The iPad Changes the Landscape of Educational Portable Computing

published 4 November 2010

Rob Abel Ed.D.
IMS Global Learning Consortium

This article captures the key points made at the following discussion session held at EDUCAUSE 2010:
Digital Learning Resources: Does the iPad Change Everything/Anything?
Held Thursday, 14 October 2010
Session description: New developments in digital books, book readers, digital publishing, and open educational resources. When will they be ready for prime time in education? Is it iPad vs. Kindle vs. Laptop? Join us to exchange views on real progress to date.

Overview and Executive Summary

This was the third consecutive year I have been the discussion leader of a session on digital learning resources at EDUCAUSE. Each year I come to the session with some topical areas of interest. However, the forum is wide open. This means that the discussion moves in the direction that the audience participants take it.

In 2008 (see notes here:, there were about 50 attendees and the discussion centered around the rise of online learning and some of the best practices in replacing physical textbooks with electronic materials. In 2009 (see summary here:, there were about 75 attendees and the discussion focused on the potential instructional use and challenges of e-Books and e-readers.

In 2010, we had more people than I could count – easily over 100. As the session title suggests, we started out talking about the Apple iPad and its potential for changing the game in the education segments. In 2009, whereas there was lots of interest in e-books and e-readers, a relatively small percentage of attendees actually owned e-readers. This year, the large majority of attendees already owned an iPad. So, we clearly had an audience in which we could expect the enthusiasm for the iPad to be high. And, it certainly was.

So, the results from the meeting must be viewed as biased toward those who already have an affinity for the iPad. However, I found the comments were very balanced in terms of highlighting both the potential and concerns regarding the device. Since the iPad is a new device—which just began shipping in April 2010—the folks at the meeting were realistic in understanding that we are far from a final conclusion with respect to this very appealing new gadget in education.

However, what is the conclusion so far?

Overwhelmingly, the audience participants believed that the iPad is a game changer for education. Almost all of the audience, when polled, believed that the iPad is clearly a game changer. About 15% of the audience believed that the iPad “changes everything” – seeing great potential for the device in improving education.

In the remainder of this article, I summarize the key points made in the discussion under two categories. The first category consists of points supporting the thesis that the iPad is a game changer. The second category consists of points brought up in the discussion that are potential concerns or barriers with respect to being a game changer.

Assuming we hold a similar session at EDUCAUSE 2011, it will be especially interesting to get an update on how far the iPad has progressed in a year given the tremendous enthusiasm for the device.

Why the iPad is a Game Changer for Education

#1 – iPads are being adopted at a rapid rate along with their kin, the iPhone – and showing up on campus

iPads are already showing up on campus in significant numbers. The iPads use the same operating system as the iPhone, known as iOS. Information Technology (IT) directors can monitor the presence on the network. One attendee commented that through the Apple Developer’s program that the tools where available to set-up profiles (network access, security, LDAP, etc.) for the iOS devices. University of Washington reported that in a recent scan there were 1600 iOS devices in concurrent use on the network and there are some 17-18,000 network registered iOS devices. Students are not “asking for” use of these devices to support instruction, but they are clearly showing up on campus.

#2 – Apple has, perhaps, finally gotten the notebook computing device right

Phones are great for communication—but they are too small for many things. PCs are great—but the attempts to turn PCs into notebooks have resulted in devices that are much more like a PC than a physical paper notebook.

Apple’s “application market creation pull” has resulted in a proliferation of apps for the iOS. While it is too early to say if any of these apps will become “killer apps” for education, there are already iPad apps that interface to a variety of learning/course management systems, can run e-books—ranging from textbook e-book apps to Kindle books, and so forth. This means that the iPad is substantially more than just an e-reader.

The iPad was also noted to be multimedia friendly. Several participants noted that it is an excellent device for creating multimedia content. One participant said that the iPad should be thought of as truly a “sketch book” or “note book.” Another noted that it may allow new control mechanisms and interfaces not limited by the keyboard and mouse.

The iPad connects the user to the Internet in a very useable way without bringing all the size, weight, and power consumption of a PC platform. Participants reported that they typically get through an entire day on campus without recharging. Attendees were very pleased with the power consumption of the iPad versus laptops or PC platforms.

One of the participants noted that when using the iPad she, “Doesn’t feel like she’s working.” There was a general sense that the audience liked using the iPad—and chose to use it—as opposed to it being thrust upon them as yet another form factor of a computer.

There seemed to be a general consensus that the iPad represented a new category that provides compatibility with existing forms of computing devices, without replacing them. In essence, the iPad is defining a new category of mobile computing. It is interesting to note that while one participant raised the issue of the iPad not being as powerful as a computer that most attendees appeared not to view this as a serious setback. The sense was that the iPad was not replacing other computers already owned, but was much better for mobile use.

#3 – Glimmers of potential in being better at some campus computing needs

Attendees reported that the iPad is better than a laptop because it is less obtrusive. It is very good for sharing and collaboration in both formal and informal settings. It is highly mobile. Several examples were given—including IT support, advising, and library support—where the iPad was better because of its mobility and form factor. Students and users can be “met on their own ground” with the iPad.

