What I Would Do with an iPad in My Classroom

An interesting email landed in my inbox this week from a good friend who has really been trying to integrate technology into her language arts class. For confidentiality sake, we'll call her Mary.

Turns out that Mary's principal recently decided to buy iPads for all of the language arts teachers in her school.  Mary–like many teachers–was excited to have an iPad coming her way, but she wasn't sure exactly what she was going to do with it. 

Her question was a simple one:

"So Bill: If you had ONE iPad in your classroom, what would YOU do with it?"

To be perfectly honest, my first reaction was to be frustrated with Mary's principal.  After all—in what appears to be an all-too-familiar pattern—she seems to have made a significant investment in devices without any careful planning or coonsensus building. 

Think about it:  Shouldn't the teachers have had plans for the iPads they were getting BEFORE the checks were written and the cash was spent? 

Technology planning doesn't have to be a difficult process, y'all.  But it shouldn't be an optional process either—or an afterthought. 

But Mary's good people—-and she really does want to find a way to take advantage of the iPad she was getting.  I had to help her do a bit o' brainstorming.

Here's what I suggested.


Hey Mary,

Glad to hear that you're working to find a way to take advantage of the iPad that you have in your classroom.  If I were you, I'd think first about the kinds of instructional practices that matter the most and THEN look for a practice that one iPad can support.

The first thing that came to my mind was formative assessment because as a language arts teacher, I'm constantly making observations of my students on the fly. 

I might learn a little bit about their ability to summarize while sitting in on a literature circle.  I might ask a few targeted questions that force students to think about the main idea of a selection and get oral responses from a handful of kids in each class.

The hitch is that I have no easy way to document what I'm learning about my students in these informal observations.  Sure, I always internalize what I'm seeing.  Every observation shapes my perception of my students.

But operating on perceptions just isn't very effective or efficient. 

Because it is so portable and easy to use, an iPad—-paired with a simple form developed in Google Docs—could help a teacher to begin systematically collecting and organizing those formative observations of student mastery.

Check out this sample form to see what I'm thinking:


Wouldn't it be cool to carry your iPad around with you while student groups are working?  Then, every time that you interact with kids and learn a little something about their mastery of essential skills in class, you could quickly document what you've seen using this form.

The best part is that Google Docs takes the information entered in the form and automatically dumps it into an Excel spreadsheet that you can then manipulate any way that you want. 

Over time, you'll start to see patterns in the essential skills that individual kids have mastered—and you'll have documentation that you can use to support those gut hunches that play such an important role in the judgments that we make about kids.

More importantly, you'll also be able to start tracking patterns in the essential skills that your entire team of students has mastered.  Google Docs even has several simple reporting features that will automatically tabulate results in your entire spreadsheet.

And how cool is it that you will be able to incorporate your own observations into your assessment practices! 

As a language arts teacher, I always trusted my observations more than the multiple choice benchmark tests my district requires me to give—-but without a formalized way to record what I was seeing and learning about my kids, it was difficult to justify my "grades" for my students. 

Two important suggestions:

First, keep your form as simple as possible. Notice how mine has just a few basic questions—and that the majority of the questions are multiple choice. 

That means I'll be able to enter observations quickly and easily—which will be essential if I want to convince myself to keep using my iPad for formative assessments.  More importantly, that will be essential if I ever want to convince my peers to use THEIR iPads in the same way. 

Finally, notice that my form doesn't require a ton of typing.  While there are definitely times where I will want to add notes to my observations, it takes some time to grow comfortable typing on an iPad.  Too much typing early in the process might leave you discouraged.

Second, get started sooner rather than later.  Grab your iPad every time that your kids are working.  Make it a point to sit down with two or three kids per class period. 

Ask them questions to measure their mastery of an essential skill.  Enter your observations in your Google Form.

Then, act on the information that you are collecting!

Remember—it's not the iPad that is important in this whole process.  There's nothing magical about tools even when they are made by Apple.  Instead, it's the behavior that the iPad supports.

If you're not using the formative assessment data that you are collecting with your iPad to inform your instruction, then the iPad will remain a waste of cash.

Let me know if you have any other questions.  I'd be happy to help you get this up and running—and I'm excited to see how your work changes the assessment practices of the teachers on your learning team.

Rock on,




Related Radical Reads:

Why are we STILL Wasting Money on Whiteboards?

