Are iPads the Answer in Education? By @refthinking

Do iPads hold the secret ingredient to revive face-to-face computer supported collaborative learning?

This is a guest blog submitted by Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa who is the Director of Reflective Thinking and a Research Associate of Newcastle University. Fancy writing a post for or our UKEdMagazine? Please contact us by clicking here.

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Early research (mid 90s) on computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) investigated technology’s role in supporting small groups collaborating around shared computer displays. Later on, research shifted from this to students collaborating simultaneously, or at different times, over networked environments – moving away from the invaluable face-to-face style of group work. When the use of the Internet became prominent, CSCL and face-to-face collaboration became almost mutually exclusive. This shift can also be down to the individual nature of the ‘personal’ computer with its one keyboard and one mouse input devices.

As compared to across-a-network, face-to-face collaboration allows for barrier-free communication. This leads to more fluid and natural interactions due to the greater reliance on verbal and non-verbal communication (such as gestures, gaze and even posture). Another important benefit is that students have better awareness of each other’s actions and intentions which again adds to the effectiveness of the process as a whole.


The recent wide spread use of iPads in education and favouring them over working with desktops or laptops greatly disrupted the educational software industry.[/pullquote]

Since the late 2000s, along with many others, I expected tabletop technology, with such large multi-touch surfaces, to be able to provide the opportunity to bring the focus of CSCL research back to face-to-face collaboration around shared displays. Putting academic research aside, in real-life this hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to in the near future. This is due to the high cost and many logistic restrictions of such large and often bulky hardware. Coming to this realization, I expected offering the alternative of multi-mice support (more than one mouse plugged in, with each having their own cursor) on each PC could be a good compromise. Schools are finding this alternative more practical, thus are opting for our alternative multi-mouse option of Digital Mysteries. However, the recent wide spread use of iPads in education and favouring them over working with desktops or laptops greatly disrupted the educational software industry.

Tablets, due to their small size, are seen as even more personal than laptops and desktops. If students are asked to work in groups, they typically do so with each using their own tablet. This type of group work normally just requires students to present some work based on assembling pieces they have worked on individually. Another common method is having students share one tablet yet simply just taking turns. Group work that does not require ‘collective judgment’ is not collaborative.

However, it all begins with the right task

The type of computer supported group work that I am referring to as leading to true and effective collaboration can be summarized as the following: that which involves tasks resulting in constructing new knowledge rather than simply learning facts, with the interaction between students being collaborative and not competitive or accidental.  Most importantly, one that puts emphases on reaching consensus through discussion, debate, argumentation, deep understanding and even the option to agree to disagree, and not on drills or practising elementary facts. This requires what’s termed ill-defined problems that have more than one answer or at least allow for more than one solution. The success of a collaborative task, then, starts with setting the right task.

iPads to the rescue

6660001925_2a62581136_bMore and more schools are buying into iPads now and thus are more in favour of using apps than desktop applications. What I think schools are missing here, and app developers as well, is the potential of tablets for pair collaboration around a single tablet. Combining the right task with this handy device allows two students to interact with the screen at the same time, which provides the potential to do what tabletop and multi-mouse options could not. The current problem is the lack of applications that provide the right task and that allow such simultaneous pair interaction.

From personal experience, we’ve had a lot more interest in our creation tool for iPads, Thinking Kit, and our content-based iPad apps Digital Mysteries within a month of release, than we had for the PC/multi-mouse/tabletop trial versions of the same software in a year.

This is an exciting time where things are changing very rapidly. The earlier we understand the potential of new technologies, the better chance we have of making full use of their capabilities in education.

Dr. AAhmedKhmed Kharrufa is the Director of Reflective Thinking and a Senior Research Associate of Newcastle University. His research interest is in how technology can support learning, with a particular focus on collaboration. Following years of research, Ahmed has developed ‘Thinking Kit’ and ‘Digital Mysteries’ – both are tools that involve students problem-solving together on iPads, whilst developing skills such as communication and higher level thinking. Thinking Kit is for teachers and students to create their own activities for iPads, whereas Digital Mysteries are content-based iPad apps based on the national curriculum.




Image Credit: Brad Flickinger via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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