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The iPad Effect: Leveraging Engagement, Collaboration, and Perseverance
By Richard Harrold
Original research at the ready, an international school assesses the iPad’s impact on learning
When Apple released the first-generation iPad in April 2010, educators were among the first group of users to recognize its potential for learning. That they did so with notable effectiveness was evident when the release of the second-generation iPad, less than a year later, was accompanied by publicity materials in which school-based iPad use played a prominent role.
From Kindergarten to university, and from homeroom to special needs, educators in all fields and at all levels were seen celebrating the iPad, and praising the enhancements—in both understanding and engagement—students were apparently experiencing as a result of using it.
Perhaps the most striking claim made for the iPad at this period came from John Connolly, the technology director for the Chicago Public Schools district. In Apple’s promotional video for the iPad 2, Mr. Connolly claimed his district was seeing “Gains as high as 50 and 60 percent in reading, mathematics, and science with our classes using the iPads.”
This claim, though not substantiated by any standardized test scores or independent verification, attracted much interest from other educators. Certainly one of the first questions asked of me, when I approached my board for permission to launch a trial with iPads in my school, was whether I expected the initiative to lead to an improvement in results.
This is clearly a fair question, but it is not one that any of us can answer with confidence. A trawl through the nascent literature on iPads in schools reveals that no substantial study has yet attested to the iPad’s role in raising test scores. In fact, case studies highlighted in The New York Times last fall suggest that test scores have stagnated in schools that have invested time, money, and training in technology initiatives including the iPad.
However, it may also be observed that test scores have not actually fallen either. And students who are encouraged to use mobile digital technology may be gaining other skills.
It was with this thought in mind that just over a year ago, at the height of the iPad classroom debate, I was given permission at ACS Cobham International School (United Kingdom) to lead a pilot program introducing iPads to classes in Grade 1 and to report what we found.
The choice of Grade 1 was driven by two factors: the quality of the apps that were available for that grade level, and the fact that the Grade 1 cohort at the time happened to be smaller than the other grade levels—so the modest number of iPads I had requested would go further.
The board approved a much larger number of iPads than I had originally asked for, and teachers in other grades (and even other divisions) quickly took an interest. Once we had sorted out some answers to the practical questions of syncing, storing, charging, and distributing the devices, we started to see some interesting things happen.
The first thing we noticed was the speed with which teachers moved beyond the drill and practice apps. These apps are engaging enough, but they typically do little besides emulating traditional classroom materials and techniques. On the celebrated SAMR model, used to gauge the effectiveness of technological innovation, they might be thought of as equating to the enhancement or augmentation stages—at which the new technology merely replicates existing practices and modes of working, with little or no improvement in functionality. Examples include mathematics practice apps, featuring games that might otherwise be played with real dice or counters.
However, where we saw potentially transformative change was in the facility with which teachers could use content creation apps to empower students and let them release their creative energy. Teachers soon acquired lists of favorite apps that fall into this category; among them at ACS Cobham are PuppetPals HD, Moodboard, Popplet, and Apple’s own iMovie and Pages. iPad apps such as these represent genuine opportunities for teachers to redefine the task at hand, and enable levels of functionality that were not possible before.
For example, one Grade 2 teacher managed to harness a student’s passion for dinosaurs such that, for the first time in memory, he actually sat still and wrote for significant periods of time on end; eventually, his finished copy was published as an interactive ePub document. Readers of his eBook could turn the pages on the screen, highlight text, and bookmark pages! But beyond these standard features were other characteristics, the inclusion of which only the iPad could have made possible. Interspersed with the student’s text were videos of the author explaining how the T-Rex walked, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations, and a talking glossary so that words like “Jurassic” could be tapped to open an audio or video file featuring the author’s own definitions.
Most importantly perhaps, this Grade 2 student’s book sat proudly on the virtual bookshelf, next to classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh. The pride in his face told the teacher that he considered himself a real author, a positive self-image that traditional writing lessons had failed to generate.
