Why teachers struggle to harness the learning potential of the iPad

Jay Ashcroft

Jay Ashcroft is director at LearnMaker, one of the UK’s leading training and consultancy companies specialising in education. Jay has worked with over 200 schools to better help them procure, deploy and benefit from Apple technologies across the spectrum of the UK education system. A passionate educator at heart, Jay spent his early career teaching music to children as young as five. As director at LearnMaker, he now enjoys helping schools maximise their impact from mobile technology and ICT. He’ll be discussing his written articles in more detail through his video blogs.

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Over the last 100 years in teaching, how much has changed? Could you take a teacher from 1915 and drop them into a modern classroom? Apart from the strange haircuts and unfamiliar clothes they’d barely notice the difference, because the majority of school is still lecture driven. The teacher stands at the front, disseminating knowledge to the students. Now undertake the same scenario but with a surgeon. Bring a surgeon forward 100 years and it’s a different story. In a modern operating room our time traveller would be overwhelmed with sights and sounds. This is because technology has revolutionised surgery.

"Without the right guidance, the iPad is only potential."

Yet that same technological revolution has already happened in education, it just hasn’t made it into our school system. At home, students can take part in lectures from America’s best Ivy League schools, video chat with experts from around the world, and access any billions of resources at any time. So why are schools so technological behind the world they’re preparing students for?

“Often teachers feel less confident than their pupils when using ICT and this removes, or at least in part diminishes their perceived professional skill” (Dawes 2000). Teaching in the UK is lecture-driven, and this has created incompatibilities now technology has arrived. If teachers wish to remain the expert in the classroom, they’re in for a bad time with technology because students will always outpace a teacher’s ability. Dawes identified in 2000 that a lack of confidence was holding teachers back, yet in 2015, what has changed? Only by re-examining what confidence and competence look like in the digital age can we begin to move forward.


Teachers have gotten caught in a unconscious race with their students to master iPad. The traditional teaching approach of being the subject expert in front of the students puts teachers at a huge disadvantage when applying that principle to iPads. An Australian study recently highlighted children as young as three years old using smartphones. With pupils growing up using technology, by the time they’re in your class they’ve already got a big advantage on you.

For any teacher, bar computing specialists, mastering the iPad to a greater extent than your students is just not necessary. The reality is that while they may pick up and navigate iPads instinctively (purely from the amount of hours they’ve amassed using them), students don’t possess the understanding to teach themselves, so they are no more self-sufficient than they were 10 years ago.

Your role as a teacher is more relevant than ever, as students require more guidance than perhaps ever before with distractions everywhere in the digital age. This means iPads shouldn’t scare you. They should excite you, because in that device you have literally hundreds of lessons waiting to be delivered. It’s a bold step to embrace the unknown, but your role as teacher is more valued than ever. Students may appear iPad experts in class, but they possess no framework to further their own learning. Without the right guidance, the iPad is only potential.

An easy way to improve your confidence with your class is to manage their expectations. Let them know that you’re not the class expert with an iPad, and that you’ll be calling on them to explain, demo or present to the rest of the class if you don’t know how to undertake a particular skill. Peer assessment is leveraged in many other areas, so why not begin using it in respect to iPads? The first hurdle overcome is the pressure you place on yourself, and by recognising you won’t be the expert in the room all the time when it comes to iPad will allow you to overcome it.


One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is; begin taking control of your own CPD. Unfortunately school-provided CPD opportunities in the UK are poor, particularly for new technology. UK schools spend just 0.5% of budget on CPD. In contrast, in the world’s best education systems like Ontario, Canada, over 10% is dedicated to CPD. That’s a shockingly large difference. The other problem here is an over-reliance on app training. App training is a quick fix to a long term problem, because without pedagogical skills-training, teachers are left unprepared for the next wave of technology. This was highlighted in 2001 by Preston et al: “The barrier to technology use in schools highlights the importance of both skills training and accompanying mentoring in pedagogy.” With no change in sight it seems the problem is endemic within the system, which is why it is vital you take control of your own CPD.

"App training is a quick fix to a long term problem."

So where should you find your own CPD? Twitter and TeachMeets are a fantastic resource, but beware of the ‘app trainers’ (of whom I’ve been critical in a previous article). Over time they’ve advanced the idea that app training alone is sufficient. This notion has spread to TeachMeets, unfortunately, with the last I attended saddening me. It was great to see so many impassioned teachers turn out to learn in their own time, but almost every presentation was an app. Not a sniff of pedagogy, and that’s worrying in a room full of teachers. You want to seek out strategy and framework-based info, that will allow you to understand how to plan, prepare and deliver great lessons using iPad. Don’t regurgitate someone else’s app lesson, because if you don’t understand the pedagogy of how it fits with your learning objectives, then you’re allowing the iPad priority above your teaching, and that’s a sure fire way to minimise impact from iPad.

Required reading is to look up the SAMR model and TPACK, two frameworks that will guide your use of technology for the better. From there filter out the ‘app trainers’ because the majority of what they evangelise is just flash in the pan.

In conclusion I hope I’ve convinced you that things need to change. UK schools seem caught in a technology arms race, buying as many iPads as each budget allows while allocating a minimal pot to train their staff on how to use them. Always remember: ‘teaching first, technology second.’ I’ll leave you with three top takeaways.

  • If your school already has iPads and isn’t seeing the benefit, think about piloting the iPads properly by picking a smaller test group. Once you see their potential first-hand you’ll see the opportunities to transform your school.
  • School leaders should lead on development. In Ontario they invest heavily in their staff, and it shows in the quality of their education system. Start investing in your staff’s development, because they’re the ones who make the difference. Pedagogy should always be championed above app training. Technology’s impact on school life is only going to grow, and your success in the future will be closely linked to how you navigate these changes.
  • Class teachers should champion change and take control of CPD. Request more pedagogy focused CPD within schools and use Twitter and blogs to top up your learning. Make your voice heard within school because technology is only going to become a bigger part of your classroom in the future, and what you do now will greatly impact on how you cope with the coming changes.

Do you struggle to properly use iPads in school? Let us know in the comments.

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