From the Dark Side: How I learned to stop worrying and love the iPad

I have a confession to make, dear reader. After all my preaching about low-cost alternatives to iPads, I have succumbed. Not only have I led my organization to purchase and utilize more than 100 iPads, I have drunk the Kool-Aid. I am convinced that these little devices can, and will, change education for the better.

I am nowhere near the first person to say this, but I was definitely a hold-out to this concept. And the fact that I now believe it is more than a bit surprising, even to myself. So what convinced me that iPads, despite their steep price and walled garden, were the way to go? A few things:

  • They’re intuitive.
    Even before the redesigned Nook was released, I hacked mine to make it an Android tablet. While I was very impressed with the way it worked, when I showed it to friends, family and colleagues, they all struggled at first. They couldn’t get it to behave like they wanted it to without lots of help from me. In the past, we’ve used sets of Ubuntu netbooks in our programs. I love these little powerhouses, and we will continue to use them. But in my extensive experience, students — and especially teachers — never just turn the things on and get started. There are loads of questions, lots of trying to figure out how certain programs work and how they interact with files created on different devices. While, for me, the netbooks were a plug-and-play solution, they weren’t for most of the users.So when we unrolled the iPads, I expected similar struggles. Though adults often needed some guidance, students almost never did. And many adults — those with experience using iPhones or iPads — needed no help at all. I couldn’t believe how intuitive the devices were for everyone, from PreK students to migrant parents to retired teachers. That’s not to say everyone could use the devices without problems from the start, but most people (and definitely students) could. The only people who needed hand-holding were older techno-phobe adults, and even they had an easier time on the iPads than on the netbooks.
  • They’re ubiquitous.
    This has two desired consequences: first, there’s loads of high-quality apps and websites that are built specifically for the iPad. Second, teachers and students using these iPads will have a lot of places to turn for troubleshooting and for integration ideas, outside of me.
  • There are other sources for help.
    I am not ashamed to say that I love the Apple Store Genius Bar. I’m lucky enough to live in central California, basically in Apple’s backyard. Even though I’m in a smaller town, you can’t swing a cat around here without hitting an Apple Store. Which turned out to be a life-saver because it empowered my co-workers. Rather than depending on me to help them figure out the details of the device or to walk them through creating an activity on the iPad, they could attend free classes at the Apple Store or meet with Apple Geniuses to get their questions answered.
  • They’re mobile.
    I work at a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans. As such, we spend a great deal of time getting students outside and helping teachers find ways to get their students outside. When we started using netbooks, we thought these would be easy enough to use for data collection in the field but, when push came to shove, that’s simply not how they’re used. In my opinion, the greatest power of the iPad lies in its mobility. We have waterproof/sandproof cases for the devices, so students can use them to identify animals while tide pooling, to create videos during a beach clean-up, and to collect data during a wetlands investigation.
  • They’re well-sized.
    iPads are powerful devices with a lot of features — you can access information, record data, create videos, take photos, make cartoons, record music, and much more. But, in reality, they’re pretty much just giant iPod Touches (or, if you have 3G iPads, giant iPhones). In my talks with teachers, I still recommend that, on a limited budget, a set of iPod Touches is a great option for technology purchases. However, size really does matter. The larger iPad makes a lot of things easier — from editing iMovies to taking notes — and it also makes it easier for students to work in groups, sharing one device.

It’s All About the Benjamins

There’s one feature of iPads that makes them a difficult solution, in my mind, though. They really are best for one-to-one use. Using cloud-based computing, it’s definitely possible to share class sets of iPads among various students. (We did this with our high school kids this summer — they were able to login to apps like Dropbox and Notability to access and add to their work. The following day, another student could login to the same device and access their notes.) However, iPads are at their most powerful when students can use them all day, every day, in every class, in and out of school. This is when students truly learn how to use the device for everything — from note-taking to information access to time management to presentation creation. And, having worked exclusively in low-income Title 1 public schools, I know that getting an iPad for every student (known as 1:1 iPads) just isn’t a realistic possibility for most schools.

A few months ago, I spoke to the tech specialist at a private school that has 1:1 iPads for all middle and high school students. I told him that, of course, his school could afford these devices, but what about the poorer public schools down the road? He pointed out that, when you think about all the things the iPads replace — calculators, computers, video cameras, science probes, etc. — their cost isn’t as great as one might expect. I wondered if he was actually right. So I did some calculating, and here’s what I found:

Device Cost per student per year
graphing calculator, replaced after 5 years $0.12
($100 or more per device; shared among 180 students every year for 5 years, so $100 per 900 students)
one mobile computer lab, with 32 computers, for every 400 students, replaced after 5 years $15
($30,000 for computers, software, mobile cart; used with 400 students every year for 5 years, so $30,000 per 2,000 students)
Spark Pasco scientific probe readers, replaced every 5 years* the probes can be used directly with iPads, instead of the probe readers $0.78
($700 for 2, shared among 180 students every year for 5 years, so $700 per 900 students)
Textbooks, replaced after 10 years $45
($75 per textbook x 6 books = $450 per student every 10 years)
electronic textbooks cost about the same (those companies aren’t stupid) BUT what about no textbooks or writing your own:
reading group books and novels, replaced after 5 years $6
conservative estimate of about $3 extra per paperback book, vs. e-book (depending on their age, students read an average of about 10 books per year in school; if these books are replaced about every 5 years, that’s 2 books per student per year)
video cameras, replaced after 5 years $0.10
($400 for 2 cameras used with 800 students every year for 5 years, so $400 per 4,000 students)
still cameras, replaced after 5 years $0.20
($800 for 4 cameras used with 800 students every year for 5 years, so $800 per 4,000 students)
paper $13 per student per year
interactive whiteboard (smart board), replaced after 10 years $8.34
(for 10 years in 25% of classrooms; $10,000 shared by 1200 students)
Total Cost per student per year $88.54


Device Cost per student per year
iPad, replaced after 5 years $100
($500 for 3rd-generation 16GB wifi, used for 5 years; $400 for iPad 2 with 16GB and wifi)
apps $12
($60 for apps used for 5 years)
iPad case $4
($20 for case used for 5 years)
Total Cost per student per year $116


Looking at that, it seems that iPads would have a real cost of only $27.46. That’s not factoring the added costs of things like calculator and camera batteries. However, some state tests don’t allow iPads, so schools still might need sets of calculators. Also, to get full utilization of 1:1 iPads (or any set of computing devices), you REALLY need a full-time education technology specialist dedicated to the iPad roll-out (device set-up and maintenance, teacher training, etc.) plus working wifi school-wide. In terms of staffing, if you have working calculators and mobile labs and scientific probes, you probably already have a staff member (or a teacher who stays late regularly) to take care of maintenance — changing out batteries, storing securely, etc. — but chances are this person isn’t dedicated to technology full-time.

Still, looking at this break-down makes iPads a much more possible solution than they may at first seem. Done right (that is to say, with a full-time ed tech specialist providing regular staff training), 1:1 iPads really can transform teaching positively. They can help teachers differentiate and personalize their lessons, and they can help engage and motivate students. But that’s always the tricky part in education, isn’t it? We throw money at problems all the time, but rarely do we roll things out the right way.

Next time: What’s the right way to roll out 1:1 iPads?

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Dan says:

    My teenage son was hauling his cr-48 everywhere, but it still took effort to get it out of his bag. He now has a Nexus S, fits in his pocket, uses it all day, every day, in class, in and out of school. The Nexus 7 looks nice but, it’s a bear to have to keep a mifi around, and the S’s pocketability is a big plus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar