Thanks for the iPads, but what do we do with them? Integrating iPads into the teaching and learning of primary mathematics
The iPad has fast become the 'must have' item in today's classrooms. Although it was not originally intended for use within educational settings, there have been claims that iPads and similar mobile devices have the potential to revolutionise schools (Banister, 2010; Ireland & Woollerton, 2010; Kukulska-Hulme, 2009).
However, when it comes to using iPads for teaching and learning, teachers have had little to guide them, in terms of either academic research or targeted professional development. So what do teachers do when they are given a set of iPads and told to use them in classrooms?
Since July 2011, I have been involved in two research projects investigating the use of iPads for the teaching and learning of mathematics in the primary years. The first study involved a year 3 class group in a Western Sydney public school. The students were participating in an iPad trial in which they were provided with a set of 30 iPads for a six-month period. The second study included four teachers and their class groups from a Western Sydney Catholic school. Each class group had access to six iPads. The current article does not attempt to describe the projects in any detail, but highlights some experiences from the work that might be of interest to other educators planning to introduce iPads into their lessons.
In both projects iPads were introduced without any recommendations or guidance on how they might best be integrated into teaching and learning practices, so the teachers simply trialed different applications of the new devices. The teachers and researchers assessed the success of each of these strategies based on observations of students' reactions, including how well students were engaged during the lesson. The researchers also drew on the teacher's reflection following the lesson, obtained via interview. Data was also gathered from students via focus-group discussions.
In some lessons students used the iPads for drill and practice activities, which were designed to help them acquire a particular mathematical skill. Students worked independently or in small groups of two to three. In these lessons it was difficult for the teacher to know whether the students were on task, whether they were experiencing any difficulties, and whether they were working at an appropriate level of cognitive challenge. In many of these lessons the students were not asked to discuss the mathematics involved in the task, nor were they asked to reflect, at the conclusion of the lesson, on how they had used the iPads or on how useful the devices had been in helping them to learn.
The pedagogies that appeared most effective, and most efficient at exploiting the affordances of the iPads, were those in which students used the devices to solve problems in real-world contexts: as tools to assist in achieving a set, meaningful goal, within which mathematics was embedded. In one year 5 class, for example, students were asked to plan a hypothetical outing to the city to watch a movie. The children were able to use several applications on their iPads to help them deal with practicalities such as public transport timetables and cinema session times as they planned their day out. The lesson and its problem-solving task resulted in rich mathematical conversations and high levels of engagement.
The integration of interactive whiteboards with iPads was also a common element in the observed lessons, illustrating how such technologies can enhance teaching as well as learning. In several instances teachers projected the iPads onto interactive whiteboards to demonstrate the tasks set for the students. In other examples it was the students' work on the iPads that was projected for the purpose of class discussions and constructive feedback.
The iPads offered a number of benefits. One important benefit was the flexibility they offered as to how and where they could be used, which compared well to that of traditional laptop or desktop computers. The iPads also provided instant feedback to students. They allowed students to make mistakes and correct them themselves, alleviating the fear of failure and promoting student confidence.
The need to incorporate the iPads led the teachers to become more creative in their lesson planning and as a result tasks became more student-centred. Students had more time to investigate and explore mathematics, promoting mathematical thinking and problem solving.
The disadvantages of the iPads related mostly to technical and management issues, such as the sourcing and uploading of appropriate applications, difficulties associated with record keeping and supervision of students while using the iPads, and the problem of how to allocate the limited number of iPads between students.
The interactive nature of the technologies was engaging for the students at an operative level. However, when the tasks in which they were embedded did not include appropriate cognitive challenge, students were less engaged and became distracted by the technologies.
All of the teachers involved in both projects found it more challenging to integrate the technologies into mathematics than was the case for other subject areas such as literacy. This difficulty could be attributed to the specific nature of the mathematics content being covered and the pedagogies (often drill and practice) that were being used to teach the concepts.
The incorporation of iPads in the two projects showed their potential to increase student engagement. However, the iPads also raised challenges. To deal with these challenges, participating teachers expressed the need for a platform from which they could share ideas and discuss experiences with peers.
They also called for professional development that goes beyond the issue of how to operate the technologies and which instead helps them to integrate the iPads into existing pedagogical practices. Their call is supported by research (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) that identifies a need for continued and sustained development of teachers' technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK): learning that builds on teachers' understanding of mathematics content, of the ways in which students learn, of the misconceptions that can occur and of the ways in which technology can enhance teaching and learning.
Banister, S. (2010). Integrating the iPod Touch in K–12 education: Visions and vices. Computers in Schools, 27(2), 121–131.
Ireland, G.V., & Woollerton, M. (2010). The impact of the iPad and iPhone on education. Journal of Bunkyo Gakuin University Department of Foreign Languages and Bunkyo Gakuin College(10), 31–48.
Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2009). Will mobile learning change language learning? ReCALL, 21(2), 157–165.
Mishra, P., & Koehler, M.J. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017–1054.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Subject HeadingsMathematics teaching
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)