Thanks for the iPads, but what are we supposed to do with them?

This blog was originally posted back in November 2012, on the UWS 21st Century Learning site. It was written when iPads began to appear in schools. We’ve come a long way since then in terms of the increasing popularity of iPads and other tablet devices. However, I wonder how much has changed in relation to the way they are being used to teach and learn primary mathematics? I thought it would be interesting to revisit this post, so I have adapted it slightly to contextualise it into 2015.

The fast pace of technology development has seen a rapid uptake in mobile technologies such as the iPad computer tablet. Although not originally intended for use within educational settings when introduced in 2010, the iPad has fast become the ‘must have’ item in today’s classrooms.

One result of this is that teachers are often expected to integrate iPads or similar technologies into teaching and learning without the support of appropriate professional development, particularly in relation to using the technology to enhance teaching, learning and student engagement. While some claim iPads and other similar mobile devices have the potential to revolutionise classrooms (Banister, 2010; Ireland & Woollerton, 2010; Kukulska-Hulme, 2009), there is still little research informing teachers exactly how the iPads can be integrated to enhance learning and teaching, and whether their use will have a long-term positive impact on student learning outcomes.

So what do we do when we are given a set of iPads and told to use them in our classrooms? Early during the iPad ‘revolution’ I conducted two research projects investigating how iPads were being used to teach and learn mathematics in primary classrooms. These projects gave me the opportunity to observe a variety of pedagogies and make some interesting observations regarding practical issues relating to the management of iPads.

In each of the projects, teachers had been provided with iPads for their classrooms with little or no professional development that related to integration into teaching and learning practices. The teachers involved experienced a ‘trial and error’ process of using different strategies to integrate the iPads into their mathematics lessons, a task they found harder to do than with other subject areas. The iPads were used in a wide variety of ways that appeared to have differing levels of success. The success of each lesson was determined by the observed reaction to and the engagement of the students with the set tasks and the teacher’s reflection following the lesson.

Several lessons that incorporated iPads utilised a small group approach where students worked either independently or in small groups of two to three students on an application that was based upon the drill and practice of a mathematical skill. The challenge with this approach was that it was difficult for the teacher to know whether the students were on task, if there were any difficulties, and whether the chosen application was appropriate in terms of the level of cognitive challenge. Often when this pedagogy was implemented it was done so without student reflection at the conclusion of the lesson. Without discussion of the mathematics involved in the task, students did not have the opportunity to acknowledge any learning that occurred.

The pedagogies that appeared most effective were those that were based on using the technologies to solve problems in real-world contexts. When used this way, the iPads were used as tools to assist in achieving a set goal, rather than as a game. An example of one of these lessons was in Year 5, when students were asked to plan a hypothetical outing to the city to watch a movie. The children were able to use several applications on their iPads ranging from public transport timetables to cinema session time applications to plan their day out. The lesson resulted in rich mathematical conversations and problem solving, and high levels of engagement due to the real-life context within which the mathematics was embedded.

The integration of interactive whiteboards with iPads was also a common element in the observed lessons, illustrating how such technologies can enhance teaching as well as learning. In several instances teachers projected the iPads onto interactive whiteboards to demonstrate the tasks set for the students. In other examples, it was the students’ work on the iPads that was projected for the purpose of class discussions and constructive feedback.

The variety of ways in which the technologies were used demonstrated their flexibility when compared to traditional laptop or desktop computers. All of the teachers involved in both projects found it challenging to integrate the technologies into mathematics in contrast with other subject areas such as literacy.

This challenge led to the teachers expressing a need for professional development in relation to integrating the iPads into existing pedagogical practices and a desire to have a platform from which ideas can be shared amongst peers. The incorporation of the iPads led to the teachers becoming more creative in their lesson planning and as a result, tasks became more student-centred and allowed time for students to investigate and explore mathematics promoting mathematical thinking and problem solving.

Overall, the use of iPads appeared to have a positive impact on the practices of the teachers and the engagement of the students participating in the projects. Benefits of the iPads included the flexibility in how and where they could be used, the instant feedback for students and the ability for students to make mistakes and correct them, alleviating the fear of failure and promoting student confidence.

The disadvantages of the iPads were mostly management issues relating to the sourcing and uploading of appropriate applications, the difficulties associated with record-keeping and supervision of students while using the iPads and the number of iPads available for use. The interactive nature of the technologies was engaging for the students at an operative level. However, when the tasks in which they were embedded did not include appropriate cognitive challenge, students were less engaged and became distracted by the technologies.

The incorporation of iPads in the two projects emphasised their potential to increase student engagement and the importance of providing professional learning experiences for teachers that go beyond learning how to operate the technologies. Rather, continued and sustained development of teachers’ technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) that builds on their understanding of mathematics content, ways in which students learn, the misconceptions that occur, and ways in which technology can enhance teaching and learning is required.

 References:     Banister, S. (2010). Integrating the iPod Touch in K-12 education: Visions and vices. Computers in Schools, 27(2), 121-131.    Ireland, G. V., & Woollerton, M. (2010). The impact of the iPad and iPhone on education. Journal of Bunkyo Gakuin University Department of Foreign Languages and Bunkyo Gakuin College(10), 31-48.     Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2009). Will mobile learning change language learning? ReCALL, 21(2), 157-165.     Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

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