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iPads and Related Devices in High Schools: Apps and Problems

Linda Crampton taught science and information technology to high school students for many years. She enjoys learning about new technology.

iOS devices can be useful in high schools.

iOS devices can be useful in high schools.

Apps for iOS and Other Devices

iPads and other iOS devices can be wonderful educational tools for high schools. They are highly mobile devices that offer Internet access as well as a huge collection of free or inexpensive applications suitable for educational use. Apps exist for accessing information, exploring, creating, problem solving, planning, communicating, storing data, and analyzing—essential activities for students and often for their teachers, too.

iOS is Apple's operating system for its mobile devices, which can be great portable computers. They can also be relatively inexpensive compared to other computers, although this depends not only on which device is bought but also on which version of the device is obtained. Schools may not be able to afford new versions with the latest technology, but the devices and their apps can still be useful.

Today’s students live in a digital age and enthusiastically embrace the use of portable electronic devices. Products from a range of manufacturers can be useful for high schools, but since I use Apple products more than other ones I'm most familiar with their possibilities. These products are the most popular ones amongst the students in schools where I’ve taught. The screenshots in the article were taken by me as I viewed the applications on my devices.

Using a maps app on an iPad can be useful for navigation and for education.

Using a maps app on an iPad can be useful for navigation and for education.

Not all of the devices present in schools may be able to run the latest operating system. Many apps work on earlier systems, however. In addition, Apple devices come with useful applications pre-installed.

Choosing a Device and Practicing Typing Skills

I have an iPad and have recently acquired an iPhone, which was a lovely gift. I also have an old iPod. Even though the device has a small screen, the iPod can be very useful. Depending on the amount of memory that it contains, the device is considerably cheaper than the rest of Apple’s mobile devices and tablets, which is an important advantage.

Unfortunately, Apple has recently announced that they are no longer making the iPod. It may be hard to find one to buy, let alone a class set. Some students may still use one, however. In my experience, the devices work for a long time.

Thumb Typing

I find typing on the iPad easy. I also find thumb typing on the iPhone easy. After practice, thumb typing on the iPod in portrait and in landscape view can be easy and effective, though I find typing in landscape view easier. The devices come with the Pages word processor as well as other useful apps.

Use of a Keyboard

Many students can type quickly on their phone or on a similar device. They get lots of practice sending emails and text messages. I have a portable Bluetooth keyboard that works well my iPad and my iPod touch. I sometimes use this if I'm going to write more than quick notes on the iPod. I find that if I thumb type regularly to maintain my skills, however, I don’t need the keyboard, especially if I type in landscape view.

While it’s true that students need to practice typing on a keyboard to prepare for a job or post-secondary education, thumb typing can be a useful way to find or store information when a computer and its keyboard aren’t available. It is important that students use a physical keyboard reasonably frequently, however, even if they have to take turns using the keyboards that are available in a classroom. Thumb typing is unlikely to impress a potential employer.

All of the apps that I discuss below are available for iPads, iPhones, and the iPod touch, with some restrictions. Equivalent applications (and in some cases identical ones) are available for other operating systems, including Windows. The Google apps that I describe work on the Android operating system as well as the iOS one.

Apps for High School Students and Teachers

Many applications in the Apple App Store (and the Google Play store for the Android system) are free. In general, once the apps have been downloaded, iOS devices don't need to access the Internet in order to be useful for schools. Some apps require Internet access to be fully functional, but many don't. Very occasionally, I have encountered an iOS one that won’t open without a connection to the Internet. One of my dictionary apps does open, but none of the searches for word definitions work unless I have access to the Internet.

I haven't tried all the educational apps that are suitable for high school students, since so many are available. For example, there are many different word processors, art programs, music programs, scientific calculators, and periodic table applications. I'll name the apps that I use in each of the following categories, but you might find others that you prefer or that are more suitable for your system’s capabilities.

Although I refer to the iPad below, the apps also work on iPhones and iPods (except where noted). The word "iPad" refers to all versions of the device, including the iPad Mini. The word "iPod" refers to the iPod touch.

The Notes app running in iOS 12 on an iPad

The Notes app running in iOS 12 on an iPad

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Devices and apps change over time. They may be improved or discontinued, new versions may be created, and they may change in price or availability. In addition, the system requirements for an application may change. The requirements for running an app should be checked before it's purchased or installed.


