iPads and iPhones in High Schools: Apps and Problems
Apps for iOS Devices
iPads and iPhones can be wonderful educational tools for high schools. They are highly mobile devices that offer Internet access as well as a huge collection of free or inexpensive applications suitable for educational use. There are apps for accessing information, exploring, creating, problem solving, planning, communicating, storing data, and analyzing—essential activities for students and often for their teachers, too.
iOS is Apple's operating system for its mobile devices. The devices that run this system are great portable computers. They can also be relatively inexpensive compared to other computers, although this depends not only on which device is bought but also on which version of the device is obtained.
Today’s students live in a digital age and enthusiastically embrace the use of portable electronic devices. Devices from a range of manufacturers can be useful for high schools, but since I use Apple products I'm most familiar with their possibilities. These products are also the most popular ones amongst the students in my school. All the apps that I discuss below are available for iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, except where otherwise noted. All of the screenshots in the article were taken by me.
Useful Applications for High School Students and Teachers
Once applications have been downloaded from the Apple App Store, iOS devices don't need to access the Internet in order to be useful for schools. Some apps require Internet access to be fully functional, but many don't.
The App Store describes the features of each application. It also has reviews and a link to the creator's website to help someone choose the application that best suits their needs.
I haven't tried all the educational apps that are suitable for high school students, since there are so many available. For example, there are many different word processors, art programs, music programs, scientific calculators, and periodic table applications. I'll name the apps that I use in each of the following categories, but you might find others that you prefer. It's important to look at the system requirements for each app before downloading it in order to make sure that a device can run it.
Although I refer to the iPad below, the apps also work on iPhones and iPods, with a few noted exceptions. The word "iPad" refers to all versions of the device, including the iPad Mini. The word "iPod" refers to the iPod touch. The cost of the applications applies to the Canadian App Store, which is the one that I use.
Word Processing Apps
I find typing on the iPad quite easy. The iPhone or iPod touch onscreen keyboard is best suited for typing notes rather than long documents, however. Many students can type quickly on their phone though. They get lots of practice sending emails and text messages. I have a portable bluetooth keyboard which works well with my iPad and my iPod touch. I often use this if I'm going to write more than quick notes.
The built-in Notes app that comes with iOS devices can function as a basic word processor. New features added in the recent versions of the app make Notes a little less basic than it used to be. Even if assignments aren't created or completed in Notes, the app can be useful for taking notes during class or a lecture. I have the lastest version of iOS on my iPad (version 12), but the Notes app works on earlier ones.
Features without iOS 9
- Bold, italics, and underline are available.
- The device's built-in spell check works.
- Select, cut, copy, and paste functions work.
- Live text links to webpages can be saved.
- Notes are searchable.
- The notes are saved on the device automatically.
- Notes can be printed, emailed, shared on social media, and uploaded to DropBox for backup.
- If iCloud is used, notes sync automatically between Apple mobile devices, tablets, and computers. iCloud provides five gigabytes of free storage space. Paid plans allow for more storage.
Additional Features in iOS 9 or Above
- Full-screen notes
- Additional formatting options: indent, a header, bulleted, numbered or dashed lists, and check boxes
- The ability to add photos, videos, and art from the iOS photo library (without text wrap)
- Basic drawing tools (A hint for a step that is not obvious—place two fingers on the ruler in order to rotate it.)
- The ability to save links to webpages and Apple Maps as attachments (via the iOS share function)
- The ability to view saved webpages, maps, and drawings in the attachment browser of Notes. The links to webpages and maps appear as a brief text summary and a thumbnail picture.
- With iOS 9.3 or higher—password protection for notes. (Choose "Lock Note" from the share menu.)
- The ability to save notes in different folders
At the time when this article was last updated, the latest version of the iOS operating system was 12.3.1. Not all of the devices present in schools may be able to run this system. Many app work on earlier systems, however.
