Are iPads worth it?

Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?  Maybe not, writes Peg Tyre on Take Part.

Wall Street is pouring money into education technology companies, but the enthusiasm may be cooling: Investment in education technology declined in 2011, Tyre writes.

Every new wave of technology that has been tried in classrooms—radio, television, videocassettes, desktop computers and smartboards—has ridden a wave of enthusiasm, rapid adoption and, then, brutally dashed expectations.

“First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decision makers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classoom in an email to me. “Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation [and find that it is] just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected.

While some teachers are using iPads in the classroom in effective ways, most are not, writes Tyre. And hoped-for savings may be illusory.

Adding in training, network costs and software costs, iPads cost school districts 552 percent more than textbooks, writes Lee Wilson of PCI Education on his blog. Wilson’s chart is below.


In a Broad Foundation debate, panelists ask: Which is more important, great teachers or great technology? (I guess we can’t have both.)

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  1. Based on conversations (so no hard data), it seems the most useful aspect of iPads in class is the distraction value–the kids who WOULD be misbehaving are playing games and surfing the web instead, so they no longer disrupt the class…..

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    “In a Broad Foundation debate, panelists ask: Which is more important, great teachers or great technology? (I guess we can’t have both.)”

    Well, we probably can’t have “great” teachers in every (or even most) classroom because this requires too many “great” teachers. The USA has about 55M kids in K-12 (about 50M in public K-12) and about 3M teachers teaching them. You aren’t going to find 3M “great” anyones. I doubt that you can find 1M great anyones.

    *IF* the technology worked, at least we could scale it by purchasing more. But technology isn’t going to save the day.

    A better question might be: If we are going to spend an additional $1B, should we spend it on trying to make teachers better via training or on technology?

    • Give it to homeschoolers, so the kids aren’t your problem anymore! 🙂 Then we can all build our home-maker-spaces and take over the world, reviving the economy in the process… 🙂

      • Of course, the issue is that homeschooled kids are easier to teach, because they have parents who back up the teacher and value education…. so the 1B might be BEST spent trying to create a break in the culture of poverty and instilling middle class values and middle brow culture so that, down the road, we’ll have kids arriving in school with the social and emotional skills necessary for academic success…
        But that’s crazy talk, so just give it to homeschoolers instead.

  3. His math on the cost of the device, the cost of network support, and the annual cost of a textbook… in the case of the textbook, true in some cases, untrue in others, and the rest verging on “made up”. Also (as with the notebook programs he mentions, which have higher equipment and service costs without even offering the advantage of digital textbooks) putting an iPad into a student’s hands is about more than “here’s a substitute for your textbook”. The devices do a lot more than display textbooks.

    As for pricing, will schools pay retail for their iPads, pay retail for their AppleCare contracts, and on top of that pay retail for third party warranties? No, they will not. A requirement for massive, continuous bandwidth? No. The texts are downloaded, the devices can be scheduled to sync when the school is closed, and textbooks should be fully functional even when the device is offline. Ordinary hyperlinks, if included in a text, wouldn’t require any special amount of bandwidth. I’ve not heard of any school or enterprise network environment getting overwhelmed by the addition of iPads – it seems like a made-up concern.

    The follow-up complaint that schools that wanted to be on the bleeding edge, buying first generation iPads and not caring for them very well, is interesting, but even those iPads will still display textbook content. It sounds, though, as if some schools investing in iPads would benefit from also investing in Otterboxes or similar protective cases. Theft and breakage are legitimate concerns that need to be factored in.

    Also, in terms of textbook pricing, as iPads become more widely available more small publishers and even private individuals will get into the game. Should we be surprised that the major publishers that control the current textbook market want to protect their oligopoly prices and even expand their margins as they enter the electronic world? No. But electronic publishing presents a genuine opportunity for smaller publishers, and can help break the California/Texas model that can distort the content of textbooks.

    That’s not to say that moving to iPads would be cheap, or that a cost-benefit analysis should not be made. They are not cheap, and such an analysis should always be made. But lets work with real numbers.

