Published Online: November 7, 2012

Five Tips for Supporting iPads in the Classroom

Schools across the globe have begun investing in iPad tablet computers, hoping these devices will magically transform their learning environments. While there are countless examples of schools using iPads to redefine teaching and learning, the true magic in putting tablets in the classroom comes from effective teacher pedagogy and implementation models. So far this year, I've had the great fortune to launch or support 20 1-to-1 iPad classrooms. Here are five key tips I've learned along the way that might help teacher leaders and administrators embark on their own iPad initiatives:

1) One Classroom > Three Classrooms
Many schools purchase one or two iPad carts thinking that, like laptop or netbook carts, they can then be circulated throughout the building and checked out at will by interested teachers. Usually the rationale behind this is, "We spent X amount on iPads, so we want to get as many students' hands on them as possible." This model may work at times for devices like laptops, but it is not an effective use of iPads.

After all, we don't use iPads for instruction the way we might use them at home. Emailing a document to your husband or friend may be an efficient workflow when it's just you, but sending and receiving 30-120 files to and from your students on a daily basis presents a different problem altogether. While laptops give you the luxury of flash drives or desktop file folders, these are not an option with Apple's mobile operating system.

As a result, syncing and managing workflow applications are practices that must be mastered by the iPad teacher. Syncing with one iPad may seem like a simple task, but managing multiple apps and their licenses and tracking which app belongs on which iPad can be tricky for the casual user.

As new digital content is created by either the teacher or students, new apps discovered or iBooks downloaded, iPads must be synced and work must be submitted or returned. Unlike the handy over-the-air sync process that some PCs and Chromebooks offer, iPads must be manually synced each time. (Note: iCloud offers some over-the-air syncing options, but this process is clumsy with 30+ devices and would require AppleIDs for each child—a situation most classrooms cannot manage.)

These are skills that the iPad teacher must learn and master—skills that won't be practiced through occasional use via a checkout system.

Additionally, the pedagogy behind using iPads is qualitatively different from that of teaching with other devices. Its kinesthetic properties, touch-screen interface, and simple app use open doors to new student creations and learning opportunities. These opportunities are rarely realized in casual use of the device, as students don't have time to rethink their learning and own their new tools.

Teachers will get closer to truly redefining and transforming their learning spaces if they can foster a true 1-to-1 environment. So, yes, it's appealing to consider serving 100 students by rotating a single cart through three classrooms, but keeping the cart in one classroom will result in greater, more powerful returns.

2) Teacher Buy-In Is Half the Battle
When selecting the teachers who will begin using iPad carts, remember that authentic engagement is always the best motivator.

One innovative way to foster buy-in is by offering the cart through an RFP (Request For Proposals) process. First, share videos or blogs that demonstrate effective iPad use in the classroom. (Some great examples can be found at the CPS iPad Blog.) Hold a meeting to drum up excitement for the concept—but be honest about the time commitment and expectations involved in pioneering a 1-to-1 iPad classroom. Then open the RFP process: Invite teachers to submit proposals for how they hope to transform their learning environments. Ask teachers to address the role the iPads will play in their classroom routines, how they will approach their content, and what their goals will be.

Identify the "early adopters" through this process—then encourage these individuals to be thought leaders who share their experiences and informally advise others who join their ranks.

What if your school is fortunate enough to have funds for all teachers to receive a cart and go 1-to-1? The RFP process can still be fruitful. Ask all teachers to submit plans. You'll give them an opportunity to spend some metacognitive time considering their practice and the steps they'll need to take to transform it now that they have new tools at their disposal. This opportunity will allow them to work together as a professional learning community to identify goals and scaffold their own learning.

3) We All Need a Little Help From Our PLCs
To successfully integrate iPads in their instruction, teachers won't just need the tools and the motivation. Strong support throughout the transition will be a must.

Our district kept this in mind when deploying its first iPad RFP in 2010: Devices were bundled with participation in a year-long PLC. Before the school year began, the participating teachers spent two days together learning the basics—syncing, apps, technical restrictions, management, and pedagogical changes. Then we met once a month as a PLC to learn about new apps, troubleshoot issues, and discuss future goals.

It was incredibly helpful to have a time set aside to discuss my practice, challenges, and hopes with others going through a similar process. This time and space to learn and grow was critical to my students' successes.

If your district or school isn't introducing iPads on a scale large enough to foster in-person PLCs, don't feel restricted by geographic location. Reach out to other schools and districts, or search sites like Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, and WordPress for other teachers beginning iPad journeys. Web tools such as Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts also enable teachers across the globe to support one another virtually. No matter how teachers collaborate, it will be important to set aside time for this.

4) Plan for Incidental Expenses
If you give a teacher an iPad, she is going to ask for apps. (And so is he!) Understand that the cost of purchasing a cart of iPads does not end with the iPads and the cart itself. (On this note, make sure you get a cart that can charge and sync your devices, not a charge-only cart.)

Teachers will need funds to purchase apps, cases, and possibly headphones. Keep in mind that a separate app code needs to be acquired for each device—school leaders must establish an account with Apple's Volume Purchase Program. Application costs add up quickly, so equip teachers with some questions that can help with decisionmaking: How often can I use this app (daily, weekly, all year)? Are the students able to create and synthesize learning through this app or is it simply providing repeated practice? How can I get data or student work from this app to track my class's progress? While making prudent decisions around buying apps or iPad accessories is important, so is actually providing the funds to make these purchases.

5) Save Room for Failure
In a previous article, I shared my own journey as a fledgling 1-to-1 iPad teacher. The most defining feature of this experience? My initial failure. Without this failure, I would never have learned what works nor would my instruction have wound up succeeding in the way it did.

My experience—and my students' successes—were possible because leaders at my school and district accommodated my failure. We served an at-risk population of students (with 99 percent living in low-income households) and test scores were the name of the game in our district, but my administrators understood I needed space to experiment, try to fly, and fail. And each time my plans and experiments failed, I needed to be able to go back to my PLC and process the experience, get advice, and reframe my approach. I had the freedom to fail—and the community to help me fail smarter.

This experience has been echoed in the various expansion classrooms throughout our network. Teachers were given room to fail, learn, and grow. As a result, we have seen improvements in test scores, student self-efficacy, and the number of teachers open to transforming their own classrooms.

Additionally, there is an unexpected yet powerful added benefit to allowing for teacher failure. That first year, as I failed terrifically and often, I didn't realize that I was being a model for my students. I was demonstrating that it is OK to fail, and that it's rewarding to reflect, learn, and try again. At first, I attributed my students' increased self-efficacy and confidence simply to the iPads themselves—and I still think the new opportunities afforded by the devices surely played a role. However, a student's end-of-year reflection made me pause.

Kello, a particularly timid student who had come out of her shell during the year, wrote the following in her "10 things I learned this year" exit slip: "Ms. Magiera isn't as smart as I thought. I mean she is, but she makes mistakes a lot too. And then she talks about them and we help her fix them. Like with the iPads. So I think it is OK for me to not get everything right on my work if I can get help to fix those problems too."

Now that's what I call a successful fail.

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