The built-in Notes app that comes with iOS devices can function as a basic word processor. New features added in the recent versions of the app make Notes less basic than it used to be. Even if assignments aren't created or completed in Notes, the app can be useful for taking notes during class or a lecture. The Notes app works on multiple versions of iOS.

Features without iOS 9

  • Bold, italics, and underline are available.
  • The device's built-in spell check works.
  • Select, cut, copy, and paste functions work.
  • Live text links to web pages can be saved.
  • Notes are searchable.
  • The notes are saved on the device automatically.
  • Notes can be printed, emailed, shared on social media, and uploaded to Dropbox for backup.
  • If iCloud is used, notes sync automatically between Apple mobile devices, tablets, and computers. At the moment, iCloud provides five gigabytes of free storage space. Paid plans allow for more storage.

Additional Features in iOS 9 or Above

  • Full-screen notes
  • Additional formatting options: indent, a header, bulleted, numbered or dashed lists, and check boxes
  • The ability to add photos, videos, and art from the iOS photo library (without text wrap)
  • Basic drawing tools (A hint for a step that is not obvious—place two fingers on the ruler in order to rotate it.)
  • The ability to save links to web pages and Apple Maps as attachments (via the iOS share function)
  • The ability to view saved web pages, maps, and drawings in the attachment browser of Notes. The links to web pages and maps appear as a brief text summary and a thumbnail picture.
  • With iOS 9.3 or higher—password protection for notes. (Choose "Lock Note" from the share menu.)
  • The ability to save notes in different folders

Using Notes on an iPhone

Pages for Word Processing

Pages is a full-featured word processor and is the app that I use most often for my writing. I find it reliable and easy to use. The app automatically saves files on the iPad and also syncs them with Pages on desktop computers, laptops, and other devices via iCloud. Documents can be placed in folders and password protected. They can also be mailed or printed.

The Pages app has many useful features, including multiple fonts, text justification, multiple styles of headings, headers and footers, footnotes, lists, spell check (via the built-in auto correct system in iOS), word count, and character count. The text can be entered in columns if desired, and the line spacing can be altered.

The app allows the user to insert photos, videos, and art stored on the iPad. Photos can be resized and dragged around the screen. The text automatically wraps around a photo as it's moved. The app also includes different styles of editable shapes, charts, and tables. Pages enables some creative formatting and page layout to be accomplished. It contains some useful templates for people who don't want to create a document from scratch. The app and its updates are free.

Some of the templates present in the Pages app

Some of the templates present in the Pages app

Using Unusual Characters in Pages

Some people are unaware that holding some of the keys down on the iOS keyboard reveals alternate forms of letters, such as ones with accents. This feature can be very useful in a word processor.

Unfortunately, subscripts and superscripts aren't available in the older versions of Pages. This might be a serious drawback for a chemistry teacher or student, since the characters are needed to write chemical formulas. The newer versions of Pages do allow the writer to use subscripts and superscripts, but the process is not as easy as in some other word processors.

I’ve found the Unicode Character Map app useful. It’s free at the App Store. The app has a huge collection of characters, including a collection of subscripts and superscripts for different numbers and symbols. It’s hasn’t been updated for some time, however, presumably because the Pages app has become more capable.

A character in the Character Map app is automatically copied as soon as it's touched. It can then be pasted into a Pages document (and into Notes and other writing apps). If both apps are open at the same time, the procedure is quite easy, though it's not ideal.

Apple Numbers (a spreadsheet program) and Keynote (a presentation program) are also free for owners of Apple devices. As always, system requirements for running the apps should be checked before they are obtained or updated.

Google Docs for Word Processing

I also use the Google Docs app, which provides subscripts and superscripts. The app has most of the features that would be expected in a basic word processor, including text wrap around images. Like Pages, it's free and is backed up "in the cloud" via Google Drive. I have no problems creating a document in Google Docs on my iPad and then accessing it via the Windows version of the program on my laptop or by the version on my Android device. It isn't necessary to have a laptop, computer, or phone to use the program, however.

Documents can be printed from the Google Docs app on the iOS device. The computer version of the program has more features, but the tablet or mobile app may be all that a student needs.

