We Need Keyboards With Our iPads. Not!

This past summer, Maine's schools got the choice for the first time to purchase tablets as part of the statewide 1to1 learning with “laptop” initiative (MLTI). It has spotlighted an interesting demand related to tablets: we need to get keyboards so students can use the tablets.

I kind of understand why people might think this. The virtual keyboard on the iPad does take a little getting used to, especially if you're a pretty good typer on a regular, physical keyboard. Also, adults and students hear other adults say, “we need keyboards for our tablets.” And the idea is reinforced by the TV ads for some tablets that state theirs come with a keyboard “so you can do real work.” Locally, we even have an owner of a call center claiming (while pounding his fist on the table…) he won't hire any of our graduates because they won't be able to type on a physical keyboard.

My own experience with a full sized iPad is that it took me a couple weeks to get used to the virtual keyboard, but now I type on it as fast or faster than I do on a physical keyboard. And I have heard similar stories of parents or community leaders in other districts demanding keyboards because of the hard time they personally are having typing on the onscreen keyboard, but a couple weeks later saying “never mind” when they have developed familiarity with it.

Admittedly, if I'm doing any quantity of writing on my iPad mini, such as writing this post, I do use a bluetooth keyboard. My hands are just too big to do anything more than a modified hunt and peck on the smaller keyboard. But the core of this debate is not about the size the keyboards on the (smaller) screens, but rather about onscreen vs physical keyboards.

I do believe that some folks really do need a different keyboard or sometimes need a physical keyboard. MLTI provided keyboards in something like a 1-to-10 or 1-to-7 ratio to the number of student iPads. We have put those in a keyboard lending program in our school libraries (students can check them out as needed), and a few students with a specific need have one permanently assigned to them. We even have students and families who have bought their own keyboards or keyboard cases (but that was a personal choice rather than a universal demand).

But the real issue that keeps coming up is the question, does everyone (or even just most students) need a keyboard? Districts in Maine that have experience with 1to1 iPad initiatives had interesting things to say when the question of keyboards was posed on the state technology email list.

The Cape Elizabeth tech director reported:

In our high school, we bought around 40-50 iPad keyboards for use in English and Social Studies, and also in our Library. This was in response to concerns from teachers, rather than from students, and although they did get used, they got used primarily because the teachers wanted them to be used rather than students needing to use them. They certainly got used less and less as the year went on and even teachers who borrowed them stopped using them as they ended up finding the onscreen keyboard just more practical.

The high school in RSU 57 has had a 1to1 iPad initiative in place for about 2 years. Their tech person talked about the keyboard cases they had provided students:

This was based on concerns from the administration and staff that student's would need a keyboard especially for typing long papers. Two years later and (my opinion) most students do not use the physical keyboards. Last year's class used it less than the previous class. What I am seeing is that the more the iPad and its virtual keyboard become mainstream the more the students are used to virtual typing before they are ever issued an iPad. Had we stayed with our original plan, I was not going to purchase keyboards this year.

In South Portland, the high school has had a 1to1 initiative for about 3 years, involving about 400 iPads. They have had “almost zero 'real' keyboard use/demand for the few we had purchased to allay concerns.”

Similarly, folks from Falmouth shared:

We bought 50 keyboards for our Elementary School iPads when we started the program 2 years ago. The thought was that 5th graders were going to need them to be able to type papers. 48 of the keyboards are still sitting in a closet unopened because they just have not been needed. The other two I have loaned out to staff but they always bring them back because they don't use them.

Foxcroft Academy has had one of the first high school 1to1 iPad initatiives in Maine. Their Assistant Head of School for Academics pointed out:

We're beginning year 3 of our 1:1 iPad program for all of our grade 9-12 students. We bought a few keyboards in year 1…They've received almost no use. There are plenty of barriers to student writing, but I can assure you that the virtual keyboard is not a substantive one. And, with built-in speech-to-text on these fancy new MLTI iPads, the virtual keyboard is even less a barrier. In short – buy a few (no more than a handful) if you must, to show that you're listening, but know that they are very likely to gather dust.

The Tech Integrator from Bar Harbor responded this way:

We plan to disallow external keyboards for iPads in school, unless the school determines that a student needs one. The thinking is that students will learn the iPad quickly enough, and that we don't want to set up for “have's and have-nots,”…. also the experience of our teachers using iPads, is that even an adult can learn to process text on an iPad.

That educator went on to say that when parents inquire, they have been referencing the articles here and here.