There's Nothing Magical about Tools

Developing Technology Vision Statements

Make like an Obstetrician and Deliver


11 thoughts on “What I Would Do with an iPad in My Classroom

  1. orange county tech support

    Thanks so much!!!! I’ll probably just end up getting a new laptop. I probably should’ve mentioned however that at my school, if someone owns an ipad or tablet pc then they are allowed to use it to take notes, but not with laptops. But still it’s a lot of money to waste if it’s not going to be worth it you know

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Ewan,
    First, thanks a TON for stopping by. Jazzed to see you in this space.
    Second, I love—and appreciate—your perspective on a students role in the formative assessment process. Ill readily admit that I struggle with the differences between formative and summative assessment—-and Ill readily argue that while your definition/example makes the most sense to me, its never been suggested in any of the conversations Ive had with PD providers or principals about formative assessment.
    Thats interesting in and of itself.
    While we love talking about formative assessment, the general perceptions that people have still rest in the concept that assessment is something done TO rather than WITH students.
    On a technology side note, the only hitch is this particular circumstance is that my colleague only has one iPad in her classroom. That would make it difficult to put in the hands of kids in a meaningful way simply because they would be able to record assessments of themselves like once a month—after all 30 other kids went through the process.
    It would be REALLY cool, however, to have kids create a Google Form for themselves and ask them to reflect at regular intervals about their own progress towards meeting objectives that they cared about. Then, they could refer back to their results over the course of the year.
    Its an entirely doable process—and it would be awesome—-but I think to be really useful, it would require close to an iPad per kid—-and thats something we just dont have yet.
    Anyway…youve got my wheels spinning.
    Thanks for pushing with me.

  3. Ewan McIntosh

    Just to add to Tom’s remark, iPads in students’ hands would be best. It’s also the only way that you can actually do formative assessment. Please take this wee note in the spirit of coming from a “critical friend”.
    What you describe above isn’t formative – it’s summative assessment by the teacher, designed to form perceptions of students for the purpose of… report cards, adjusting teaching delivery to match needs?
    There’s nothing wrong with that as a form of assessment – assessment of learning is as important as assessment for learning.
    But assessment for learning, where formative assessment happens, requires a flipping of this statement:
    “I have no easy way to document what I’m learning about my students in these informal observations. Sure, I always internalize what I’m seeing. Every observation shapes my perception of my students.”
    If you really want to make iPads – or any technology – work for FORMATIVE assessment, it should read something like this:
    “My students have no easy way to document what THEY’re learning informally and formally. Every observation I make about my learning, and every observation my peers make about my learning and I make about their’s, shapes my perception of my own learning and where I need to go next.”
    Formative assessment can only be initiated by students if it is to be effective. Anything else is a form of summative assessment and, while it may help the teacher, it won’t help the learner half as much.
    Have a read of Dylan Wiliams’ work to get a handle on this maybe subtle, but vital difference:

  4. Ginnyp

    A different aspect of the Mary situation: The principal who decided iPads would be a good tool in the hands of teachers has spent a boodle of bucks on hardware. There will no doubt be a training day (yes, singular) on how to use this tool – what buttons do what, how to use Safari when all they’ve used are PCs). But if teachers ready to start their school year have an iPad shoved into their hands when they are not using any other tech tools other than an LCD projector for which they create power point slideshows of lessons, what chance is there of getting good use out of these iPads? Teachers who do not embrace tech in the classroom, i.e. don’t blog, don’t use google docs with either students or colleagues, they look at Mary as some sort of tech guru when she really is doing truly very little compared to what’s out there.
    To get teachers comfortable with using technology in the classroom, iPads, mp3s, moviemaker, (google wheel? Bill, you are moaning its loss when Mary and her colleagues don’t even know what it is or what it does).. to get a whole school in tech mode doesn’t mean throw them toys and a day of training. Mary (and the other teachers getting these new tools) needs a lot more professional development focused on this one thing, and then be in contact with other teachers around the county learning or already using iPads, or whatever 2.0 tools they have in their class. Taking a look at the LA Blackboard site, no one has posted for at least a year, and not much before that. If teachers can’t find the time to use Blackboard, what makes the principal think things will improve?