It’s sometimes possible to download an older version of an app from the Apple store if you have already downloaded a newer one on another device. The store recognizes that the user has downloaded or paid for the newer version of the app and offers them the opportunity to download a prior version which will run on an older device. This is how I obtained a version of Google Docs that runs on iOS 9 on my old iPad mini.

It's important to note whether an app saves user-created data on the device or only in the cloud (on the Internet). Data saved in the cloud won't be available when a user lacks an Internet connection.

An Art App

I enjoy using the free Brushes Redux application for creating paintings. With practice, students can create beautiful art using this app. It also lets them import photos taken from the iPad photo album and incorporate them into their creation. The user's brush strokes are recorded and can be replayed as a video.

The interface of the app looks quite basic at first, but as a person explores they'll see that the application has some useful features. It offers editable brushes, layers with transparency, and undo/redo.

The original Brushes app was very popular and was even used to create a cover for The New Yorker magazine. Despite its apparent success, for some reason the creator stopped updating the app and the program is no longer available for download. Another programmer has created a free open source version of the app, which is why the word "redux" is in its name. Although the painting below is white and grey, Brushes Redux does contain colour tools.

Creating a Cockatoo in Brushes Redux

If you're exploring the App Store to look for suitable downloads, check the system requirements for an app, the reviews, and the last time that the app was updated. If it hasn't been updated for a long time, the creator may no longer be interested in fixing bugs or adding new features.

Music Creation

I create music in a free program called Piano 3D. The program produces a reasonably realistic piano sound and is fun to use. Music can be created by pressing on the keys in the picture of the piano. Multiple keys can be played at a time and both hands can be used. The sustain pedal works and can be pressed to alter the sound. The keyboard can be enlarged or shrunk as needed and can also be tilted to the desired angle. Music that's created can be recorded and shared.

Additional features can be bought on a week, month, year, or lifetime basis. The fees enable a person to access various midi functions, download songs, and remove ads. The app tells me that more instruments will be added to the program soon, but I don't know whether these instruments will be free or will require a fee to download.

Multiple piano apps are available as well as ones that simulate other instruments. It's a good idea to try the free ones to see which one provides the most realistic sounds or has other features that would be useful for students.

A screenshot of Piano 3D on my iPad

A screenshot of Piano 3D on my iPad

GarageBand is a free app created by Apple and provides multiple instruments for people to play. A teacher should explore whether a multi-instrument program or a single-instrument one is better for their students (assuming both apps work well on the devices that are available),

Reading and Dictionary Apps


The built-in Books application on the iPad lets people purchase books from the Apple bookstore. Some of the books are free or very inexpensive while others cost more. Like many Apple apps, purchased books are stored on iCloud so that they can be downloaded onto another of the user's devices.

Other free book readers are available for iOS. Their requirements and the selection of books that they offer (such as the ratio of free to paid books) should be investigated before they’re downloaded. Some require the user to submit their email address to the company that owns the software.

Dictionary and Thesaurus

My favorite dictionary so far is called WordBook Dictionary. The app contains both a dictionary and a thesaurus and has good search functions. Etymologies of many words are given. If the student is connected to the Internet, the audio pronunciation of each word is given as well. There is also a word of the day function. The application links to Wikipedia to show more information about a word. The information at the App Store says that WordBook Dictionary contains 150,000 entries and more than 220,000 definitions. Unfortunately, I’ve recently noticed that the app is no longer free, though it is inexpensive. As might be expected, other dictionary apps are available.

A scene from Google Maps

A scene from Google Maps

Geography Apps

Google Earth is another wonderful and free application, but it does require access to the Internet to work and sometimes does its job slowly—perhaps too slowly for some devices. If a device can handle the app’s requirements, it's worth the short wait to be able to explore the world on the iPad. The exploration of places that I'll probably never see in real life is always fascinating. The students that I’ve taught have also found using Google Earth an enjoyable activity, although when they‘ve used it during their free time they’ve often explored places that they already know, such as their neighbourhood or their friend’s.

Google Maps and the Apple Maps app that comes with the iPad and iPod are useful for navigation and for learning about an area. Both can display satellite images as well as road maps. It's worth downloading Google Earth, though, for its impressive and immersive imagery. The app works on multiple types of devices. The system requirements should be noted, however. An older device may not be capable of running the app. Some devices can use the web version of Google Earth.