The issue is primarily an adult issue. Surprisingly, much of the demand for keyboards came before any of the schools even had their iPads! As one educator stated in the online discussion:

Some can't understand how you can interact in an educational setting with a device that does not have a keyboard with keys on it. An English teacher here, who was using Edmodo, had a student submit a lengthy paper the student had “thumb typed” on their iPhone!! Don't worry, the kids are all ready there or they will adapt very quickly. We just need to get out of the way.

I am empathetic to folks having fears and concerns about “new” technology they have only a cursory understanding of. This keyboard issue is a common perception about iPads.

But being a common perception does not mean that we have to respond to it, especially if we have adequate reason to believe it is a MISperception. (Nor do we have to respond to a concern just because it is stated repeatedly, or loudly, or with confidence, or by condemning those who disagree, etc.)

It is on us to make the argument (politely and diplomatically) about what works (not what is perceived or guessed or intuited or philosophized…) and provide the evidence that it works (such as through the stories that have been shared here).


36 thoughts on “We Need Keyboards With Our iPads. Not!

  1. Bob Trikakis

    You forgot to add the virus protection, floppy drive and USB Port. In this age NO EDUCATOR should fear technology adoption, it’s a way of life. If you do, please move aside and give a modern educator a chance. Think of all the money education wastes with dated thinking. The iPad is an amazing education tool, Maine is so lucky to have them in their classrooms.

  2. Pingback: Is the Problem Your Students, the Device, or Your Vision for Learning? | Multiple Pathways

  3. Barbara Greenstone

    Mike, thanks for this thought-provoking post. As you know, students at BRHS are blogging in their Digital Literacy classes and using their iPads for most of their writing. I thought you’d like to hear from some kids who were MacBook users last year and have transitioned to iPads. They will be commenting today as we read your post in class.

  4. Colette

    You have a very good point. I’ve seen it at my own school, people started to use the keyboards that were provided for us, but now I hardly see anyone using them. Yes, I think that there should be keyboards to be available for the students, but we don’t need to get a whole bunch of them!

  5. Brandon A.

    In this you are saying that you do not believe that the students need these keyboards yet you yourself use a keyboard. These stats may show the use in these keyboards but not all students know that they have access to these and also sometimes there is not enough time to pull the keyboards out turn them on and then type you may just be too busy to do that.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Brandon, thanks for sharing your points! Just a quick clarification in response to one of your points – I only use a keyboard when typing longer pieces on my iPad mini (I use the virtual keyboard for shorter writing), and then only because I have large hands and that screen is comparatively small. My iPad Air is my primary device (I do have a laptop, but only use it for certain tasks), and I use the onscreen keyboard exclusively with it. That includes for blogging, writing letters and articles, grant writing, and other kinds of intensive writing.

  6. DuncanD

    Towards the end of the second paragraph you mention some people who won’t hire someone because they can’t type on a real keyboard. I know technology is moving forward , but if a kid only knows how to type digitally couldn’t this hurt him in a future job search?

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Duncan, great question. Now that you are typing on the iPad (virtually), do you think you’d have a problem using a physical keyboard? My thinking is that people can move from one to the other, even if it takes a little getting used to. Different brands of cars have the controls in different places, but adults don’t have a hard time going from one brand of car to another.

  7. Michael R

    At the begining of the school year I chose to buy a bluetooth keyboard of my own to use on my iPad, but so far this year I have only used it a few times, and that was right after I got it. The reason I think that I used it most right after I got the keyboard is because it was brand new and all kids like new toys, but as time went on it turned out to be easier to just use the keyboard on the iPad. It took too much time to get the keyboard out and turn it on and connect it to my iPad every time.

  8. Carter

    I have never felt the need, once I got my I-pad, to use the keyboards that are in the library. My classmates and I have already gone through typing class in 7th and 8th grade so we already know how to use the physical keyboards. Now that I have my I-Pad I type with my thumbs.

  9. JeremyH

    I have not ever used a keypad on the iPad. It did not take that long to get familiar with typing on the screen and It did not take long to become fluent while typing. When I have the iPad vertical I type with my thumbs but when it is horizontal I type with my pointer fingers.

  10. Jay P

    I will have to disagree with you. I think that you can turn out better work when you have a physical keyboard. If you have a physical keyboard, you do not have to adapt to something else; you can focus on your work.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Jay, thanks for sharing your perspective with me. I’m wondering is your view really an I-statement (you feel that YOU do better work with a physical keyboard), or are you saying that all people do better with with a physical keyboard? If you are making an I statement, I don’t think we disagree. I’m in favor of people being able to choose. I was writing mostly that I personally disagree with the idea that EVERYONE (or even most) needs a physical keyboard. That hasn’t matched with my experience both at my school and with other schools.