Several participants noted that the iPad form factor seemed to change the dynamic of collaboration in the classroom setting—making it easier to collaborate. Some had high hopes that the platform could enable new ways to interact with a computing device, especially for music or other non-textual applications. One participant raised the prospect that the iPad may allow more collaboration and understanding of the process of learning (as opposed to just focusing on the gradable assignment).

One participant commented that the iPad seems to be less threatening and more interesting to some of the faculty that have been slow adopters of technology—even those not yet using, for instance, PowerPoint. He talked about instituting training and sharing of practice among faculty using “iPad happy hours,” including “iPad speed dating,” for peers to share how they are using the iPad.

Another participant talked about trialing the iPad for mobile clinical applications—and this appeared to be a good fit so far.

Based on participant comments there also seems to be potential for the iPad as a one-to-one computing device in classrooms. Participants noted the intuitive nature of the interface for all, but especially young children. One pilot was mentioned in higher education where the iPad is being used as the “clicker” devices for a well-known classroom response system.

Obstacles to be Overcome for the iPad in Education

#1 – Regional availability of applications

One participant from the Netherlands, a self-reported Apple fan, was not as enthusiastic as some of the others. Apparently his institution had Adobe Flash based resources that do not work on the iPad. This coupled with very limited availability of Apple apps for the Dutch market made the prospects for educational use of the iPad less compelling in the near term.

#2 – A limit to the number of gadgets?

Today, the iPad seems to be capturing a new, exciting category of “getting the notebook right” as described above. But, how will competition and evolution of hardware change this dynamic? Right now, the iPad is clearly a device that does not take the place of other computing or communication devices. But, as the hardware becomes more powerful, will that change? Will other competitors market iPad form factor devices that are alternatives to the laptop computer?

Why does this matter for education? As the categories converge it seems that it becomes less likely that most consumers will buy a PC and an iPad. At what point do we have too many devices and choose to buy the one device that combines the features of two? Which future device will capture the right balance between computing and communication?

The Entourage Edge was mentioned by a couple of the participants as an interesting design. The Edge is a mobile “dual book” computer that could be used in class and replace the PC—in other words, the same form factor as the iPad—but more powerful.

The e-reader providers, such as Kindle and Nook, seem to be focusing on the consumer market for novels. The general consensus is that dedicated e-readers will not be game changers for education. But, will they become more general purpose and therefore a stronger competitor to iPad in the future?

#3 – Multiplatform multi-format confusion

Several participants noted the importance in education to be able to support all the platforms that students and teachers bring to class. As it relates to educational materials, there appears to be a lack of standards that will allow the same content to work across all the potential platforms. The iPad is perceived as a closed ecosystem; however, the market pull of Apple means that there will be many apps for the iPad.

One participant from Scotland noted that the multiplatform issue was getting in the way of effective utilization of e-books. He noted that a large investment was being made in e-books and other digital materials that in the end have very limited usefulness because they cannot run on all platforms. This comment points out that the content providers have a large stake in supporting multiple platforms.

One participant noted that the Kindle app on the iPad was not very good compared to using the Kindle. Another commented that they were happy with both the Kindle and iBook apps on the iPad. The question going forward relates to the previous point above: Does the proliferation of platforms and application differences across those platforms lead to confusion in which platform to purchase and therefore slow overall adoption beyond the technology enthusiasts? Will Apple provide the equivalent of the iTunes player for digital content that works on all major platforms? Will the ePub standard become more useful for educational content than it appears to be today?

#4 – Does instruction and learning require iPad 2?

The use of the iPad for instruction discussed at the session was fairly minimal. This was to be expected given the newness of the platform. It is too early to tell if the iPad will succeed in education where the Kindle has failed. Clearly the iPad will need to show efficacy in the various pilots, such as one in which it was being used as the distribution device for course materials in an executive MBA program.

One participant felt that the iPad was potentially revolutionary but was lacking some features needed for education. In particular, the lack of a camera for classroom capture using Tegrity or Adobe Connect.

Others brought up the perennial question of whether the iPad was as good as being able to write on paper books—an issue discussed every year at this session in considering usability of e-books. Some of the more sophisticated e-book applications have annotation capabilities—but how good will these be on the iPad? Will they be an acceptable alternative to paper for most users?

One participant noted that whereas the iPad was good for information consumption, it was lacking in terms of information production—the text and document processing that we have all become used to on the PC.

The recent Campus Computing ( survey results indicate that whereas e-readers are on the list of “ever arriving technologies,” that in the last year there was a sizable increase in those believing there will be an importance of e-readers in instruction. Clearly the iPad or devices like it, may help make e-books a more attractive alternative to books. But, at this point it remains unclear.


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To reference this article please cite:
Abel, R. (2010). The iPad Changes the Landscape of Educational Portable Computing. IMS Global Learning Consortium Series on Learning Impact. November 2010 from

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