If a student’s device is connected to the Internet, websites about different countries and educational videos will be available. This will allow a student to explore different countries even if their device can’t run Google Earth. An Internet browser for a tablet or mobile device is a very useful app.

Screenshot of the scientific calculator: this appears when the iPod is turned to the landscape orientation once the calculator app is opened.

Screenshot of the scientific calculator: this appears when the iPod is turned to the landscape orientation once the calculator app is opened.

Scientific Calculators

The iPod touch and the iPhone have a good built-in scientific calculator, which is all that I need for the courses that I teach. Calculators with more features are available at the App Store. The collection includes unit converters, financial calculators, and graphing calculators that are cheaper to buy than a physical graphing calculator.

Strangely, the iPad doesn't have a built-in calculator. One has to be downloaded. I use the free Calculator Pro. This is both a standard and a scientific calculator and also includes a unit and currency converter. It works well for my purposes. It shows ads, but I don’t mind this. The app only works on iPads. It automatically downloads the latest currency conversion rates. This is an important factor to consider in a conversion app, whether it's done automatically or manually.

Screenshot of EMD PTE; clicking on an element or the purple spot at the bottom left hand corner brings up a lot of useful information

Screenshot of EMD PTE; clicking on an element or the purple spot at the bottom left hand corner brings up a lot of useful information

A Periodic Table App

As a science teacher as well as an information technology one, I often refer to a periodic table. It might be wondered why an iPad periodic table app is useful when the table is published in so many textbooks and student planners. The answer is that interactive applications have additional features compared to those of printed periodic tables.

I use a free periodic table app called EMD PTE. Clicking on an element box in the app brings up a long list of properties for the element as well as nontechnical background information and brief facts about the discoverer. Clicking on the purple spot in the bottom left hand corner reveals different ways of looking at the data in the table as well as a glossary and a molar mass calculator.

The pro version of TuneIn Radio

The pro version of TuneIn Radio

Radio Stations Around the World

A radio application can be used for entertainment or for education. I use an application called TuneIn Radio. This app lets me listen to 100,000 radio stations. I can listen to music in many different genres and hear the latest news from around the world. I can also listen to informational shows discussing a wide variety of topics. It's great to learn about different cultures and current events by listening to radio stations in different countries.

The app comes in a free and a pro version. The pro version lacks ads and allows the listener to record a radio show so that they can listen to it later. The number of radio stations is currently the same in the free and the pro version, however. Audiobooks and podcasts are available within the program for premium subscribers.

The user can choose the countries that appear in the world clock app. Here the app is integrated with the Weather Channel, which shows the weather in each country.

The user can choose the countries that appear in the world clock app. Here the app is integrated with the Weather Channel, which shows the weather in each country.

Useful Built-in Apps in iOS

The stopwatch, timer, and alarm in the built-in clock app on iOS devices are useful for measuring time intervals during science experiments. The calendar app can be used for recording important dates, such as due dates for assignments and test dates, and for setting an alert to remind a student or a teacher of an event.

Apps are provided for contacting other people with words, sound, and/or video. It's a good idea to consult the world clock in the clock app before trying to contact someone in a different time zone. The contacts app not only keeps a record of information about people (such as email and website addresses) but in many cases enables them to be contacted by clicking on the information. A contact list can be useful when doing research.

Educational Podcasts

iTunes University (or iTunes U as it was called in its last incarnation) gave users a huge variety of academic courses and was a great learning resource. A student of almost any age could use the “university” to learn a language or to learn about music, health, religion, history, science, and many other subjects. The university had special features for teachers. Sadly, iTunes U ceased to exist at the end of 2021. Thankfully, some of the series that it contained have been converted to podcasts and are still updated and can still be accessed.

On iOS devices, educational podcasts can be listened to in the podcast app. The app also enables people to browse Apple's collection of podcasts, which is extensive. The science ones that I like to listen to and that are suitable for students are free. Many of the other educational ones seem to be free as well. Some of Apple's podcasts charge a subscription fee, however.

iPads, the iPod touch, and iPhones provide many great educational opportunities. There are both advantages and disadvantages to their use in schools, however.

One Benefit of Mobile Devices in Schools

The computers in the last school where I taught were a valuable educational resource. There was only one computer lab in the school, however. It was often being used by another class when I was teaching. This was inconvenient when my students were working on a research project or when their exploration of a particular website would have been a great enhancement to the topic that I was teaching. We did have digital projectors which connected to a teacher's laptop, but the teacher controlled what was shown on the projection screen. Students need to do their own research and produce their own creations.

