This text was initially published by Vitrine technologie-éducation under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence, before Eductive was launched.

Did you buy a tablet computer this year? If so, your device is among the 119 million units expected to be sold in 2012. Indeed, since Apple released the first iPad in 2010, tablets have been increasing in popularity. The devices have entered educational institutions via trendy students, tech savvy teachers and official pilot projects, and many educators believe they will revolutionize teaching and learning. Yet, a true transformation requires taking advantage of the tablet’s specific features when developing pedagogical strategies, and facing the usual technical and financial challenges.

Taking Advantage of the Tablet’s Features

According to recent studies in higher education, the main uses of the tablet in the classroom are: reading digital books and textbooks, note taking and annotating, searching for images on the Web, listening to or viewing multimedia content, sharing documents, communicating and collaborating, manipulating content with applications. These tasks can be performed with any computer, so what are the differences between a tablet and a laptop? A tablet is a portable computer indeed, but it has specific characteristics that can be taken advantage of to enhance learning experiences.

  •  Touch screen

The ability to manipulate objects directly with the hand rather than with a mouse makes the tablet more intuitive and encourages kinesthetic learning experiences. A tablet’s touch screen can represent objects, data or complex processes that can be annotated and manipulated. For example, the application Molecules for iPad lets students examine and manipulate complex molecules in three dimensions.

  • Mobility

Less cumbersome than a conventional laptop and easier to handle, a tablet can be used anywhere to produce material quickly. A teacher can modify class notes or do exercises live, while circulating in the classroom. If the tablet is used as a whiteboard, students no longer have to go in front of the class to interact with the device. The tablet can also be used in a laboratory or in the field to perform recordings and collect data, which can be treated immediately with applications. For example, Vassar College implemented a Mobile Mapping project for students in its Earth Science and Geography Department.

  • Applications

Unlike traditional software, most mobile applications are free or sold at low cost (often less than ten dollars) and require no multiple-step installation. They are generally simple and user friendly: their operation is intuitive, making it easy for almost anyone to use them. Moreover, the presence of a large community of developers is quickly increasing the number and variety of applications available in the Apple and Android app stores. Although most apps are designed for the general public and do not contain specific pedagogical features, many can be used in educational contexts, like Evernote (for note-taking), Dropbox (for storing documents online), Splashtop (for connecting with a desktop computer from a tablet), iThoughts or Thinking Space (for mind mapping), etc. More can be found in lists of “best apps for education,” which abound on the Web.

Apps can also transform the tablet into a support for interactive instructional materials, like the HMH Fuse project.


At close to $500 per device (excluding accessories such as a protective cover or a keyboard), purchasing and maintaining a bundle of tablets is expensive for an institution. While the education system is undergoing budget restrictions, not all schools can afford to give tablets to students, or to implement a loan program. Buying the device may become the responsibility of students registering in programs integrating tablet computers, just as it has been with laptops for many years in certain programs, like Computer Science or Business Administration.

Another limitation to the use of tablets in an institution is the technological infrastructure. Teachers experimenting with the device often report trouble connecting to the projector, network barriers preventing online collaboration, incompatible versions of certain software, etc. Updating the equipment and software usually solves most compatibility and connectivity problems, but it is costly and cannot be done every year. Also, few institutions offer WiFi or 3G wireless connections in classrooms, mostly for security and bandwidth management reasons. Investing in the use of tablets and other mobile devices in education also means investing in wireless network facilities, and providing more access to teachers and students. When institutions review their policy on the use of ICT, these elements should be part of the discussion.

Current Projects Involving Tablets

Several pilot projects are underway in Québec’s college network. Cégep de Victoriaville’s Special Education program began an experiment in January 2012 in which each participating student was given a tablet. Students starting in the fall semester and beyond will purchase a tablet which will remain their property afterwards. Not only are the devices used in the learning activities, they will also be a tool for intervention and communication with future clients, like children, the elderly or disabled persons.

At Cégep de La Pocatière, a project is in progress where each student in the Accounting and Management program has a tablet. According to the program coordinator, the integration of the device in learning activities motivates students, but requires considerable adjustment for teachers . Despite technical difficulties (occasional connection problems, lack of an accessible WiFi network in some locations, bandwidth overload), the response among teachers is very positive and the implementation continues.

In the other twelve colleges engaged in ongoing tablet experiments, the use of the tool is limited to teachers or education advisors for now. Although it is still early to draw conclusions, the first comments are positive. Teachers appreciate the versatility of the tablet, and the way it creates a dynamic classroom environment. Students seem naturally drawn to this technology and are often able to help the teacher take ownership.

In Ontario, Collège Boréal starts giving iPads to all its first-year students this fall semester. The project’s objective is to enhance the students learning experiences, give them better access to digital resources, and provide them with a multipurpose tool they can use in school and in the workplace later on. Collège Boréal will be sharing expertise with two Québec institutions: Cégep de Trois-Rivières and Collège Édouard-Montpetit.

Further south, a pilot project was completed in the States at Indiana University, where three faculty learning communities spent a year studying the effectiveness of iPads for teaching and learning in their classrooms. On each campus, one iPad “kit” containing 25 devices was made available on loan. The interest of the project lies in the variety of disciplines represented and in the numerous strategies experimented by faculty. Information on the experiment and abstracts of individual projects are available on Indiana University’s website and conclusions can be found in an article published by Educause Learning Initiative.

The Future of Tablets in Education

There is still much hype about the promise of tablets in education. According to the NMC Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition, tablets will be generally adopted in colleges and universities in less than a year. The topic is also increasingly popular at education conferences; for instance, the next ITREP meeting for Québec’s college and cegep network will include a full day of activities dedicated to tablets on October 3rd, 2012.

As tablet integration initiatives are implemented, and as educators and students become more familiar with the device, uses will vary and reach a certain plateau. Will the conclusion be a major change in teaching practices, an integration similar to that of laptops, or rather a disappointment, as it was for interactive whiteboards in Québec? Determining the real impact of tablets on education will still take several years; however, creating activities taking advantage of the tablet’s particular features has the potential to open new learning avenues for teachers and students.

Note: This article is adapted in part from an article in French written by VTÉ for the Clic bulletin: Vers une révolution tactile?

More ideas

  • In a Profweb story, Gordon Spicer, professor of business administration at John Abbott College, tells readers about his experience with the iPad in the classroom.
  • Allan McDonald, professor of computer science at Heritage College, shares his iPad experience in the EdTech Webinar Ipad-agogy hosted by VTÉ and APOP.

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