    • Pfft, iPads and other electronic whiz-bang gadgets do more to distract students than to actually help them learn basics (esp. in ES, as someone who has a niece in 1st grade, there is no reason to have an iPad in a classroom at the elementary school level).

    • Aaron, you can count my school as having overwhelmed bandwidth with the introduction of iPads. We currently have an iPad for each faculty member, 4 roaming carts, two carts assigned to specific teachers, and two carts of netbooks for about 500 students, in addition to 4 computer labs that don’t use the wireless network. In my room, I can’t have everyone log on at the same time or we all sit there, waiting. I have to do it in waves. Same problem happens when we’re trying to use an internet resource, which is what we do most with the mobile technology. Each classroom has its own wireless access point. I am in a college town with lots of good network choices.

      Our textbook publishers have online versions of their textbooks but not downloadable ones, so students need to have online access in order to see them. About a third of our students have no internet access at home. You can see the problem there. I have no control over what curriculum is chosen for me, so “I get what I get and I don’t pitch a fit.”

      I’m a gadget gal and I’ll try any technology the district will provide (I’ll even write grants to get it). But technology must be part of a well-designed plan that includes figuring out what teachers will use and how technology would best support student learning. Throwing iPads at schools solves a problem they didn’t have. I’ll use my school’s iPads, and I’ll wish I had a better wireless network as well as a bunch of laptops anyway. While I’m wishing, I’d like a projector that isn’t so dim that we have to turn off all the lights to see the image and a plain old, ordinary whiteboard instead of my chalkboard with holes in it.

      I teach in a well-funded, suburban district. I can’t imagine how my poorly-funded, urban colleagues manage sometimes.

    • Actually, schools ARE, in fact, paying FULL RETAIL for Apple products (and boy are they a rip-off). The days of “Apples for the Schools” promotions and big discounts are gone. The best they can now get is 20% off bulk purchases of apps. But the hardware itself costs an arm and a leg.

      My video “Just Say NO to iPads for Education, Part 5: Apple Products Break Budgets” shows just how much money is being WASTED on iPads. If every school in America were to adopt iPads for 1:1 (instead of alternatives like Android tablets, Chromebooks, etc.), we would be wasting up to $6 BILLION PER YEAR… just to have a device with a shiny fruit logo on it. Paul,

      I agree that people who focus on the iPad as a “digital book” or “electronic paper pad” are looking at things all wrong. Yet… that is the #1 argument I hear from proponents who choose to purchase them for schools. So that we can have “electronic textbooks” (my thinking is — perhaps we should be done with the idea of “reading textbooks” altogether?)

      However, even if you make the argument that the iPad is a digital “Swiss Army knife” (which it is, to an extent), there is no way to justify the fact that it costs TWICE AS MUCH as alternative devices that provide the same benefits and capabilities. I show the fallacy of this thinking in my video “Just Say NO to iPad for Education, Part 5: Apple Products Break Budgets”

  4. We need both. Great teachers, and great technology. When you put them together you get really great learning.

    When you isolate them, nothing happens.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “We need both. Great teachers, and great technology. When you put them together you get really great learning.”

      No, you don’t. Unless you also have students who are bright, motivated, and prepared.

      We are constantly disappointed in education. Because we think we can do impossible things.

  5. As I said in my comment on her post:

    “Let’s sum up….

    We have schools and classrooms that are still doing what they’ve always done, but with some additional infrequent and marginal uses of new learning tools. We have educators who don’t really know how to use the tools very well and who also have little access to those tools, reliable IT support, and/or regular integration assistance. For some reason we expect changes in certain learning outcomes (i.e., scores on bubble tests) to occur anyway, despite these environmental factors and despite the fact that those outcomes may not be what the schools were striving for in the first place with their tech initiatives. And, if we don’t see those outcomes, we’re going to claim it’s the fault of the technologies themselves rather than human and system factors and then we’re going to claim that traditional analog learning environments are just fine in a digital, global world.


