Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

iPads for a 1:1 School?

Posted by Patrick on April 3, 2010

A Recipe?

I’ve been giving a lot of thoughts lately about what the “best way” of implementing a 1:1 laptop program is.  Thinking about questions like:

  • What kind of computers and OS should students use?  Should they all use the same or one of their choosing?
  • What kind of applications should students use?  “User friendly” but non-free?  Free (and Open Source) but less convenient?
  • What constitutes appropriate (and inappropriate) use of technology?  When?  On campus only?  Anytime and anywhere when it’s online?
  • In a remix culture, what does plagiarism mean?  Can a line be drawn between collaborating, re-mixing, and plagiarizing?  How?

Not surprisingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that there is no ready-made recipe to navigate these “problems”.  They simply have to be acknowledged as real, important and consequential issues, and then addressed by the whole school community.  These are the type of questions that a special school committee (that includes students) should grapple with for the good of their own school, not the type of questions that have pre-digested answers for all.


Keeping that in mind, I’d like to suggest a definite “non-answer” to the first question: the iPad is not a good device to use for a 1:1 school.  One of the reasons (which I won’t expend here) is that the iPad is incompatible with ideals of digital freedom.  Even if it had promising educational uses, it’s one of those things that we should avoid as much as possible. [1]

Apart from that issue, I think the iPad is simply not a device conducive to unforeseen creative uses.  I am *not* saying that it can’t have any creative use what-so-ever.  If creative teachers can find relevant uses for mobile phones or portable media players, surely they can find something for the iPad.

Jeff Utecht focuses on the creative aspect of the iPad when he writes:

“Apple’s own iPad website states: “The best way to experience the web, email, photos, and videos.” That might be so, but what’s the best way to create web pages, emails, photos, and videos? […] That’s the device I want in the hands of my students!” [2] (emphasis is mine)

Although he’s right, I think he’s being too gentle by leaving out the unforeseen part.

Generative Technology

In his book, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop it, Jonathan Zittrain develops the concept of “generative technology”.  Such technology invites people to tinker with it.  Its creators may have had an idea of how it would be used, but they left it open to the users to come up with their own applications.  Zittrain contrasts two devices from Apple, thirty years apart:

  • In 1977, the Apple ][ was a blank slate.  It quickly became popular two years later when VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet program) was written by an independent programmer.  Apple had no way of knowing that this would happen.  “They had their hunches, but, fortunately for them, nothing constrained the PC to the hunches of the founders. Apple did not even know that VisiCalc was on the market when it noticed sales of the Apple ][ skyrocketing.” [3, p.2]
  • Thirty years later, “[t]he iPhone is the opposite. It is sterile. Rather than a platform that invites innovation, the iPhone comes preprogrammed. You are not allowed to add programs to the all-in-one device. Its functionality is locked in, though Apple can change it through remote updates. Indeed, to those who managed to tinker with the code to enable the iPhone to support more or different applications, Apple threatened (and then delivered on the threat) to transform the iPhone into an iBrick. The machine was not to be generative beyond the innovations that Apple (and its exclusive carrier, AT&T) wanted.” [3, p.2]

In that respect, the iPad is not much more than a bigger iPhone.  But isn’t the difference outlined by Zittrain only relevant for programmers?

Beyond Expectations

As a teacher, it’s always my hope that my students will go beyond my expectations.  The type of tools they use implicitly tells them something about the height of those expectations.  By giving them a computer with a list of possible programs they can download, install, and use to complete a project, I’m telling them: “be creative and impress me”.  By giving them a tool that can only run certain applications, I’m telling them: “this is how I want you to do this”.

Cory Doctorow puts it well when he writes:

“Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals. […] The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it.  If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.” [4]

In my classroom, I want my students to be creative in ways that I might not have foreseen.  On the surface, the iPad may solve problems of “inappropriate use of computers” (or not), but it doesn’t deal with them.  And then, students loose on all the potential for creativity that a blanker slate offers.


  1. Patrick Truchon, Just Because it Works…, <>
  2. Jeff Utecht, The iPad: Not the Right Product for Education, <>
  3. Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it, <>
  4. Cory Doctorow, Why I Won’t Buy an iPad, <>


One Response to “iPads for a 1:1 School?”

  1. Your writing is way more elegant than mind and I agree. As a create I’m trying to find ways to create for the iPad. I do think it’s going to change how we consume information. But I want my students to think of ways to create for others to consume, and in order to do that you need a computer with the SDK iPad kit. :)

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