iPads In The Classroom – Self Regulation

When we started the iPad cohort in my High School, we were not sure how things would work out. We knew we had a group of kids who were keen on stepping away from a more “traditional” classroom but outside of that we were treading into unknown territory. I had been teaching most of my classes in a computer lab for years so I was ready to roll from the digital end of things but this was a wee bit different. 30 kids with their own personal digital devices with no controls over access or APPS, it was promising to be an adventure. With that as our launching pad, we were set loose to try to make the iPad work as a teaching and learning tool.

We have also been charged with by the powers that be to determine:

  1. Is the iPad a good learning tool?
  2. Is the iPad more engaging than paper and pencil?
  3. What new and innovative ways of teaching and learning can we come up with using the iPad?
  4. Should we move ahead with expanding the use of tablets in the classroom?
  5. What are the short comings of using iPads as a learning and teaching tool?

What we are discovering is that the iPad is more about the user then the device itself but not in the way you might think. As with anything, some kids are better than others at using the iPad but in our little cohort, the effectiveness of the iPad, seems to be less about ability and more about simply being able to assert some level of self-control.

Now I use the term “self-control” only because I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Stuart Shanker this September, when he presented a Keynote address during our School District’s opening day. He spoke about his work around academic success as it relates to self regulation and ultimately self-control. It was one of those AaaHa! presentations where everything you already know suddenly becomes more significant. Little did I know, what Dr. Shanker was talking about was going to rear its head in my iPad class.

As I said in an earlier post, I teach a course that does not have a standardized test at the end, so I have the luxury of being able to play a bit with the curriculum and how it is delivered. With this in mind, about 3 weeks ago, I decided to just let things be and not worry about who was doing what on the iPad. I wanted to see who could put aside their digital distractions and actually participate in the class without my direction to do so.

I prefaced almost every class with, “You are all big boys and girls now so you should be able to put aside the iPads and listen without me forcing you to do so”. In the beginning, virtually all the kids had the devices open and were mucking about on them as I tried to enlighten them with my wisdom. Eventually, one by one, most of the kids put away the device to listen or participate. Some do it immediately while others take as long as twenty minutes to engage but most kids eventually disconnect from the device. What remains is a small but significant group of kids who just can’t put the device down.

When I think back to that opening day address by Dr. Shanker, I think that I have been experiencing a perfect example of Dr. Shanker’s marshmallow experiment playing out in my classroom. For some of these kids, the iPad is a digital marshmallow they just can’t resist. They cannot assert enough self-control to disconnect without physical intervention by me. As much as I would love to be able to simply turn the kids loose and trust that they can use the iPad for their own best interests, at this point, it just isn’t going to happen.

When we started this little project, I had visions of hard-wired computers labs quickly becoming extinct but I now see that there is still a need for having control over a set of networked devices. As archaic as it may sound, there are times when a teacher needs 5, 10 perhaps even 40 minutes of undivided attention from the students, especially those  kids who cannot resist the warm glow of a digital device. Until our use of digital devices becomes evolved enough, where we all know when to come off the grid and direct message with a human being, having the ability to disconnect 30 kids with the flick of a switch will continue to be useful.

This isn’t simply an issue of old school control in the classroom. Good teaching is about creating meaningful connections between the kids and the curriculum not just dispensing information. This is why a digital device could never replace a good teacher. As great as technology is, the information it dispenses is meaningless if  you cannot create a human connection to it and that is the role of the teacher. The iPad is a powerful learning tool if used appropriately but it can also be a powerful distraction from meaningful human interaction in the classroom.

As Dr. Shanker pointed out in his keynote address, it is human interaction that leads to self-regulation and ultimately self-control. Although his research shows that this interaction is most critical in infancy, I don’t think we can afford to dismiss its importance in the K to 12 classroom. As we move toward more digitally oriented classrooms, we need to ensure that kids resist the lure of the device when required and interact with a real humanbeing on occasion.

Additional Reading 

The Screens That Are Stealing Childhood

Is modern technology creating a culture of distraction?


  1. Jenny Cho

    What remains is a small but significant group of kids who just can’t put the device down.

    That’s what I’ve noticed with my classes and BYOD as well. Some students admit they can’t tear themselves away from their device and accept the fact I might have to intervene. I haven’t had the opportunity to run a class with iPads but I’ve been curious about what the experience would be like…

    1. Post

      There is a ton of potential. The issues around our cohort stem from the devices being the student’s not the schools. If you are using a class set with only the apps you need loaded many of the distraction issues would be mitigated but then you have other issues that will take their place.

  2. Andrew

    So he question remains, how to achieve a level of control over these devices and, for example, stop students sending sms messages to each other in class?

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