When the child development clinic I volunteer at was given their first two iPads, and asked me to set them up, I was rather confused. To me, the iPad was a toy – just another tech gadget – and I couldn’t understand how it could be useful in rehabilitating patients with varying physical and developmental abilities in a classroom, or even playroom, setting. The iPad has generated a lot of publicity surrounding its educational potential, and its accessibility features are touted as magical selling points in a way that only Apple can manage. The clinic went on to receive another six iPads – but how well is the iPad really suited to special-needs education?
With more schools incorporating iPads into their teaching methods, it makes sense that classrooms with special needs, even if those needs are simply requiring help motivating students to complete homework, should turn to the iPad as well. The iPad is perfect for those for whom a desk can only clumsily accommodate a wheelchair, and those who cannot hold a pencil. Tracing cursive letters with your finger, matching shapes, colouring, and using a (larger than usual) calculator is indeed easier and a great deal less frustrating in such cases.
But in my time installing iPad updates, or going through the app store with a patient at the clinic where I volunteer, I have found surprisingly few apps that are truly educational, and fewer still that are actually compatible with the accessibility features that Apple includes, such as voice over, which describes the screen audibly, or the zooming capabilities. No apps cater specifically to special needs of any kind. Quite honestly, even in clinical settings, the most sought-after and most frequently used apps are games. On the bright side, these games undeniably increase problem-solving and reflex abilities, and can be used as a reward system that motivates the children to do their actual homework, thereby facilitating the educational experience.
The iPad serves the important function of allowing kids who can’t necessarily take advantage of the well-equipped playroom, or who are unable to play conventional sports, or who spend a great deal of time on their own due to any number of reasons, to carry 36 gigabytes worth of games with them and still engage in tactile activities. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is that it succeeds in facilitating the task of a child development clinic, which is to foster the mind once the body has been taken care of down the hall in physiotherapy.
So is the iPad just a plaything? Sure it is. It isn’t the cure to all ills, and it’s a long shot to call it the best teaching tool out there. In fact, its capabilities are severely underexploited, regardless of the endless possibilities that a full colour, touchscreen tablet with hundreds of thousands of apps possesses. What’s more, beyond issues of physical accessibility, is financial accessibility a realistic expectation? To what degree can parents be expected to buy an iPad for their children? While I have been asked by an extraordinary number of patients to download this app or that app that they have on their own iPads at home, and a few have even come bearing entirely digital homework assignments, not all families, especially families handling huge medical bills, can afford a $600 toy that can shatter quite spectacularly if dropped. In light of this, as well as the fact that the iPad is more than just an entertainment for some, perhaps more hospitals, clinics, and schools should make such toys and educational tools accessible.
However, merely increasing the number of iPads will not be enough. The iPad should become a more important part of education and care through its content. To allow this, greater emphasis should be placed on its potential to address the needs of the differently abled, and on developing apps that can truly allow the iPad to evolve from toy to tool.