    Aimee Whiteside then contributed as well:

    “This article represents the kind of uninformed journalism that both angers and hurts me personally and professionally. It’s articles like these from “Pulitizer Prize-winning reporters” that my University President reads and takes as “gospel.” Yes, of course, throwing a bunch iPads in the room won’t meet your educational goals. As Scott said, it’s not about the tool; it’s about true technology-enhanced innovation from the planning to evaluation phase and back again that leads to a significant learning experiences. It’s not about the tool(s).”

  6. My old district has been hit hard by the recent cuts in state aid and the depressed economy. On top of that, one of the extra costs that the district developed recently was its IT department. About five years ago the district was able through state and federal grants to get a technology makeover, remodeling ancient computer labs, setting up building-wide wifi and ethernet networks, networking all the district buildings, installing desktops in a select few classrooms, placing digital projection systems in every 7-12 classroom, and hiring the IT staff necessary to maintain all of it. Now that the funding has dried up, the district has had to take on the costs for all it technology. One of the IT positions has been cut, teachers have lost access to some paid online resources, there’s a closet of projectors without bulbs in them, two laptop carts sit unused because the laptops can only be used while plugged in since the batteries are dead.
    Oh, and our high school library once had a significant reference section, but lost it to make room for computer stations (because hey, who needs encyclopedias when you have the Internet). Now, when the school has intermittent network problems, the librarian has to suggest that the students do their research at the nearby town library instead.
    Instructional technology is a siren, promising improved student outcomes but drawing districts ever closer to the budgetary shallows. There is not a single field where the necessary pre-college basics cannot be taught with at most a non-networked PC.

    • SuperSub,

      Having gone to middle school and high school from 1975-1981, I managed to get a pretty good workout in the classroom from textbooks, and managed to take and pass Algebra I, Computer Math (only class where we had access to a dumb computer terminal which you had to dial into the school district’s mainframe to use it), Geometry, Algebra II/Trig, Biology I and II, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physiology I, Physics, English I/II, Composition, and American Literature, World History, U.S. History, and U.S. Government.

      Technology is nice to have, but the support costs tend to go through the roof for it. If you look at the textbook vs. iPad breakdown, it costs 5x as much to go the iPad route.

  7. Even with Ipad,the students maybe studying topics which does not land them a decent job

  8. Sharon H. says:

    If this is supposed to be about electronic textbooks… why are we talking about iPads at all, except for the sexiness factor? I can definitely see a Nook or Kindle or other e-reader replacing textbooks – they are cheap, light-weight, relatively durable, don’t have distractions like web-surfing and games, and hold a zillion books. Most have tools for some kind of high-lighting and note-taking. I’ve watched a (well-behaved and responsible) nine-year-old accidentally drop a $400 iPad. It’s not a pretty sight. The OS is designed for single users, they have little in the way of parental controls, even for things like making sure the same icons stay on the same page. I can definitely see the iPads for helping autistic kids or for specialized programs for dyslexic kids (my friend’s kid uses one for just that) but for general classroom use… they seem more like magic fairy wands than practical tools for most applications.

    • Sharon,

      Many school districts have bought into the technology mantra without fully understanding the end costs and the return on investment. I’d agree for ebook readers, the kindle and other devices are much less expensive than the iPad and usually work just as well for the task at hand.

      I’ve seen where technology winds up being either pushed aside (costs too high (human, infrastructure, etc)), or misused by students (don’t laugh, it happens, they’re smarter than most public school employees when it comes to evading proxies, or looking at prohibited web sites), or the issues of potential academic misconduct (cheating on exams or plagarism).

      While technology is a tool and can be useful, the school system in the United States got along for almost 80-100 years without computers in the classroom.

      • The U.S. got along for 100+ years without cars and airplanes too. Not exactly a great argument against the technology that’s transforming essentially every aspect of our lives…

  9. This is also a device that PREVENTS students from accessing many of the great (and free) interactive lessons, tutorials, simulations, and games online because those sites often require use of Flash (or sometimes Java)… which does not work on the iPad.