The iPad Is A Social Tool

THINK Global School gave me an iPad to play with two weeks ago, which was “real sweet” as one of my students said, because it made us one of the first on our block with the newest cool tool.

It didn’t take long to see that the iPad is not about the apps. They are great, gorgeous even. Developers are taking full advantage of the iPad’s big glass touch screen. Elements is a stunning example of what can be done on the new, Evernote for the iPad beats all other versions of that app, even the desktop. iCal and Mail are gorgeous–in fact, the iPad is now my preferred mail reader. But the iPad is not about the apps. After all, we’ve had apps for a long time–my first was an early version of Wordperfect that spit running on my old 8088 back in the late 80s.

To be sure, the iPad has a few shortcomings. It outputs video to either a projector or monitor but, frustratingly for a teacher, I cannot share the iPad screen itself; that is, I can show inline video (HTML5 or QuickTime) but not, say, a Safari search.


Projecting a YouTube video from my iPad

Also, the iPad does not connect to the cloud quite as well as you might expect for such a new device. Out of the box, I cannot create or edit Google Docs, although a third party app, Office2 HD ($7.99) does the job for now.

You don’t have to look very hard on the web to find a host more pros and cons. But these all miss the point. There is the iPad-the-thing, and as I and many others have said, it doesn’t seem quite ready yet.

Then there is the iPad-the-idea and that, I firmly believe, is a game changer.

The iPad is bigger than its little brothers the iPhone and iTouch, but this quantitative difference makes for qualitative gains. The iPad is a social tool, whereas smart phones and laptops are personal tools.


Can't do this on a laptop

Just look at the body language of the user. Phones and laptops cut the user off from whoever else is in the room, either because the user has to direct all his or her attention to a tiny screen, or because the user has to look over the laptop screen which sits like a wall between the use and anyone else in the room. I took the iPad to our parent conferences this week and connected it to our online student database. The device sat unobtrusively as a piece of paper between the students, parents and me and I felt that made a significant change in the timbre of the meetings. They seemed more open. Not that I’ve ever had anything to hide, but I’ve always felt that the big screen of my 15″ Macbook Pro created a mixed message: I was saying trust me while effectively keeping my notes hidden.

The iPad is also terrific classroom research tool, not because it has a web browser but because when a student find something it’s so easy to share. I regularly ask students to be official researchers responsible for looking up answers to questions on the fly during class. Searching is no problem on an iPhone or laptop but the former is too small and the latter is too unwieldy to hold up. The iPad screen, however, can easily be seen across a room.

I also often ask students to work collaboratively to build notes. We use Google Docs for this, with each contributor writing in a different colour. I could monitor the students work from my laptop, but that keeps me at my desk. Portability is a relative term and although it’s easy to pack my 15″ MacBook Pro from home to school in my briefcase, it’s undeniably awkward to cart it opened up from desk to desk, especially in a classroom as crowded with stuff as mine. I could close the laptop, but every time I do that I temporarily lose my wireless connection. As we do all our work in the cloud, this is annoying. Much more importantly, however, it increases the visibility of the technology whereas the goal is to make it as invisible as a pencil. With the iPad, I can keep tabs on what any of the students are writing and still move about my classroom to mingle and coach.


Monitoring collaborative docs on an iPad

That might look like a small difference, but it’s a substantial change in classroom practice. Indeed, I think it might alter the basic structure of the classroom. The presence of a teacher’s desk and the computer monitor it holds up stratifies the space, no matter how contemporary the design. That’s why I don’t have my desk in my classroom.

More observations of the iPad in use coming soon


  1. Reply
    Jonathan April 23, 2010

    Hi there – and thanks for posting your thoughts for those of us in non-iPad countries! I especially love the idea that “we’ve had apps for ages. The iPad is a social tool whereas the iPhone/Touch and laptop are personal tools. This is a game changer.”

  2. Reply
    Carolyn Foote May 16, 2010

    I love your analysis. We’ve already had students bringing them into my library, and I”ve noticed exactly that–how social they are. (The same way students use iPods, btw…sharing their headphones).I’ve seen students playing chess together on theirs, hovering over them together looking at a video, etc. and was already marveling at the way they were being used.

  3. Reply
    Diane Lauer May 20, 2010

    I’m thinking hard about the idea you pose that the iPads have strength as a social tool. You make an important distinction between personal tools and such. I think that is important. Sometimes I feel like the first step towards technology integration for some teachers is getting kids out of rows and into group work. If you can’t do group work well that is a bigger issue than lack of tech integration. I think about what readiness a teacher needs to use ipads successfully in the classroom. There’s a learning curve with them and not all are ready for that climb. But, many are, like you, and they will lead the way. iPads now are more about opportunity than transferability. No, you can’t do everything like you would on your MacBook. And, that’s the point. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Reply
    The Most Promising iPad Apps | Stick in the Sand October 22, 2010

    […] sort of tool from a laptop, tablet or even a mobile phone. Back in April, I wrote that the iPad is a social tool, unlike its cousins in the Apple devices family. After six or seven weeks of our 3:1 program I […]

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    […] Cross posted from A Stick in the Sand […]

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