Category: Science Education

Developing a meaningful online experience for students in a classroom setting is a goal of 21st Century Learning.  If I put aside the political debate for the time being and focus on the student engagement piece for a moment I am left with a situation that I am sure many of us would love to have; do I choose laptops or iPads for my classroom?

I am piloting an online textbook (Flexbook) for my AP Biology class this year and through that pilot have been loaned a set of 15 laptops from my school board.  I have the laptops until the end of December and can then switch over to a set of iPads.  After having some recent discussions with colleagues I am debating whether moving to iPads is the right decision.  I have been using the laptops with all my classes, not just my AP Biology classes, and have had students produce a variety of work ranging from Toonlet cartoons on viruses to summary presentations on protein synthesis.  Students would then e-mail me their work for me to look at and provide feedback.  Expanding the use of the laptops from simple delivery devices of online content to productivity devices that allow students to collaborate and create is the obvious evolution from a paper based classroom to an electronic one.  Will iPads allow for the same level of input and output?  If the iPads come preloaded with Pages and Keynote then creating notes and simple presentations is not a concern but is the keyboard as intuitive and can more than one student take part meaningfully on a single device?  What apps would be the most appropriate for Grade 11 and 12 students and what limitations, if any, do the iPads have over laptops?  I own a laptop and an iPad so I am well aware of the technical differences but I guess I am wrestling with the user experience piece in the classroom and whether the novelty of the iPads will wear off sooner than with the laptops.

My initial motivation was to obtain a set of iPads (or comparable tablet device) to serve as a medium to deliver the content of the online textbook.  A substitute for the heavy, hardcover  paper alternative.  Having seen the level of engagement and excitement the simple introduction of laptops has created in my classroom I now question whether a simple content delivery device is what I need.  Student engagement is the essence of 21st Century Learning and has been the essence of meaningful teaching forever.  The WOW factor with technology in the classroom is amazing but temporary as more and more classrooms ‘come online’ so to speak.  One day the introduction of devices in a class will not be cutting edge it will be expected and firmly within the box of teaching and learning and not outside of it.

I am more of a bells and whistle kind of guy.  I enjoy the latest technology and consider myself an early adopter (if cost isn’t a major factor of course).  So when my department opted to purchase 3 sets of whiteboards (portable dry-erase boards for student use) I was a little taken a back.  I would much rather see iPads or Smart Boards put into classrooms, not plastic boards with markers and erasers.  Far be it from me to discourage those in my department so we went ahead and now have 4 class sets of whiteboards spread out amongst the department (12 boards = 1 set).  I still wasn’t sold on the idea and resisted using it until giving a lesson on Genetics and Punnett Squares and made a quick decision to have the students work out problems using the whiteboards… well I am now sold.  The students did not hesitate in the least to complete the questions and worked cooperatively in groups of 3 or 4.  I was able to quickly move around the room and instantly see where students were having difficulty and address the problems right away.  By the end of the block all students had completed the questions without complaining or struggling individually at their desks.

I used the whiteboards 2 more times that day, once with my Biology 11 students on DNA and with my AP Biology class on Dehydration Synthesis / Hydrolysis reactions.  It was so easy to do and took no effort at all.  Instead of insisting students take notes or work individually at their desks they were able to talk, discuss, try, erase, try again with ease.  Such a simple tool that took the potentially difficult and made it palatable for most.  Of course I won’t be using it every class so the cache doesn’t ware off but I will definitely be using them more than I would have had I not made that spur of a moment decision to try something new.

Here is a link to Jacob Martens blog where you can find information on how to obtain your own set of whiteboards.  Thanks go to Jacob for bringing this idea to the department last year.