat against my will) because I happen to be relatively well informed about computers. I, however, am very far from an enthusiastic proponent of using technology in the classroom and most of my activities are very low-tech indeed.
    When I am asked to talk to other teachers about how to use technology in the classroom, my go-to answer is: “when it makes sense.” So when does it make sense?
    It turns out, a lot of the time it doesn’t. In my opinion, the focus has to be on pedagogy, not in technology. For example, I would like to be able to provide better differentiation in my classes or to use formative assessment more effectively. Sometimes, computers help me to do this better. In this case, I should be using them. Sometimes, computers get in the way or provide marginal benefits. In this case, there is no point in using them. Sometimes, for instance when taking notes or solving physics problems, pen and paper is the better technology.
    Summarising, I’d say the debate on whether technology is beneficial in the classroom makes just as much sense as the debate on whether pencils are beneficial. Technology is just another tool at our disposal. A good teacher will use technology well. A bad teacher will make bad decisions. This will happen with and without technology. However, I would rather have technology available because it empowers me as a teacher, in the sense that it gives me options that weren’t available to me before. It lets me do things that I would have liked to do in the past but couldn’t, especially when it comes to differentiation.
    Apart from this, it’s also an issue of convenience. You can plan lessons with different tiers of difficulty and not worry about having to photocopy copious amounts of paper. You can plan lessons where there is always one more challenge for the students that want one. You can have lessons that move at different paces for different students, where you can float around acting as a moderator in small debate groups. Instead of a power-point that moves at the speed of the average learner, you can have a lesson plan that fits all of them. In subjects like mathematics or physics, where the difference in speed between students in a class often spans full years of learnings, this is invaluable.
    Anyway, sorry for the long reply. It’s always a pleasure to read this thought-provoking blog. I don’t know how you do it to keep the gold coming day after day. Thanks!

  18. 2. To understand. Children who cant understand the language of the teacher use an iPad as a visual support.

    3. To write. Pen and paper can be hard for many kids. Some type (predictive text), some use text to speech

    4. To read. Books on iPads can both include voice and animation. Text can be changed to allow for visual difficulties.

    5. To remember. Teachers talk a lot and give verbal instructions. Children can take videos, sound recordings etc to remember what is being said.

    6. To stay calm. Children with autism can become overwhelmed in a classroom and need a break. They might listen to calming music or use apps which can calm and regukate them.

    7. To understand what is going to happen next. Change is not a great thing for many kids. Schedules and calenders on an iPad can be changed quickly and adapted for the chikd so they dont need to feel stressed and worried about what might happen next.

    8. To socialise. Face ti face conversations can be challenging for some. Instead chikdren can look at a book on an iPad and talk together about the book (the topic of my PhD – great results)

    9. To show what they know. Traditional essays could be replaced by films, podcasts or screencasts.

    10. To feel proud. Children with autism may feel discouraged in a classroom setting. If they have a special interest in technology they can quickly become the classrooms “techie” which has the most wonderful educational outcome…pride.

    Bronwyn Sutton
    Speech Pathologist

  19. Polly D says:

    I use the i-pad in in one to one reading sessions to show a child images to go with unknown words and coupled with my verbal explanation. Today I’ve had Hyacinth, dappled (horses) orchard and heather. This doesn’t justify the cost of an i-pad, but I’ve found it extremely useful for this purpose.

  20. […] writing a fairly frivolous article expressing scepticism about iPads and then experiencing a torrent of invective from […]

  21. Aileen says:

    A single teacher Ipad and an Apple TV have been by far the best resources I have ever used in my classroom. Saying that, I do appreciate it might not work for everyone.

    I love having the ability to photograph a student’s work as they are drafting in class, and then instantly have the whole class look at it, with me being able to annotate and highlight it to illustrate good examples of vocabulary or structure. I also love the fact that I can upload a pupil’s work to an app like Seesaw within the lesson and their parents can then look at it later with their child at home. This is a great motivational tool and builds a great record of their progress at various stages of a project.

    I have never had access to any other kind of interactive whiteboard though, so I can’t comment on the advantages of an Ipad over more traditional interactive boards. I cannot really see the advantages of students using them though as I don’t see why they would need to use them.

  22. Brian says:

    Surely ipads, smartphones and laptops all serve much the same purpose.

    Interesting topic, but your post left me a little confused as to what your stance actually is…….

    Is it..

    1 There are no benefits from using IT in the classroom……..indicated by the title.

    2 There are benefits to using IT in the classroom but most schools don’t implement IT use effectively or efficiently

    3 Schools do implement IT effectively, it is just that you tend not to see it…

    “While I’m sure there may be schools where the use of iPads has been thoroughly thought through and where the experience of staff and students has been enhanced through their use, I’ve yet to see this in practice. ”

    Of course to confuse the use of “tablets” with the use of “ipads” is just that, confusing. The issue of links between IT firms and schools is one to be investigated but surely that has no effect on whether IT is effective or not.

    Then there is the issue of IT in the classroom and IT in the learning process. Clearly there are parts of the learning process that lend themselves to the use of IT, that is I think a no brainer.

    There is all that nonsense about opportunity costs again. We all know that opportunity cost will depend upon the views of the valuer.

    The idea that we should simply do the thing the cheapest way can be too simplistic. Doing thing the more expensive way is often referred to as “investment”.

    If we never invested in the future we would still be living in caves and throttling mammoths with our bare hands. Having said that, if some of the louder and more well known bloggers have their way, we may actually be back there again soon.

  23. markjoliver says:

    Hey David,

    Loved your article and completely agree that a lot of activities out there for iPads are a bit rubbish. I work in TESOL and have seen some many people promoting the use of apps that offer nothing but the usual gap fills and grammar transformation exercises.

    However, there is one way that I believe (and also substantial studies) have shown that iPads, or indeed any tablet, smartphone or laptop, might be useful: text chat. Second language acquisition studies have frequently shown that conducting language communication activities in a text chat environment offer learners a lot of benefits:

    – greater noticing of language and interactional feedback
    – slower turn-taking which allows for a greater accuracy and range of language production
    – greater anonymity, promoting more language use among shyer students
    – a decreased likelihood of slipping back into L1

    Text chat, though, should be seen as an addition to traditional practice rather than a replacement.

    As to your point about vested interests, that is totally true. On my part, I just self-published a resource book for language teachers wishing to use Text Chat with their learners 🙂

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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