by Brett Singer (Subscribe to Brett Singer's posts) Apr 20th 2010 3:00PM

Categories: In The News, Gadgets

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By now, most of us have heard about the new Apple iPad and how it is supposed to change our technological lives forever. But when it comes to the recently-released device's effect on education, is it more than just a great screen for movies and video games? Could the iPad replace textbooks? And do you really want one in your child's classroom?

Programmers who created content for the iPad say yes.

Ads for Apple's latest creation feature scenes from the 2009 "Star Trek" film. But when scientist and entrepreneurTheodore Gray sat down to create "The Elements," an iPad version of his book about the periodic table, he had another pop culture phenom in mind: a certain boy wizard.

"What would Harry Potter get out of the Hogwarts library? That's the kind of book we tried to make," Gray tells ParentDish in a phone interview.

Gray says other e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, offer a static reading experience, similar to a PDF file. Gray says he hopes "The Elements" will inspire other publishers -- and readers -- to demand more from their e-books, and he believes the iPad, with it's 9.7-inch color touch screen, offers the opportunity to give it to them.

If a book has "a picture in it, it's got to do something," Gray says. "If it's a book about a musician, I'd better be able to hear something rather than read it."

Gray and his team at The Touch Press created their app in about six weeks. He could have taken the pages of the print version and recreated them on a screen, which is what Gray says most e-book publishers are doing. But Gray, a co-founder of Wolfram Research and columnist for Popular Science magazine, wanted to do better.

The result is an e-book/app that is truly interactive. Gray tells ParentDish some aspects of the iPad edition of "The Elements" are the same as the dead tree version -- both are "90 to 95 percent ... about objects." But, he adds, "the natural way to pick up an object is to rotate it," and on the iPad, that's exactly what readers can do.

Each element on the periodic table, be it hydrogen, chromnium, manganese or vanadium, has an image that can be spun around, enabling it to be viewed from all sides. Imagine a tactile science textbook, where the pictures literally come to life before your eyes. There also are links to live information from the Web, and even 3-D images that can be seen using special glasses.

Gray says "The Elements" is not a textbook. "It has a start and finish," he says, and should be treated "more like enrichment materials." Still, "a chemistry teacher could do a lot worse than encouraging their students to look at it."

Similarly, Gray says putting iPads in classrooms is a good idea, as long as they are properly utilized.

He says educators used to be anxious to get their students in front of a computer, but once they were there, they didn't always know what to do with them. Now that computers are more ubiquitous, "we can have more intelligent discussions about how they should be used," he says.

Gray says he hopes educators don't fall into the trap of using the iPad as "free time for the teacher," plopping the kids in front of yet another screen. And even a hardcore technologist such as Gray acknowledges that computers shouldn't be used by teachers of every subject. Still, he and other developers are excited about the possibilities of the iPad, or other tablet-style computers, being used in schools.

Although an Apple spokesperson had no comment on the company's plans to market the iPad directly to education institutions, many companies have released or are working on educational apps for the new big screen.

Kayvon Beykpour, vice president of Blackboard Mobile, tells ParentDish in an e-mail that he thinks the iPad could "help increase interest in digital texts," as well as "drive greater interest in bringing multimedia content from a range of Web sources into the learning experience."

And the iPad's possibilities aren't just for students -- in a YouTube video for the new iPad version of the company's Blackboard Mobile Learn product, a user writes, "I'm an 11th Grade Online U.S. History teacher. Can't wait to try out this app."

Arlene and Andy Lee of iHomeEducator, a company that makes educational apps and is run by two parents who homeschool their children, tells ParentDish via e-mail that the iPod Touch is already popular with "homeschool and charter school families," and they expect the iPad will "be a step up" in terms of one on one teacher/student interaction. With it's larger screen, "the iPad allows joint viewing which is very nice in these situations," they write.

The bottom line for the use of the iPad in education seems to be that, as with any tool, it's all about how you use it.

"It's kind of like when television came out," Grays says. "People thought that it could be the greatest thing in the service of mankind ever. Instead, we ended up with sitcoms and reality shows. And that had nothing particularly to do with the details of the technology one way or the other."

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