  11. Colin C.

    I thought it was hard at first to use the iPads because for three years straight we have been using laptops and have been practicing our typing with a physical keyboard. I at first realized the iPads virtual keyboard was smaller so I had to change the way I typed. I find myself now just using my pointer fingers and my thumbs.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Colin, I found it hard to type on the iPad at first, too. I have to admit I still touch type on the iPad. I haven’t learned how to thumb type and envy you and your friends who can. Maybe my thumbs are just too big! πŸ™‚

  12. Maybelle E.

    In the beginning of the year I was thinking I would need a physical key board, but then I thought about it and realized that I would rarely use it. It was a good thing they were made though because I truly believe some people do need them. After using my keyboard for a few weeks, then trying to use my computer at home, it was really hard for me. Do you think it will be harder for older people to use the the virtual keyboard rather then the physical?

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      I know some older people who seem to have a very hard time with the onscreen keyboard. I wonder why? Is it just because they have a harder time adapting to change? or is it something about their hands? What do you think?

      1. Maybelle E.

        I also think that it is because they have a harder time adapting to it, and I also think some just don’t want to.

  13. Draco

    Personally I don’t mind using the virtual keyboard because you can use it anywhere. Also the keys on a physical keyboard can fall off or get stuck. When on the virtual keyboard that never happens. Why doesn’t anyone send a state wide email informing teachers or tech people informing them that it only takes a couple weeks to get used to the iPad?

  14. Victoria R.

    This is one the most interesting blogs that I have read. A few kids in my class use keyboards with their iPads. Honestly, I think that typing on the iPad is pretty easy. I’ve used a MacBook for school for the past three years, and this is my first year using an iPad. At first it was hard to type papers on here, but now I have gotten used to it and I think that’s it’s better than typing on a computer! Honestly, if the school buys keyboards for the school, then it’s just like typing in a computer and it’s just a waist to have an iPad. Typing on and iPad is a good exercise for learning how to use different devices. If kids want to use a keyboard with and iPad, then they should really just have a laptop. That’s my opinion on your blog πŸ™‚ thanks for sharing!

  15. Willow B.

    Thank you for this intriguing post. I find it interesting to hear that some people have such a strong opinion on this topic. Personally, I think handwriting is beginning to become a lost art. I feel as though handwriting should be encouraged and practiced more in schools. I think it is a more valuable skill, and I think it is a better topic than keyboards. On the topic of iPad keyboards though, I think kids should be using virtual keyboards, rather than physical ones. This is isn’t called the digital age for no reason, in a few years we may get rid of physical keyboards all together. I also feel as though learning to use a physical keyboard is a good skill that everyone should learn before they graduate to a digital keyboard. I think a well rounded person should have and learn many skills, even if they don’t use them later in life. Everyone remembers learning cursive right? I remember thinking “When am I ever going to have to use this?” And I found out years later that the answer would be almost never. Training your brain and learning new things makes you smarter, and no doubt more disciplined. In the long run though, it all comes down to preference. What do you like to use? What is most comfortable and fastest for you?

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Willow, you refer to handwriting as a lost art. Do you think we should teach it as a communication skill or should we teach it as an art?

  16. Chyanne

    I personally as a student would rather have a keyboard. It makes it much easier to write essays and such. It is possible to do things with the on screen keyboard but much more difficult. I understand your point but I disagree. I know many people that use keyboard and say it’s much easier and faster to write essays. I’ve had the iPad from my school for about 4 months and I have adapted to the on screen keyboard but it is still much more easier no faster with a keyboard.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Hey Chayanne, I don’t disagree with you that lots of folks say they are faster using a physical keyboard. I’m wondering, though, if it is because they haven’t put the time in to learn the virtual keyboard? I know they are a little different and my own experience is that it took a while to get good at it. You and I do agree that if someone has put the time in to learn the virtual keyboard and still thinks they are better at a physical keyboard, they should have the choice to use it.

  17. Tanya Hammond

    As one who took a traditional typing class in high school and now teaches high school English, I am skeptical. Here are my questions: What does the research show about speed / productivity differences when students receive keyboarding instruction on each device? (Some schools claim they teach keyboarding skills, but we oldies would say it’s a far cry from what we learned and practiced.) Has there been research on the physical impact of touch-screen typing, two-finger typing, and thumb-typing as opposed to the old-school approach? Were students asked in a methodical way why they didn’t borrow the keyboards from the closet or library? Would the answer be that they don’t find it more useful, or that the process is more time-consuming and frustrating. (My experience is that it takes five to ten minutes from class time to borrow and then return one, and if multiple students are using bluetooth devices, signals can get crossed or a student can “hijack” another’s screen.