Using Notes on an iPhone
It's important to note whether an app saves user-created data on the device or only in the cloud (on the Internet). Data saved in the cloud won't be available when a user lacks an Internet connection.
Pages is a full-featured word processor and is the app that I use most often for my writing. I find it reliable and easy to use. The app automatically saves files on the iPad and also syncs them with Pages on desktop computers, laptops, and other devices via iCloud. Documents can be placed in folders and password protected. They can also be mailed or printed.
The Pages app has many useful features, including multiple fonts, text justification, multiple styles of headings, headers and footers, footnotes, lists, spell check (via the built-in auto correct system in iOS), word count, and character count. The text can be entered in columns if desired and the line spacing can be altered.
The app allows the user to insert photos, videos, and art stored on the iPad. Photos can be resized and dragged around the screen. The text automatically wraps around a photo as it's moved. The app also includes different styles of editable shapes, charts, and tables. Pages enables some creative formatting and page layout to be accomplished. It contains some useful templates for people who don't want to create a document from scratch, however.
Using Unusual Characters in Pages
Some people are unaware that holding some of the keys down on the iOS keyboard reveals alternate forms of letters, such as ones with accents. This feature can be very useful in a word processor.
Unfortunately, subscripts and superscripts aren't available in Pages. This is a serious drawback for a chemistry teacher or student, since the characters are needed to write chemical formulas. The way I get around this is to use the Unicode Character Map app, which is free at the App Store. The app has a huge collection of characters, including a collection of subscripts and superscripts for different numbers and symbols.
A character in the Character Map app is automatically copied as soon as it's touched. It can then be pasted into a Pages document (and into Notes and other writing apps). If both apps are open at the same time, the procedure is quite easy, but it's definitely not ideal. It would likely be easier if subscripts and superscripts were built into Pages.
Pages is free, but it requires iOS 11 (or later) in order to run. Google Docs is also free and requires only iOS 9 in order to work.
I also use the Google Docs app, which does have subscripts and superscripts built in. The app has most of the features that would be expected in a basic word processor, including text wrap around images. Like Pages, it's free and is backed up "in the cloud" via Google Drive. I have no problems creating a document in Google Docs on my iPad and then accessing it via the Windows version of the program on my laptop. It isn't necessary to have a laptop or computer, however. Documents can be printed from the Google Docs app on the iOS device. The computer version of the program has more features, but the tablet or phone app may be all that a student needs.
If you're exploring the App Store to look for suitable downloads, check the system requirements for an app, the reviews, and the last time that the app was updated. If it hasn't been updated for a long time, the creator may no longer be interested in fixing bugs or adding new features.
An Art App
I enjoy using the free Brushes Redux application for creating paintings. With practice, students can create beautiful art using this app. It also lets them import photos taken from the iPad photo album and incorporate them into their creation. The user's brush strokes are recorded and can be replayed as a video.
The interface of the app looks quite basic at first, but as a person explores they'll see that the application has some useful features. It offers editable brushes, layers with transparency, and undo/redo.
The original Brushes app was very popular and was even used to create a cover for The New Yorker magazine. Despite its apparent success, for some reason the creator stopped updating the app and the program is no longer available for download. Another programmer has created a free open source version of the app, which is why the word "redux" is in its name. Although the painting below is white and grey, Brushes Redux does contain colour tools.
Creating a Cockatoo in Brushes Redux
Procreate is an art program that currently costs $13.99. It works only on an iPad running iOS 12.0 or higher. People have created wonderful art with the app. The cost and requirements may be out of the range of schools, but the application could be very useful for some individuals.
I create music in a free program called Piano 3D. The program produces a reasonably realistic piano sound and is fun to use. Music can be created by pressing on the keys in the picture of the piano. Multiple keys can be played at a time and both hands can be used. The sustaining pedal works and can be pressed to alter the sound. The keyboard can be enlarged or shrunk as needed and can also be tilted to the desired angle. Music that's created can be recorded and shared.
