Education Opinion

iPads in Schools: Replacing Backpacks?

By Patrick Ledesma — November 14, 2011 4 min read
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Do you believe that all students will have tablet computers within 5 years?

Gene Munster, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, recently surveyed of 25 educational technology directors about their experiences and opinions of the potential of tablets in schools.

The results of the survey were discussed on sites such as Apple 2.0 on CNN, the The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW), and the All Things D on the Wall Street Journal.

While Munster admits that the sample size of 25 Technology Directors is small, the opinions of technology directors are important since they often make decisions on technology policies.

Here are some of the interesting findings:

  • All 25 technology directors are currently testing or deploying iPads in their schools. (Disclaimer: The school district I work in is also deploying iPads in schools.)

  • None of these districts are deploying Android tablets.
  • The current ratio of students to computers in the schools are 10:1.
  • 17% already have one computer per student.
  • Another 41% believe that their schools will reach one computer per student within 5 years.

Apple’s former retail chief Ron Johnson’s suggested that the current crop of students might be “the last generation with backpacks.” In reviewing this survey, Apple 2.0’s Philip Elmer-Dewitt suggested, “iPads in schools: ‘The last generation with backpacks’?

As a School Based Technology Specialist at a middle school, it’s always interesting to see the enthusiasm and hype surrounding technology.

Personally, I’m a iPad fanatic. I’ve had an iPad since the first day of its release. My wife has an iPad 2.

This is what the iPad has replaced or enhanced in my personal life:

TV: With my subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu, I’ve cancelled my cable subscription and haven’t looked back. For the latest shows not available online, the “season pass” on iTunes fills the gap nicely. The money saved from cable can go to new gadgets.

Casual Reading: Who needs paper based books? I read books through my Kindle App. For journal articles and other documents, I download them in PDF form and use GoodReader or iAnnotate for reading.

Most Desktop Computing: Who needs to sit at a desk hunched over the keyboard to use the computer? The iPad is more than capable for web browsing, answering email, and doing light work with Evernote. Since the iPad is a portable, I can use it anywhere.

Paper Notepads: With a stylus and the Note Taker HD app, I’m experimenting if I can do away with paper. Unfortunately, my handwriting is just as messy on the iPad as it is on regular paper. A cure for messy handwriting for adults- there is no app for that.

Music Tools: Who needs sheet music on paper when the Guitar Pro App has access to thousands of free sheet music and can even play the different instrumental parts of the song? Or, what about the Amazing Slow Downer that can slow down and repeat parts of songs for review and analysis? Or, what about GarageBand and other music recording Apps that can record what you play? And the n-Track Tuner App helps keep the strings in tune. All of these tools on an iPad....

Listening to Music: I don’t use my stereo anymore since the iPad can multitask iTunes and other Apps. Now, I can listen to iTunes while using Safari. Having the Pandora and the Sirius XM Apps? All the music one needs.

Communication: With Facetime, Messages, and Skype, the iPad is a convenient communication device for real time chat and email.

File cabinet: With the Dropbox, all my documents are synchronized and available on my Windows desktop computer, MacbookPro, iPad, and iPhone.

So in my personal life, the iPad has replaced a lot of things. One would think that such a powerful device could easily replace the old-fashioned textbooks, notebooks, and backpacks for students.

But will the iPad replace the backpack?


As much as I like the iPad in my personal life, a tablet device has serious limitations for higher-level schoolwork.

I wrote about these limitations last year on “Schooled on my iPad.” It’s still true over a year and a half later.

It’s not about the technology; it’s about the limitations of screen size and multitasking.

If you have a tablet, try writing a research paper using only a tablet. It’s very difficult to analyze more than one document, take notes, and write a draft on a word processor app all on the iPad. It can be done, it’s just not very efficient.

If we want students to be proficient with research and higher level thinking skills, we should be careful about replacing the old technologies for the new. Technology should make the learning process easier, not harder or more complicated.

In terms of research, nothing beats a big desk where multiple books and articles can be spread around for quick access and analysis.

As much as I like my powerful iPad in my personal life, as an educator, I value our traditional old technologies of books, paper, pens, and yellow highlighters.

Perhaps someday educators will have the type of technology and interface from Minority Report. This could replace my large desk for research writing, but watching Tom Cruise manipulate the large 3-D graphical interface looks a little physically tiring to use.

Paper Endures, So Will the Backpack

And finally, Adobe announced last week that they will discontinue Flash development for mobile devices.

Why is this important? Because the digital textbooks from a large textbook publisher we use in my district require Flash.

Since Adobe will not develop Flash for mobile computers, like tablets and the iPad, that means that students cannot use iPads to access their digital textbooks until the next (Flash-less) version of the digital textbook or some kind of App is developed.

The paper textbook endures for a little longer. And so will the other old technologies whose functionalities cannot be easily replaced by the new, shinier technologies.

So enjoy the iPads for what they are best at, and let’s stop trying to force them to replace tools that they shouldn’t.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.