A holiday in the USA gave teacher James Cross an early opportunity to use an iPad with his students

Apple iPadHands-on with the iPad at High Storrs SchoolI showed the iPad to my headteacher the other day, boldly proclaiming that this could be the future of handheld learning in schools. "They've been saying that for the last 10 years," he replied.

True, pretty much every handheld device from the PDA (personal digital assistant) to the iPod has been the subject of this claim, yet they've failed to make a dent in how the majority of students learn in schools. Having used the iPad in a secondary school for the past few weeks, it's clear that this device is likely to make an impact on teaching and learning. The real extent will be discovered following its UK release on May 28.

The iPad is sleek (0.5 inches thin) and light (1.5 pounds) and is easy to hold in the hands. The hardware itself is rather unassuming, and it's certainly sturdy, with its aluminium back providing the bulk of the device. The 9.7-inch screen is made of the same glass that iPhones use, and it comes with the same advantages and caveats - namely that it attracts fingerprints (especially from the grubby hands of pupils) and doesn't take kindly to drops on hard flooring.

The on-screen keyboard is surprisingly usable and responsive, and the screen is built for sharing, employing a new technology that allows for wide viewing angles – this makes it suitable for work with groups of students. The front has one large 'home' button, and around the device you'll find a sleep/wake button, volume control, a dock connector, headphone jack, a handy screen rotation lock and discreet loudspeaker. The multi-touch screen provides the only other controls your fingers will need.

Anyone who has used an iPhone or iPod touch will be immediately at home with the iPad's operating system as it's practically identical in most ways. As most students are familiar with these devices, in my experience they have really hit the ground running with this technology. Just as the hardware is unassuming, so too is the software - it doesn't get in the way.

'More educational potential than any device I have seen being used in schools before'

Having experimented with the iPad in music classrooms from key stage 3 to sixth form, I can see that it definitely has more educational potential than any device I have seen being used in schools before. That said, there are also obstacles to its adoption – namely the UK price.

During a Year 9 music lesson, I gave the iPad to a group of students who were working on a performance of a popular song. When I returned to them, I found the singer and guitarist using it to display lyrics and chords from a website. Of course, they could have printed these in advance - but the immediacy and flexibility offered by the iPad allowed the learning to happen without delay. As the group progressed and their plans evolved, the instant and intuitive internet access that the device offered allowed the group to work independently and fluidly. Most educational speculation has been on the iPad as a 1:1 device, but as a resource for group project-based learning, a little certainly goes a long way.

As with the iPhone, the 'killer' feature here is the wealth of apps (applications downloadable from the iTunes Store, many free) that it can run. In terms of educational content, it's certainly very early days, and I can't wait to see what educational developers come up with once the UK App Store is launched.

From a teacher perspective, I've discovered some gems so far, such as Things, a useful organisational tool, and GoodReader, which holds a library of PDF files. Apps which emulate musical instruments have also been useful in the music classroom, such as a 'drum machine' which allowed a usually hesitant pupil in one of my classes to play a part in group music making.

The UK price for an iPad starts from £429, and as this is the same price as a basic PC or laptop, schools may find it hard to justify the expense at first. This may well change as the price drops and examples of educational use start to circulate over time. The iPad may also find its way into schools by stealth, as pupils start to get them as birthday or Christmas gifts – and at this point, schools will have to start making some important decisions on how to make use of this new class of device.

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose  5
Ease of use              5
Features                   4
Quality                      4
Value for money       3

Apple portable digital device with 9.7-inch, high-resolution, LED-backlit, multi-touch screen, from £429 for basic wifi model with 16Gb hard disk. Apple claims 10-hour battery life. Comes with dock connector to USB cable, 10W USB Power Adapter, SIM eject tool (Wi-Fi + 3G model only) and works with Mac or Windows PCs (requires iTunes 9.1 or later versions).
iPad UK

James CrossJames Cross teaches music at High Storrs School, Sheffield, where is is also responsible for e-learning. He blogs at jamescross.org.uk about education, technology and ideas, and tweets at twitter.com/jamesrcross.


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Students at Essa Academy on the iPad