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iPads in Education: Civic Lessons

Belinha De Abreu

Implementing iPad programs in schools has become the new technology trend in many K-12 schools.  While most of the time we hear about the positives of this type of program, less is heard about the negatives or the problems faced by schools unless it is on the grand scale such as the Los Angeles School Department (Blume 2014). The overarching issue is that schools still tend to jump on technology bandwagons without thinking through the process of applying a new tool, considering the impact on curriculum, or even providing viable teacher professional development opportunities that demonstrate best practices. The introduction of the iPad has proved to be no different. Additionally, there was even less understanding of how to engage the audience that they are using the iPads with—the students. 
Working with the implementation of an iPad program in middle school for the last two years has proven to be a lesson in civic discourse and disengagement. The idea of using iPads was welcomed almost immediately, especially with the consideration that the program would be balancing the needs of all the students who were using the iPads with equitable access both in and out of school. As part of the program, students would be able to connect digitally and it would be paid for through a donor program. Having this secondary piece was enticing to implementation because it meant that a bridge was conceived between what was happening in the school and what was available at home.  

Teachers were minimally trained with what apps would function best for them within their curricular areas before September rolled around, and students in the 8th grade were provided with the tool. The roll out of the program in the first year involved approximately 100 students. The decision was made that there would be few restrictions on the iPad itself. After all, as citizens of the digital world, the expectation was that they would be able to handle the tool and use it according to the prescribed rules that were set and signed off by both parent and student.  

Middle schoolers are a breed of their own and while it was presumed that all students would use the tool appropriately, the fact remained that many did not. 

Moreover, engagement in the iPad was being used for academic purposes, but for students the iPad was a source of entertainment whereby students could connect with their friends through their social networks, where they could download and play games, and where they could also watch YouTube videos and other sources of videos for fun.  The distraction of the toy became problematic with students using the Photo Booth function to create funny faces, and pictures and videos taken for the purpose of capturing friends and sometimes the opposite—making enemies.  

As a tool for learning, it became obvious that students were rebelling against the idea. At one point, a student turned to the technology coordinator and said she wanted to “turn in the iPad.” The tech coordinator was taken aback, when he asked why, she said it wasn’t helping her to do her work, but was actually hindering her ability to learn.  As part of the program, students were to use the iPad applications designated to them by curriculum areas for their assignments. This proved to be a struggle for many students especially because many of the tools used were for traditional purposes of typing work.  In providing the iPad, there was no consideration for the differentiating of learners or that while the iPad is a “touch” screen source, many students required a keyboard in order to fully do their work.  They needed their iPads to become tablets.  Besides these academic issues, the school had not upgraded their network.  Wifi points in the school were not sufficient for the influx of 150 iPads along with the already existing 300 devices that were hitting the wifi system.  Moreover, some classrooms could not even connect to the wifi port because of structural issues thus making the use of the iPad a moot point in those particular classrooms.  

Teachers who were instructing with the tool were finding it discouraging. They also believed that the students were learning less because they were encountering so many technological problems.  At the end of the first year of implementation teachers convened and discussed modifications on the iPad as well as limited access points for students. At the same time, the technology coordinator of the program noted that the Wifi points in the school would be updated and modifications made.  Special needs teachers discussed providing additional accessories for the iPad that would benefit their learners.  

Year two of the program did not prove to be easier. In fact, the dissatisfaction with the tool came to the forefront when the teachers realized the Wifi system had not been updated and many of their concerns from the previous year were not acknowledged.  The one thing that did go into action was a systematic lock-down of the iPad.  Students could no longer download any apps.  The apps were pre-selected by the teachers and those were the only ones serviceable to the students.  YouTube and Photo Booth were both removed from the docket.  

These technology issues and freedom of access issues came up in the end-of-year discussions with students at the close of year two. 

Students were asked to relay their experiences and to tell what they liked about using the iPad and what they did not like about using the iPad.  

Their responses were indicative of who they are generationally, but also how they felt about the limited access and their inability to contribute their ideas to the use of the iPad thereby demonstrating the lack of their participatory engagement and discourse. Yet, there were still positive comments for why they liked the iPad: 

“I didn't have to lug around a thousand notebooks and folders.”

“That you didn't have to worry about losing papers or anything because everything was stored into your iPad on notability and other apps.”

“In a way it made doing some work easier. I would be able to fix certain items even if it is already typed on notability and the touch screen was easy to maneuver since I am use to using "I" technology. Also that it was fast and almost handy when I needed it most.”

These comments were the most detailed and encouraging, but many students noted that there was ‘nothing’ that they liked most about using the iPad in school.  The reasons for why they did not like the iPad: 

“Sometimes the apps would act very annoying, like closing out, freezing, or the internet not working even when I was in school.”

“There were a lot of problems with it functioning. The first time we updated all my work and most of my apps were deleted including Notability. I think it is much quicker to write on paper. I also think it gives kids an automatic homework excuse if they, say it wasn't working. It's hard to complete homework on it. The online textbooks would better be used on a computer because they don't function with the IPad well. Many kids also never have them charged which gives them another excuse and also sets them back due to being ill prepared. And a notebook can never "die". It is also quicker to access things and get prepared for class by just pulling out a notebook.” 

“I really didn't like the technical difficulties we had to deal with when we were using it, especially during testing. There were also some difficulties handing in assignments, downloading and upgrading apps, and using apps.”

“I didn't like how we didn't get to download our own apps. I also didn't like how there were no games on the iPads. Also the iPads were very slow and there were many glitches. I also didn't like testing on the iPads.”

Ultimately, the most common comment from students was, “We have no freedom.”   This also led to student discussion on what they would want to have happen for future students using the tool. Comments ranged from “more trust,” to “a bit more freedom to be able to download apps that we want” to “less restrictions.” One student even went on to mention that they would have appreciated it if the teachers were using the iPads as much as they were requiring the students to do so.  

As for the teachers, their frustration can be found in the lack of communication from administrators to teaching staff.   Further, there has been no teacher professional development in the use of iPads with the different curricular areas, nor have we seen how it would be infused with the Common Core Standards.  Much of the learning and teaching has been done at the grassroots level with teachers aiding each other and passing along the information.  The other conversation that has not occurred centers around the idea of ‘control.’ Who determines what gets used and when?  Which teachers?  Does this impede curricular work if one teacher wants an app that could be a distraction in another subject area for a different teacher?   The solutions to these problems are not simple and ones that have not been completely addressed to the satisfaction of all who are involved in the iPad program. 

Students concerns and ideas have not been addressed as of yet. The third year of the iPad program will commence this September and no communication has ensued or professional development—the two most important items to educators as previously noted.  In the meantime, the past two years have shown that introducing a new technology into the school curriculum does not necessarily make it a viable academic option for all students.  It also provides insight as to where the school community needs to engage further in discussions that are inclusive of all participants who will be affected by a new technological program—including the most active users—the students. 


Blume, Howard. 2014. “LAUSD Shifts Gears on Technology for Students,” The Los Angeles Times, June 29, accessed June 29, 2014,

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