  5. Bill Ferriter

    I like your suggestions, Tom.
    Classroom scribing is something that I’ve been wanting to start for the better part of the last five years when I first learned about Darren Kuropatwa’s work with scribes.
    And Researcher of the Day is a great concept too. I think I’d steal the name that a local radio guy uses and call that student, “The Knower of Important Things.”
    But I’m also a believer that to hook teachers on technology, we’ve got to help them to find ways to do their own work more efficiently and effectively first.
    Once Mary—and more importantly, Mary’s less tech-receptive colleagues—see how their iPads can help them with a basic practice that they’re required to implement and that they believe in, they’ll naturally begin experimenting with more progressive, student-centered applications with technology.
    Guys like us can jump right to student integration of tech because we already believe in it’s potential to change the way that we learn.
    But expecting teachers who aren’t connected to make that same jump without taking the intermediary step of discovering how tech can change their own work and their own learning is not realistic.
    Steven Johnson likes to say that sustainable change comes from thinking at the edges of the box—not out of the box thinking.
    It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.
    That’s what my proposal to Mary is designed to be—-taking a practice she already believes in and making it easier with technology.
    Any of this make sense?

  6. Tom Donovan

    That’s not a very *radical* suggestion, Bill! 😉
    Radical would be to find ways to put the iPad in the kids’ hands.
    For example, the job of Researcher of the Day could involve students taking turns using the iPad to seek out answers to those great, slightly off-topic questions that often come up during discussions. Using the WordPress app, they could easily post to a class blog. (BlogPress is another app which supports not only WP, but also other platforms, like Blogger.)
    Taking this basic idea in a slightly different direction is the Daily Scribe, who takes notes for the entire class, posts them to the blog, and then tweaks them based on classmates’ comments, with the end result being solid summaries of each day’s activities.
    Then there is the fact that iMovie makes the iPad an amazing, self-contained video production unit. Short videos can be shot, edited and published, all without the need for a computer. Our 8th grade Algebra teacher had individual students explain how to solve a problem, while a classmate recorded them. The result could then be shared and become part of a tutorial archive. And physical limitations of this set-up are actually an asset, because the kids can spend more time on their content and communication rather than trying out the dozens of title styles and transitions available in the desktop version.
    Your lit circle example is another we’ve had teachers incorporate iPads into, The kids either take notes on their discussion, which can then be shared in some way, or else the iPad can be used as a voice recorder, with the resulting recordings being used either by the students to assess their own participation or by the teacher.
    Obviously, if your friend has ready access to laptops, most if not all of these things can be done with them and don’t require an iPad (and she may already be doing them!). But as an instant-on, grab-and-go conduit to the outside world and a powerful, flexible information capturing device, there are plenty of things that an iPad is very well suited for–limited only by our imaginations and willingness to try things out.

  7. Gcouros

    Great post and I totally agree with you that before technology is put in place, there should be a plan. I have said many times that you should NEVER have the devices and say “now what”? It should be, we have the plan, now we need devices to make it work.
    Here is where I want to not necessarily push back, but just get your thoughts on a certain aspect of leadership.
    I might have missed it, but it was never said that there was not a plan from the administrator in the building; it was only said that Mary asked you what you would do. With that being said, I am wondering what you think when sometimes leaders make purchases based on the long term vision of the school, and not necessarily the school.
    For example, before I came to the school I was at, teacher’s were given full say on where the SmartBoards were placed in their current room (I know how you feel about SmartBoards, but that is not where I am going with this). Some teachers did not feel comfortable with the technology, so they asked for it to be put on the side. What happened when they felt comfortable with the technology was that they then wanted it in the front of the classroom, which was a move of about a 1000 dollars (you think we could have used that money?). When I came in, any new SmartBoards (the province had money for this initiative) had to be placed with a consultation from myself. Ultimately, I wanted to put the board where the teacher felt most comfortable, but LONG term, I had to think that the teacher might leave, switch rooms, etc. Every teacher was comfortable with the placement, but I guess what I am getting at is that sometimes the admin in a building may not make the decision that teachers are most comfortable with at that time, but if it serves the long term vision, is that not okay? I think that decisions have to be clear, and transparent, and the reasoning should be clear to staff, and they should be in the process as much as possible, but sometimes, do the leaders not to make some decisions that maybe make some people feel uncomfortable?
    I honestly don’t know how much my comment has to do with your post, but I really respect the ideas you share and I would love to hear what you think about this.
    Thanks for all that you do.

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