The search for ipad apps

I must admit to being ‘new’ to using iPads. I’ve owned one since day one, but since working in University, iPads were something people brought in out of choice. Now, I’m on the hunt for apps! I can’t believe I even said that, but as my middle schoolers all have iPad mini’s then I have to come up with whole new workflows and to be honest, they ain’t computers.

I’m tapping this out on my new, second hand, MacBook Air, and it’s great! My Surface sits on the floor, right next to my iPad2 and Mr14s kitten. I’m awake because my stupid brain is trying to resolve the conundrum of using iPads to teach some basic programming. It’s a week or so from Easter and I’m obsessing about June’s project already. Welcome to my head.

For example: I want to get them coding and making games, so I want to use something amazing such as Code Combat as I want to them to start some hands-on action in Python. Roadblock one is of course the generic iOS problem, cost and two is that an iPad isn’t really a computer so there has to be an ‘app’ between the user and the code. Despite their being plenty of useful tutorials for learning to program, such as Python the hard way, there’s no access to Terminal etc., so the hunt begins for a work around. I liked the idea of Udemy Python for beginners app but it’s no where near as appealing as code combat when it comes to the all important motivation of 12/13 year olds. Programming looks hard to many kids, and it’s not made any easier by beginning on an iPad. Having tried to use the ‘web’ with a couple of kids keen to try the ‘hour of code’, screen lock ups were common.

This puts me back in the hunt for apps. Perhaps try Hopscotch for the ‘hour of code‘ – Hopscotch is intended to familiarise kids with the world of programming, but they don’t write actual code. But he will learn how to make a simple play button, or a tap on the screen lead to an actual action, so in that way it’s ‘like’ Scratch but hasn’t got quite the depth. The more I look into the world of iPad apps, the more problems emerge.

  • The are not as good as desktop computers for interpreting code
  • They don’t have a real keyboard
  • They don’t have “Terminal’ like access
  • Programming resources which are free on computers, cost money as apps.

This leads me to wonder what the advantages of iPads are over cheap PC notebooks these days. The price point seems similar, yet there is this niggling on-going ‘fee’ problem and along with it, iPad editions of ‘web’ things seem convoluted, cut down or ‘crashy’. For example, I do like Sploder for getting kids thinking about and making games. It’s been around since 2007 at least as takes a sensible approach. It’s free online, and costs $1.99 for the iPad. I understand the commercial realities of developing software, however for those using iPads there appears to be a persistent cost which is more easily circumvented using a computer.

As a computing teacher, I get this feeling that I’m going to walking on egg-shells. Nothing turns kids off programming and making as fast as awkward or wonky UI, and that seems to be what happens with ‘apps’. For example: Given Google’s brilliance and wealth, why can’t kids insert a freaking image into a Google Doc. Why is that SO hard? This feature is basic word-processing, available since the 1980s. Just use the desktop? Yeah, as long as you have tiny and accurate fingers to navigate Google’s minuscule ‘dismiss’ notices and other hit and miss navigation. It’s frustrating when it should be easy.

I’m beginning to think iPads are adept at getting consumers to pay a premium for software which is actually inferior to what is often free and more useful on a computer.

I don’t think these things are cheaper in the long run either. They do have long battery life and they are highly portable, but they are more useful to receive information (and consume) than they are to create it. Just about everything has to have a work around and often a compromise. Then there is the ‘open in another app’ lottery. Sending data from one app to another requires chanting. There is often no obvious reason it fails to arrive as expected. The idea of “open in” or being able to locate a file in a folder is just too un-cool?

I don’t doubt that iPads can do many things that a few years ago were not possible – and for many teaching purposes they are great. However, I don’t live in ‘a few years ago’ and right now, I’m yearning for a 30 slot computer lab, because I’m unconvinced that in STEM or Visual Arts that iPads are a better option. I’m also dirty on cheap end laptops too. I bought a $400 Acer for my youngest child last year. It can barely open a window without calling time-out and sits somewhere on a bedroom floor abandoned. I’m not saying iPads are crap and PCs are better — just that entry level devices have been wrongly and frequently described is liberating learning when in fact they bring new challenges in schools, which didn’t occur in the era og computer-labs. In BYOD classrooms, the problems appears to get worse as the teacher has to do twice the preparation, twice the research and effectively know twice as many work arounds, hot fixes etc., just to keep a learning session running.

I’ll never moan about a computer lab again … the ability to image 30 machines over a network, run the LMS, configure the desktop, share data easily  … now those were the days … and don’t get me started on how bad Turn It in is on iPad or how Edmodo lags out or screen loops … some days things that should be simple are elusive, yet at the same time, watching a hundred iPads hit the internet in a lesson is still a marvellous thing. I just wonder if BYOD is more about returning to the world of computing …