Additional features can be bought on a week, month, year, or lifetime basis. The fees enable a person to access various midi functions, download songs, and remove ads. The app tells me that more instruments will be added to the program soon, but i don't know whether these instruments will be free or require a fee to download.
Apple's GarageBand is a feature-rich app for music creation that is free. It requires iOS 12.1 or later in order to run. Apple Numbers (a spreadsheet program) and Keynote (a presentation program) are also free and also require iOS 11.0.
Reading and Dictionary Apps
The built-in Books application on the iPad lets people purchase books from the Apple bookstore. Some of the books are free or very inexpensive while others cost more. Like many Apple apps, purchased books are stored on iCloud so that they can be downloaded on to another of the user's devices.
Dictionary and Thesaurus
My favorite dictionary so far is called Word Book. The app contains both a dictionary and a thesaurus and has good search functions. Etymologies of many words are given. If the student is connected to the Internet, the audio pronunciation of each word is given as well. There is also a word of the day function. The application links to Wikipedia to show more information about a word. The information at the App Store says that Word Book contains 150,000 entries and more than 220,000 definitions. It currently costs $3.99.
Learning a new language on the iPad is an area that I haven't yet explored. The App Store has many applications that teach a wide range of languages, however.
Google Earth is another wonderful and free application, but it does require access to the Internet to work and sometimes does its job slowly. It's worth the short wait, though, to be able to explore the world on the iPad. The exploration of places that I'll probably never see in real life is always fascinating. The students in my school also find using Google Earth an enjoyable activity, although when they use it on their own time they generally explore places that they already know, like each other's neigbourhoods.
Google Maps and the Apple Maps app that comes with the iPad are useful for navigation and for learning about an area. Both can display satellite images as well as road maps. It's worth downloading Google Earth, though, for its impressive and immersive imagery.
The iPod and iPhone have a good built-in scientific calculator, which is all that I need for the courses that I teach. There are calculators with more features available at the App Store. These include unit converters, financial calculators, and graphing calculators that are cheaper to buy than a physical graphing calculator.
Strangely, the iPad doesn't have a built-in calculator, so one has to be downloaded. I use the free Calculator Pro. This is both a standard and a scientific calculator and also includes a unit and currency converter. It works well for my purposes. The app only works on iPads. It automatically downloads the latest currency conversion rates. This is an important factor to consider in a conversion app, whether it's done automatically or manually.
Useful Built-in Apps in iOS
The stopwatch, timer, and alarm in the built-in clock app on iOS devices are useful for measuring time intervals during science experiments. The calendar app can be used for recording important dates, such as due dates for assignments and test dates, and for setting an alert to remind a student or a teacher of an event.
Apps are provided for contacting other people with words, sound, and/or video. It's a good idea to consult the world clock in the clock app before trying to contact someone in a different time zone. The contacts app not only keeps a record of information about people (such as email and website addresses) but in many cases enables them to be contacted by clicking on the information. A contact list can be useful when doing research.
A Periodic Table App
As a science teacher as well as an information technology teacher, I often refer to a periodic table. It might be wondered why an iPad periodic table app is useful when the table is published in so many textbooks and student planners. The answer is that interactive applications have additional features compared to those of printed periodic tables.
I use a free periodic table app called EMD PTE. Clicking on an element box in the app brings up a long list of properties for the element as well as nontechnical background information and brief facts about the discoverer. Clicking on the purple spot in the bottom left hand corner reveals different ways of looking at the data in the table as well as a glossary and a molar mass calculator.
Although iTunes is usually thought of as an entertainment application, it's very useful for education, too. A huge variety of podcasts can be downloaded for free in iTunes University, or iTunesU as it's known in its latest incarnation. The podcasts are a fabulous learning resource. A student of almost any age can use them to learn a language or to learn about music, health, religion, history, science, and many other subjects.
The resources at iTunesU come from universities, schools, museums, and TV and radio stations. They are also created by individuals. People who upload courses must be "affiliated with a qualified institution", which gives some reassurance about their quality and reliability.
