An iPad for every child

In a 1972 paper entitled “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages”, Alan Kay imagined a world in which children would use “personal, portable information manipulators” to read books, create art, and learn about the solar system. We are not there yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been. Since January 2010, my colleagues and I at Cedars School of Excellence have been deploying a new computing program in our school—with exciting results.

Replacing the Mac

Cedars is a small independent school in Greenock, Scotland, with 105 pupils in Primary 1 through Secondary 5 (roughly equivalent to kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States). We have always been a Mac-based school: When we opened in 1999, our first hardware purchase was a G3 server. But while we’ve been using Apple hardware at the school for a while, we’ve never done so on the scale we’re attempting now.

Before we started this latest program, we had 24 Macs (12 iMacs and 12 MacBooks) for 105 pupils. The problem was that those machines were in hot demand. Teachers wanted them available all the time and everywhere. We never reached the point of fights breaking out over the MacBooks—but it was close.

In my role as head of IT at Cedars, I convened a meeting in January 2010 to discuss the situation. We thought about buying more laptops, but nobody was really happy with that: They are heavy and bulky, and keeping them charged and running had been a problem.

We considered the iPod touch. It was small, light, and cheap, with a long-lasting battery. It had a good Web browser. (Access to Web-based resources was the number one request from our teachers.) But there were three big objections: You couldn’t connect the touch to a projector; it had no robust word processor; and it couldn’t be connected to a hardware keyboard. (This was in the iOS 3.X days.)

Then the iPad was announced.

The Safety of Undo

We have now deployed 115 iPads in school—one to each pupil and staff member. The iPads stay with students all day. Children aged 10 and older can take them home at night. We told teachers they could get keyboards; to my surprise, none have taken up that offer.

We manage and deploy the iPads as school resources. That allows teachers to plan their lessons on the assumption that the technology will always be available and will always be working.

I had one requirement in mind when we were planning the deployment: We wouldn’t tell anyone what the iPads were for. Too often, school computers are bought for specific pedagogical purposes—video editing, podcasting, or simply learning about computers. We didn’t do that. We simply made the iPads available, without telling anyone what they should do with them. It’s been interesting to see how teachers and students have responded to that freedom.

The biggest early change has been in teaching art. Apps like Brushes ( ), MoodBoard Pro, and Photoshop Express ( ) help children experiment with art and build confidence. Children are often reluctant to try new things in art class for fear of getting something wrong. With the freedom to simply try things, with the safety of unlimited undo, their creativity has opened up dramatically. Similarly, in English our teachers are now having to teach the art of keeping to a word limit because children are producing longer and better pieces of writing than ever before.

We’ve discovered all kinds of uses for the iPad that we never envisioned, all of them enabled by iPad apps. For example, we had no particular plans to adopt e-books, but we’re now using them because teachers wanted iBooks installed. We started an iPad band just by buying a few instrument-simulator apps.

We are now at the stage where the iPad is embedded in the way we do business at the school. When we first started, we thought we could guard against misuse by threatening to take away the child’s iPad for a day or so. It turns out that doing so would now completely break the school day for that child. We might as well make them sit in the hallway and face the wall for the entire day. I did not expect that we would reach that point so soon.

Are there things we wish the iPad did better? Of course. Is there another computing device that meets our needs more fully? Not right now. The iPad has transformed our school, and we have only begun to find out what’s possible.

Fraser Speirs is head of computing and IT at Cedars School of Excellence. He is also a well-known Mac and iOS developer.

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