The best free education apps for iPad
Our favorite free iPad apps for learning new things – from coding to astronomy.
Big Bang AR
Big Bang AR is an AR experience that blazes through 13.8 billion years of history in a matter of minutes.
It begins with your outstretched hand, which you turn into a fist, and then open up, only for the Big Bang to explode out of it – a neat trick, if a bit awkward when you’re holding an iPad in the other hand. After that point, though, it’s all rather wondrous as you find yourself surrounded by the earliest components of the universe, which eventually form into our solar system.
With narration by Tilda Swinton, the odd bit of interactivity, further reading sections, and a nice ‘we are all made of stars’ selfie at the end, Big Bang AR is a rather lovely example of an immersive, immediate educational experience for iPad.
Night Sky puts the planets and stars inside your iPad. More importantly, it goes above and beyond in the ways you can explore them.
Like many other astronomy apps, you can drag to adjust the view or explore the heavens by holding your iPad in front of your face and physically moving around. Chill-out music burbles away in the background, and there’s visual bling in the form of illustrated constellation overlays.
But here, constellations and celestial bodies can be pulled from the main view. They can then be moved with a finger or walked around in AR. With constellations in particular, this provides a great understanding of depths and distances.
Beyond that, you get Siri support, a moon map, advice on local planetariums, and many more features – and that’s before there’s even a hint of monthly IAP to access the Grand Orrery and live sky tours.
Civilisations AR is an augmented reality app that puts over 30 historical artifacts in front of your face, ranging from an ancient Egyptian mummy to iconic modern art. It feels like a thoroughly modern way of exploring the past, enabling you to check out every nook and cranny of these famous objects.
Spin a globe to see where the items are from, then tap to select one and it will appear before you, ready to be resized and spun around. Discoverable hot-spots offer up more information by way of voiceovers.
Surprisingly, even paintings work really nicely in this app, enabling you to put your nose right up to the virtual canvas and inspect individual paint marks. An iPad display is big enough for you to truly appreciate these works of wonder.
JigSpace uses augmented reality (AR) to educate, by way of 3D models you can fiddle about with before your very eyes. Although the range isn’t exactly in Wikipedia territory, you get quite the variety of ‘jigs’ for free. There’s the anatomy of a trebuchet, a floating eye to fiddle around with, a manual car’s transmission, and many more.
JigSpace rapidly finds a flat surface onto which your object is projected. You can then pinch to resize it, or spin it with a swipe. Objects aren’t static either – many animate, and are gradually disassembled across a series of slides. For example, an alarm clock opens to show its gears and mechanisms – and because this is AR, you can check everything out from any angle.
Maybe it's just our tech-addled brains, but often we find it a lot easier to focus on an app than a book, which can make learning things the old fashioned way tricky. That's where Khan Academy comes in. This free app contains lessons and guidance on dozens of subjects, from algebra, to cosmology, to computer science and beyond.
As it's an app rather than a book it benefits from videos and even a few interactive elements, alongside words and pictures and it contains over 10,000 videos and explanations in all.
Everything is broken in to bite-sized chunks, so whether you've got a few minutes to spare or a whole afternoon there's always time to learn something new and if you make an account it will keep track of your progress and award achievements.
Py wants to teach you to communicate with computers. You provide some information about the kind of coding you fancy doing, and it recommends a course – anything from basic HTML through to delving into Python.
Lessons are very reminiscent of those in language-learning freebie Duolingo. A colorful, cartoonish interface provides questions, and you type out your answer or select from multiple choice options.
Py could be more helpful when you get something wrong, but its breezy, pacy nature gives it a real energy and game-like feel that boosts focus and longevity.
Unlike Duolingo, Py doesn’t have any interest in being free forever. A premium tier locks a chunk of content behind a monthly fee (along with access to mentors, who can help you through tough spots via an integrated chat). But for no outlay, there’s still plenty here for budding website - and app - creators to get stuck into.
Swift Playgrounds is an app about coding, although you’d initially be forgiven for thinking it a weird game. Early lessons involve guiding oddball cartoon cyclops Byte about an isometric landscape by way of typed commands, having him trigger switches and grab gems along the way.
This is, of course, sneakily teaching you the fundamentals of logic and programming, and the lessons do then gradually become more involved. However, at no point does Swift Playgrounds become overwhelming. And the split-screen set-up – instructions and code on the left; interactive world based on your work on the right – feels friendly and intuitive.
It’s not Xcode for iPad, then, but perhaps a first step in that direction. More importantly, Swift Playgrounds can act as a first step for people who want to start coding their own apps, but for whom the very idea has, to date, simply been too daunting.
Often, third-party apps improve on bare-bones equivalents provided as the ‘official’ take on a product, but Wikipedia is an exception. This freebie app for browsing the online encyclopedia is excellent on iPad – and probably the best option on the platform.
The Explore page lists a bunch of nearby and topical articles; after a few uses, it’ll also recommend things it reckons you’d like to read. Tap an article and the screen splits in two – (collapsible) table of contents to the left and your chosen article to the right. Articles can be searched and saved, the latter option storing them for offline perusal.
It’s a pity Wikipedia doesn’t rework the Peek/Pop previews from the iPhone version (by way of a long-tap), but otherwise this is an excellent, usable encyclopedia for the modern age.
Learning a musical instrument isn't easy, which is probably why a bunch of people don't bother, instead pretending to be rock stars by way of tiny plastic instruments and their parent videogames.
Yousician bridges the divide, flipping a kind of Guitar Hero interface 90 degrees and using its visual and timing devices to get you playing chords and notes.
This proves remarkably effective, and your iPad merrily keeps track of your skills (or lack thereof) through its internal mic. The difficulty curve is slight, but the app enables you to skip ahead if you're bored, through periodic 'test' rounds. Most surprisingly, for free you get access to everything, only your daily lesson time is limited.
TED is a video app designed to feed your curiosity, by watching smart people talk about all kinds of subjects.
Although the organization’s name stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’, it’s fundamentally interested in ideas. Example talks we watched during testing included a piece about screen time for kids (and why related fears are not true), not suffering in silence from depression, and mind-blowing magnified portraits of insects. What we’re saying is: this app has range.
It also has smarts. Along with a standard search, you can have the app ‘surprise you’ with something courageous, beautiful, or fascinating, and revisit favorites by delving into your watch history and liked talks, which sync across devices.
TED’s perhaps not an app you’ll open daily, but it’s a breath of fresh air when you desire brain food rather than typical telly.