Though I haven't used them, the app includes features that may be useful for teachers and for their students who are taking a course to receive credit. Teachers can plan and upload assignments and grade work. Students can submit assignments, discuss course topics with other students, and view grades (confidentially).
Radio Stations Around the World
Like iTunes, a radio application can be used for entertainment or for education. I use a great application called TuneIn Radio. This app lets me listen to 100,000 radio stations. I can listen to music in many different genres and hear the latest news from around the world. I can also listen to informational shows discussing a wide variety of topics. It's great to learn about different cultures and current events by listening to radio stations in different countries.
The app comes in a free and a pro version. The pro version costs $13.99. It comes without ads and allows the listener to record a radio show so that they can listen to it later. The number of radio stations is the same in the free and the pro version, however. Audiobooks and podcasts are available within the program for premium subscribers.
iPads, iPhones, and similar mobile devices provide many great educational opportunities. There are both advantages and disadvantages to their use in schools, however.
One Benefit of Mobile Devices in Schools
The computers in my school are a valuable educational resource. There is only one computer lab in the school, however. It's often being used by another class when I'm teaching. This is inconvenient when my students are working on a research project or when their exploration of a particular website would be a great enhancement to the topic that I’m teaching. We do have digital projectors which connect to a teacher's laptop, but the teacher controls what is shown on the projection screen. Students need to do their own research and produce their own creations.
The school has a wireless network, so students and staff can access the Internet from anywhere in the building. While some students have a cellular connection to the Internet, this feature raises the cost of a device and isn't practical for everyone. Small electronic devices that can access the school's wireless network solve the problem of having no computers in a classroom.
A Potential Problem: Obtaining Enough Devices
Unless a school has students that come from wealthy families, some students may not be able to afford an iPad or even a smaller iOS device. In this case requiring the purchase of one as part of school supplies is unfair. One solution which some schools use is to buy a class set of devices. This is beyond the budget of many institutions, however. Another solution for schools who can’t afford or don’t want to buy devices but need to use a wireless Internet setup is for students to share their electronic devices.
I teach in a small school that stresses cooperation amongst the students. They are very willing to share devices and even loan them to students in other classes when they need them. We often have enough portable devices in my class for everyone to have access to the Internet. This may not be the situation in all schools, however.
The use of phones in schools is somewhat controversial. Many educators love the ways in which smart phones with apps can aid learning and motivate students. Others hate the fact that phones can distract students when they use them for noneducational purposes.
Monitoring Student Activity
Despite the great selection of educational applications available for iPads and related devices and their useful ability to access the Internet, there is a problem associated with them as far as supervisors are concerned. iPhones and iPods have small screens. It’s easy to see what a student is doing on their laptop or tablet when a teacher wanders around a classroom while students are working on an assignment. It's not so easy to see what's happening on a phone-sized screen.
The students in my school are pretty good about staying on task when they're allowed to use their portable electronic devices. There are potential distractions for them, however, such as social media. If students use their phone without permission or don't stay on task while they're using it, they are sent to the office, their phone is confiscated until the end of the day, and they lose a point from their current total in the subject.
Bypassing Necessary Skills
Another problem with mobile device use, or with the use of any computer, is that it's not appropriate to rely on certain applications when a student hasn't mastered basic skills without a computer. Students need to be able to spell without relying on the spell check function of a word processing program and they need to be able to do math calculations without using a calculator, for example.
Useful Devices for Students and Teachers
Despite the potential problems associated with the use of mobile devices in high schools, they are a great educational resource. They can be used in many creative ways both during class time and at home. As interesting applications continue to be created for iOS devices, the ways to enhance students' learning are increasing.
The devices can be useful for high school teachers as well as their students. With the right apps, iPads, iPhones, and iPods can be used for organization, lesson planning, record keeping, and continuing education. They have great potential in the present and will probably develop additional abilities as technology advances.
© 2011 Linda Crampton