Monday, 17 September 2012

101 uses for an iPad in the ESL classroom

....or are there?
Sorry about the title if you were expecting yet another breathless blog about how iPads/tablet computers were about to totally revolutionise teaching FOR EVER. From what I can see, most of these over-excited breathless scrawls are either a) written by people who don't have much teaching experience, and think the iPad is going to do all the work for them, b) poorly written, with plenty of formatting and spelling mistakes because they've been written on an, uh, iPad, or c) they've been written by people who are being paid to flog all sorts of pap.
Well, I've been given an iPad as part of the college's experiemnt in using iPads in a Further Education environment. The trial is called the iPad Trial, amazingly enough, and has been going for the past year. From what I've witnessed so far, the iPad Trial seems to largely consist of wandering around with an iPad, occasionally using the notepad function to take notes. In other words, it's like having the world's fanciest, most expensive clipboard.
Having said that, I've been very curious indeed about the possibilities of using tablets in education, all the more so since it was announced that tablet computers have apparently outstripped the sale of PCs in the States. And I'm always happy to have my assumptions disabused or indeed smashed to bits and stamped on. So I was glad indeed to get hold of a nice, shiny, slightly used iPad and invited to go forth and trial it.
First thoughts?
My GOD, it's nice. It has a nice heft to it, although I don't think I'd like to cart it around in one hand all day. I love its tactility: using a keyboard even after just a few minutes of literally stroking the iPad felt odd. It's a sleek, purring pussycat covered in velvet and butter. I started off by uploading all the really important apps - Angry Birds, Temple Run, BBC iPlayer and the Guardian. And again, MY GOD, this is one fast machine, and the display! Awesome! It really does make your average pc or netbook look like a plodder.
So far, so typical reaction - there is no doubt whatsoever that the ipad is one handsome beast, and like anyone else who's ever picked one up, I felt a real WOW! moment.
Then I decided to put it through its paces, and think how I could use it in class.
My immediate thought was that it would be a supremely useful device on 1-to-1 classes, and for CALL lessons for learners who had little or no experience with PCs. For example, we have a group of retired Gurkhas in the college this year, and I could see how using a device that uses instinctive gestures to navigate rather than using a mouse would be enormously helpful. I could also see how I could carry round video and audio files, PDFs and documents for easy access in class.
The trouble is, how do these actually teach, and how do they do the job better than a desktop PC in class, or indeed, a piece of paper and a CD?
I then turned to the College Moodle VLE - it looks beautiful on screen, yes, but what's this? I can't edit or add anything, because of course iPads don't support certain things like Flash. So I can look, but I can't touch, as it were.
I tried downloading an app for editing files - it allows me to edit Google Docs as word or Excel files, but - what's this? - if I try to edit the same files on a PC, Google Docs won't allow me to - I can, again, look but not touch!
And that's the thing, so far: The iPad is wonderful to behold, but when it comes down to it, it's not very productive - not with the written word, anyway: The music and art apps seem to be much more promising. It is mainly a thing for consumption of content, not its production, and that concerns me somewhat in language learning - you can't have one and not the other.
It's also a somewhat solipsistic experience. The iPad, or tablets in general (or, for that matter, and somewhat ironically, smartphones) are essentially about the individual user. To make the whole iPad thing have a chance of working in class, every learner should have access to one - and that is unlikely to happen some day soon, not until prices crash significantly, and their capacity to be used for production increase.
I suspect that the real game-changer in terms of the use of tablet computers in education will be the new low-cost 7-inch tablets that have arrived on the scene - they're easier to carry, for starters, and they have the legs to do the things that you might need. If one of the manufacturers includes a stylus, you've got a product that is seriously usable in class.
Well, I've had the Ipad for a whole 5 days now, so maybe I'm still a bit prejudiced, and as I said at the beginning, I'm happy to be disabused of my notions. In the meantime, it still seems to me like a gorgeous clipboard. And something that's good as a cheeseboard.

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