    As you and others have said, each of us has different needs and capacities for adapting. There will always be some who are very skilled with a device and others who are not, regardless of age and experience. Additionally, the ease of dictation through the iPad is something which may change the dependence on a keyboard and make this a fleeting issue.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Tanya, great questions. My own personal opinion is that keyboards sitting unopened is a pretty strong piece of data. Also remember the school that bought keyboard cases – they didn’t have to take time to borrow them or turn them on. Check out the links to the two articles included in the blog post. They answer some of your questions about research on typing speed.

  18. Elizabeth

    Well I do really appreciated typing on the iPad screen and all BUT, I believe that iPad keyboards are a lot easier to use. My reasoning is that I type faster on a keyboard. I can’t say that I’m not getting better at typing on a iPad screen I just perfur to use a keyboard. Other people
    night think differently, we all have,our opinions. Also I think that if you want to use numbers you should not have to stop what you are doing to change your iPads keyboard page. On a keyboard you can just go on the top row and theirs the numbers for you. No hassle to change pages, no need to stop what you are doing. I can’t say to you that you don’t have good evedence on your case. Very nice work n your blog. πŸ™‚

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Elizabeth, thanks for your compliment about my blog! πŸ™‚ I agree with you that a lot of folks can type faster on a physical keyboard when they first get their iPads. I also agree that, once someone has put the time in to learn the virtual keyboard they should be able to choose which type of keyboard they use when. But, because the virtual keyboard takes a little while to get good at, I worry that folks who never put the time in, will never get good at it. Where I fully support individuals choosing to supply their own keyboard, I don’t think it is a good enough argument for schools being required to supply keyboards.

  19. Chelsie G.

    I agree that we should not have to need to use the keyboards for the iPads because we are all so use to writing on the screen. Also there is a great amount of students that don’t like the iPads and would rather use MacBook Air’s or a regular MacBook. But I do think that our keyboards are collecting lots of dust.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Chelsie, do you think they don’t like them just because it is new and different and they are used to and comfortable with the laptops? I think that sometimes people find change difficult…

  20. Zachary.BL

    To be completely honest, I don’t need a physical keyboard to write papers on my iPad, but I can type a lot faster on a physical keyboard than the virtual one only because I have more experience with the physical keyboards. The one feature I don’t like about the iPad’s keyboard is that it takes up half of the screen in landscape mode. This article is great and you have definitely done great research on this post.

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      Zachary, I especially notice how much room the keyboard takes up on my iPhone in horizontal mode. That leaves almost no text window to read!

  21. Zach Br

    I am a student in Maine and I don’t personally use the physical keyboard because for some reason, it won’t work on my iPad. But if I could, I would. The way I have to type, I am forced to slouch and that can hurt my back at times.

  22. Jill Spencer

    Wow–what a great conversation this is to read. As a former English/Language Arts teacher I love seeing students involved in a thoughtful discussion. My big take away is that in technology, as in many other aspects of life, there is not a one size fits all solution. And…aren’t we lucky to have a variety of options!?! For example, I just finished a Keynote presentation on my laptop using an external keyboard and monitor because I work better with a big screen when doing a project that takes time, and I prefer to use a mouse when I need to do any type of graphics. However, through the magic of Dropbox it is now on my iPad mini and that is the device I will use to present. If I had to I could have easily done it all on my mini, but lucky me I have choices.

    Keyboarding has been a can of worms since I started teaching, and I’m not sure we will ever come to a common belief about its worth. Again, one solution does not fit all. I took typing (on a large office-sized manual typewriter that can only be found in the Smithsonian now). Hated every minute of it and didn’t do well. Somewhere deep in side I knew I would never look for a job that required me to pass a typing/keyboarding test. And over the years a glorified hunt and peck system has worked for me. So..I will never work at a call center, but I have written and published 4 books. That said–I think today’s students need to have conversations about the benefits of different approaches to keyboarding and realize that speed and accuracy are positives. The best two features of the iPad keyboard in my mind are….
    1) the built-in microphone–I think of my students over the years who would have benefited from being able to “talk” their first draft–they would have found their voice so much easier.
    2. the split keyboard–I can’t text with my thumbs on my phone but boy can I go to town typing with them on my mini.

    Thanks Mike for getting the conversation going and keep blogging up there in Boothbay!

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