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10 September 2011

iPad Apps and Physics Teaching -- 2011 Followup

I’ve been using a school iPad since July of 2010.  I spent a good deal of time in the summer of 2010 searching through the app store for things I could use in physics.  Generally, I found that the apps specifically branded for “education” were not of significant use.  Most were silly, or available for free online (rather than for $1.99 from the app store).  However, some apps that were NOT specifically designed for education were enormously useful, and I have used or will use them in class:
·         The magnetic field sensor with 3-d compass and output reading in microTesla
·         The “clinometer” angle indicator
·         “Star Walk” astronomy program, which is a portable and dynamic version of what “Starry Night” does.
I wrote a blog post last year about  the potential of the iPad in physics.  This is the second-most-viewed post on my blog.  I have had three personal emails asking for an update – what have I found out since last summer?

The answer is, I haven’t had the time to find new apps on the iPad since last August.  I know that the pace of the mobile app technology has been furious.  For example, the iPad 2 can take videos, and instantly import those videos into the logger pro software that we use to make position-time graphs.  That app would cut a 1-hour lab to 15 minutes.  My students found an app that uses the speaker to create a known frequency, essentially replacing my frequency generator.  I have heard of other good physics apps, but I have not begun using anything else myself.

Aside from the apps in class, I’ve found two other unforeseen but critically important uses of the iPad. 

When I am broadcasting football and baseball, I have instant access to the internet and to my email.  Thus, I can report in real time on scores of other games (both professional games and Woodberry games).  I have received in-game messages from listeners in order to better tailor the broadcast to their needs.  At this point I have a hard time imagining a broadcast without the iPad at my side.  And I haven’t even thought about electronic scoring and statistical software, which (as of last summer) is not yet at the point where I’m ready to use it, but should develop to a useful point in the near future. 

As the debate team coach, I used the iPad incessantly.  Students did research on the bus on the way to tournaments, looking up facts to back up last-minute arguments.  After a round, students would report on new arguments they had heard; I would give them the iPad and advice about what to look up to counter the unforeseen argument.  As a judge, I used the iPad to time the speeches – the advantage of the iPad over a stopwatch was that I could keep the timer running but flip the screen to google to look up disputed facts when necessary.  [In one round, both sides disputed interpretations of the constitution.  In no more than a minute, I had found the text of the 2nd and 26th amendments, to find out that BOTH sides had made devious misquotations.]  And, it became nearly traditional that after the awards ceremonies, I would use the maps function on the iPad to find locations for meals that were on the way home but which provided exciting and different options.  It was most useful to be able to show definitively that there was NOT a Chuck-E-Cheese within 30 minutes of Broad Run High School.  And thank goodness.  J

Is there a point to providing iPads for student use?  Not right now.  The arguments for or against iPad use for students remind me of the discussions 10 years ago about laptops.  Some schools provided each student a laptop, provided network hookups at each student desk, and pressured teachers to use the laptops as an integral and indispensible part of their classes.  Sounds great in principle.  But: 
(a)    The laptops themselves were obsolete within a couple of years.
(b)   Even the network infrastructure was obsolete quickly.
(c)    Only a very few teachers had authentic use for the laptops.  The vast majority of academic laptop “use” in class was done at the pointed request of administrators, and consisted of activities of questionable value.  While I would never support the old-timey Luddites who would ban the internet from our students’ lives, I would nevertheless suggest that a teacher who does not WANT to embrace new technologies can not be effectively forced to do so.  True progress in academic technology comes from having technology available for those who truly desire to use it.
(d)   The easy access to the entertainment aspects of the laptops in class caused a problem that generally outweighed the benefits of the educational aspects. 

Replace the word “laptop” with “iPad,” and I’ll bet one could write the same four statements in a decade.  (Furthermore, I read an article noting that the “revolution” of educational television in the 1970s and of classroom computers in the 1980s had precise parallels to the laptop explosion in the 2000s.  The four points above pretty much could be said about educational television and video (remember laser disks?)  when those technologies first came out.)

Now, I have found good use for a class set of mobile app technology.  When I had a free app that did something useful – like the angle measurer or the magnetic field probe – I encouraged students with ipones or ipod touches or ipads to bring them to class.  The students were most comfortable downloading and using the apps on their own, and enjoyed the “coolness” of the device far more than they enjoy my standard equipment.  The fact that the app was on a device with which they were already familiar broke down the barrier of “I don’t know how this works, I’m frustrated!” in the laboratory.  That sentiment is not to be underestimated.  But there’s not enough of this sort of thing to justify $600 per student for an iPad.  I found that enough of our students already had a compatible device so that I could run the laboratory activity.

The iPad specifically is the only device I’ve seen on which a digital textbook would truly replace a paper text.  Its screen is big enough, its processing quick enough, its display is full color, fully zoomable, and annotations could be done with a finger.  The textbooks are not available yet, I don’t believe.  But when they are, it would be extremely convenient for a student to carry the iPad rather than a stack of books.  I already have been using the iPad as my library as I travel.  I have a personal “nook” which I have synched with the iPad.  When I travel, I can access all of my electronic books instantly through the nook app; in fact, Shari and I can BOTH access our electronic library, since I can use the iPad and she can use the nook.  (Plus, I can buy a book instantly without going to a bookstore.  Plus, I can subscribe to and read a newspaper while traveling.  How awesome would THAT be for boarding school students?)

For now, though, the pace of the technology is changing so rapidly that I don’t think it useful to make any long term decisions about mobile devices.  Let’s see the future of android devices.  Let’s see whether the price of electronic books goes up or down.  Let’s see whether textbooks become more widely available in digital format. 

Greg Jacobs


  1. I am a high school physics teacher. My school just gave me an iPad to begin a journey-of-discovery similar to yours. Thank you for your blog posts.

  2. In your earlier post on this topic there was a mention of USB based data collection using Vernier probes and a USB adapter (I assume this must be the camera connection kit). Do you know if that really works? All of the references I can find are talking about using the LabQuest2 for wireless connections to the iPad which is nice but the real beauty would be if each iPad could replace a LabQuest.

  3. David, I agree that the future of live in-class data collection is using a mobile phone app with a wireless connection to every probe. I don't know that we're there yet.

    I'm going to contact PASCO this summer to see how their bluetooth probes and ipad connections are coming along; I'm going to try them out at my summer institutes.

    We're in the process of purchasing new Vernier stuff. I'll also contact them to see where their mobile apps are headed. I hopefully will be able to post about this again in August. For now, though, I can't give a definitive answer. (Sorry... :-( )