Armed with anecdotal evidence like this from our project’s first six months, and fuelled by an expansion in the numbers of iPads that allowed for a 1:2 iPad to student ratio in both Grades 1 and 2 for the 2011-2012 school year, the ACS Cobham “Project i” team set about mounting a formal study.
We consulted with teachers and administrators at Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland, the school Apple acknowledges as the first in the world to implement a one-to-one iPad scheme for its students. We organized training, and instituted what became known as “Genius Bar” sessions after school, where teachers could share problems and solutions.
Most significantly, we set up a formal observation program in which, over a period of weeks, more than 60 individual students were observed twice by separate teachers as they worked on their iPads. The observations were guided by a measurement instrument that allowed observers to grade students on a Likert scale for three constructs: emotional engagement, collaboration, and perseverance.
We sought to establish whether or not the habitual use of iPads in the classroom enhanced any of these student behaviors and attitudes. At a later stage, we reasoned, we could cross-tabulate these results with academic growth data.
The choice of these particular constructs for the study emerged from lengthy consideration. Technology is commonly associated with student engagement, but teachers have long recognized that facilitating fruitful engagement means more than providing an environment of constant novelty, assuming such an environment could be sustained.
Moreover, there is a dearth of reliable research connecting engagement with higher academic achievement. We therefore decided to focus on emotional engagement, one of three types of engagement identified by Marks et al. (2011), whose study remains one of the very few in this field.
The other two constructs were also inspired by pioneering work by other researchers, albeit in contrasting fields. Collaboration in technology teamwork for instance is one of the foci of Professor Sugata Mitra’s work with self-organized learning environments (SOLEs). He advocates teams of students’ sharing technology resources, partly because the student discourse generated from such a model tends to focus on the task rather than the technology.
Our study (Grade 1 and 2 students) suggested that there was a marked improvement in the quality of task-related discourse once the students moved to a 1:2 ratio of iPads to students; a 4:1 ratio severely distracted student attention away from the task at hand, and towards considerations of whose turn it was.
Likewise, perseverance, one of those attitudes routinely identified by education think tanks as essential to 21st-century learning yet rarely if ever taught explicitly in school curricula, proved a fascinating construct to study in pre-test/post-test format with our students. Apple’s take on constructivism is “challenge-based learning,” and we certainly uncovered evidence that students were more inclined to persevere through initial difficulties if the challenge involved using an iPad.
A formal qualitative phase is about to follow our initial data gathering, and it will be interesting to see if interviews with a randomized sample of students can shed more light on the apparent correlation we see emerging between iPad use and enhanced emotional engagement, collaborative behaviors, and perseverance.
It may also prove to be the case that there is a gender divide here (Marks et al. found a statistically significant difference in behavioral engagement between girls and boys). But so far, our study appears to support the premise that iPads can make a positive difference to student performance in the affective domain.
As the iPad finds its way into more classrooms, this promises to be an interesting space to watch.
Richtel, M. (2011), Sep 04). “In classroom of future, stagnant scores.” The New York Times, 04/09/11, p. A.1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/887448097?accountid=28180.
Marks, D., McPhee, I., Cremin, L., Laxton, T., Sneider, A. and Marks, L. (2011). “Does use of touch-screen computer technology (i.e. Apple’s iPad) improve classroom engagement in children?” Manuscript submitted for publication.
Richard Harrold is Lower School Assistant Principal at ACS Cobham International School in the United Kingdom.
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10/01/2013 - Bunny
Great insights to connecting engagement and technology to advance achievement.
05/24/2013 - Jay
08/07/2012 - Lisa
I hope these factors are considered before cash-strapped districts purchase technology while laying off teachers. I am curious-why would a 4:1 ratio of ipads to students concern students more with whose turn it is? Wouldn't more ipads make them less worried? Do you mean 1:2 and 1:4?