The school had a wireless network, so students and staff could access the Internet from anywhere in the building. Some students had a cellular connection to the Internet, but this feature raises the cost of a device and isn't practical for everyone‘s budget. Small electronic devices that can access the school's wireless network solve the problem of having no computers in a classroom.

If students have access to the devices but not to the Internet, it’s important to consider whether apps on the device will run without an Internet connection. Another factor to consider is whether they will run in this situation but will be missing some of their features.

A Potential Problem: Obtaining Enough Devices

Unless a school has students that come from wealthy families, some students may not be able to afford an iPad or even a smaller iOS device. In this case, requiring the purchase of one as part of school supplies is unfair. One solution which some schools use is to buy a class set of devices. This is beyond the budget of many institutions, however. Another solution for schools who can’t afford or don’t want to buy devices but need to use a wireless Internet setup is for students to share their electronic devices.

The last school where I taught stressed cooperation amongst the students. They were very willing to share devices and even loan them to students in other classes when they needed them. We often had enough portable devices in my class for everyone to have access to the Internet. This may not be the situation in all schools.

The use of phones in schools is controversial. Many educators love the ways in which smart phones with apps can aid learning and motivate students. Others hate the fact that phones can distract students when they use them for noneducational purposes.

Monitoring Student Activity

Despite the great selection of educational applications available for iPads and related devices and their useful ability to access the Internet, there is a problem associated with them as far as supervisors are concerned. iPhones and iPods have small screens. It’s easy to see what a student is doing on their laptop or tablet when a teacher wanders around a classroom while students are working on an assignment. It's not so easy to see what's happening on a phone-sized screen.

The students in my school were pretty good about staying on task when they were allowed to use their portable electronic devices. There were potential distractions for them, however, such as social media. If students used their phone without permission or didn’t stay on task while they were using it, they were sent to the office, their phone was confiscated until the end of the day, and they lost a point from their current total in the subject. Some schools may decide to make the iPad mini the smallest device that is allowed in class.

Bypassing Necessary and Valuable Skills

Another problem with mobile device use, or with the use of any computer, is that it's not appropriate to rely on certain applications when a student hasn't mastered basic skills without a computer. Students need to be able to spell without relying on the spell check function of a word processing program, and they need to be able to do math calculations without using a calculator, for example. They also need to be able to use a library and its offerings effectively. In addition, the joy of creating music with a real instrument and creating art with physical equipment and pigments can be wonderful and educational experiences.

Useful Devices for Students and Teachers

Despite the potential problems associated with the use of mobile devices in high schools, they are often a great educational resource. They can be used in many creative ways both during class time and at home. As interesting applications continue to be created for iOS and other devices, the ways to enhance students' learning are increasing.

The devices can be useful for high school teachers as well as their students. With the right apps, iPads, iPhones, iPods, and similar devices can be used for organization, lesson planning, record keeping, and continuing education. They have great potential in the present and will probably develop additional abilities as technology advances.

© 2011 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 18, 2012:

Thank you, Appsthatpayyou. I appreciate your comment.

Appsthatpayyou from London on September 18, 2012:

Hi Alicia C. A really helpful and practical hub! Thanks for the great work.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 29, 2012:

Thanks for the extra information, Stella.

StellaSee from California on June 29, 2012:

Scrivener is good for when you're writing really long documents (say like a novel or an essay) because unlike Microsoft word, there's a way to organize how many drafts of which document you have, there's a way to keep the original copy of a draft before you make changes, you can add in notes as you're's not free like Evernote but if you're a hard core writer, it's so worth it!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 26, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, Stella. I love Evernote too - it's a very useful app! Thanks also for the information about Scrivener - I'll investigate this software. It sounds interesting.

StellaSee from California on June 26, 2012:

When I see kids nowdays carrying around iPods/iPhones and I think 'not long ago it used to be CD players and cassette tapes..' I feel really old ahaha. Anyways, on a more serious note, Evernote is awesome! I use it for those things on your to do list that are important but they're not that urgent so you tend to forget about it after a while. And I love the web clipper! One software I wish I knew while I was in school is Scrivener..that would have made essay writing so much faster!

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