Ten great free education apps for the iPad


There are now more than 200,000 education apps available to download on the app store. If you laid them all end-to-end, they wouldn’t reach very far, because in physical terms they’re nothing more than electronic patterns on tiny little magnets in your iPad – but there are still a huge amount with variety to suit every taste.

Most of them cost money, however, and if you laid all that end-to-end, you’d have several million pounds in a long line. Not everyone wants to pay for their apps, so we’re having a look at our favourite free ones currently available. We can’t pretend in any objective way that these apps are the ‘best’ free apps, but they’re all interesting and fun in their own ways.

As it happens, free apps are relatively few and far between, and most of these use a ‘freemium’ model – free to download, but you have to pay for full functionality. It’s actually quite tricky to find many truly free, truly useful apps in fact, but that’s capitalism for you.

iTunes U

This is the best free education app currently available. It has frightening potential for such a simple idea, and will in all likelihood revolutionise how education even happens at university-level – but you don’t have to be a student to get tons of utility out of it.

In the simplest terms, it’s iBooks, but for textbooks, but that description doesn’t do it remote justice. Any educational institution in the world can upload anything it likes, and leave it there for anyone in the world to find it. At the moment, for instance, you can get free podcasts on all sorts of esoteric subjects from Oxford University experts, you can get a free subscription to a comprehensive Yale course on the American Revolution, or you can enjoy a ten-part multimedia course on writing plays from the Open University. And as soon as people start getting wise to it, the sky is the limit for iTunes U – a free resource of learning on everything, perhaps.

Any lecturer at any university could upload her course notes for you to read, if she wanted. Or she could upload them for the benefit of her class alone. Or she could sell them if she wanted. Schoolteachers can do just the same, harnessing the capacity of the iPad to force their lesson plans down their pupils’ throats in all sorts of innovative multimedia ways.

This app demonstrates exactly why Apple is so awesomely rich.


Moving from the universal to the specific, Leafsnap is much more specialised app, but it’s such a wonderful realisation of the teaching power of tablet computing that it’s been included at number two in the list.

As you might guess from the title, it’s an app that teaches you about leaves. That’s not all it does, though; it has a massive database of plants from around the world, with lovely hi-res images of their leaves, branches, fruits, cones, bark and so on, and plenty of written information, too.

The really clever bits, though, are yet to come. First of these is the ‘snap’: Leafsnap actually lets you photograph a leaf with the iPad’s onboard camera, and will then endeavour to identify its species. You can then tag where you found this species using GPS, so other leafsnappers can see, thereby building up a database of local flora all over the world. It’s fascinating, even if you never thought you liked leaves all that much.


This wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago, because we didn’t know of enough exoplanets – planets, that is, that exist outside of our solar system. These days, people are finding them all the time, like wads of change behind a galaxy-sized sofa. They’re finding them so often, in fact, that this morning my exoplanet app downloaded the details of 26 more justannounced by NASA.

This is a lovely little app: little more than a database of planets and what we know about them, and a whacking great zoomable map of the Milky Way to show you where they all sit in space. As a consequence, the first thing I learned is quite how mind-bogglingly huge our galaxy is. The second thing is that astronomers are not good at picking snappy names for planets, unless, say, HD 20794 d is your idea of a grand name from the Final Frontier.

3D Brain

Human biology this time, with an absolutely exhaustive pictographic guide to all the many parts of the human brain. You can see, in the obligatory 3D, all the different structures of our most complex organ, and get comprehensive but easy-to-comprehend information explaining what they do.

Fight the temptation to lick the screen and pretend to be a zombie.

Merck PSE HD

You wouldn’t know it from the name, but this is the best free periodic table app around. It’s perhaps a little more drab than some of the flashier, paid-for periodic table apps on the market, but it’s hardly a meagre package in itself.

There’s a wealth of information on all the elements, with all the chemical detail you could hope for (I’m assuming, with my A in Chemistry GCSE…), as well as a potted history, some information on whoever discovered it, and plenty of pictures.

I’ve found myself amazed about quite how many metals there really are that we never see or use.


The TED talks (Technology Entertainment and Design) are a must-watch series of in-depth talks given by experts in all sorts of fields imaginable. Mere mortals like ourselves are far from able to afford the thousands of dollars required to attend the talks in person, but they’ve been available to view for free since 2006 – amassing more than 500m views.

This app will let you watch them all. There is plenty of material, anything from tech giants on futurology and social networking to medical researchers discussing cutting-edge surgery techniques. There’s material on gene therapy, on art, on music and even on the psychology of humour. Basically, there is something serious and mind-expandingly meaty for everyone, and it’s all well tagged, meaning you can explore surrounding concepts and watch related videos with disgusting ease.

Your best bet is to download your favourite videos, pack some headphones, and while away the hours on a long journey by filling yourself with arcane knowledge.


While your iPad probably isn’t the best tool to teach you to read the works of Baudelaire or Goethe from scratch, it does provide a platform for learner-linguists to grasp the basics of a foreign language. Mindsnacks’ simple series of word games is a particularly fine example.

They have apps for students of French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese, with more on the way. They’re very much for beginners, but the games are fun, and you really can learn while doing. It’s best for vocab and phrases, rather than learning grammar, but languages are speaking, aren’t they?

This is another of those freemium apps – you’ll get a basic package for nothing, but full access costs a very reasonable £2.99.


‘Free online shared whiteboard software’ is not the sexiest of the educational concepts, but it is a potentially transformative idea. If a class divides into groups for a project, a collaborative whiteboard space means they can get all sorts of things done together without having to crowd around a paper. With wi-fi access, they won’t even need to be on the same continent (though they’ll probably be limited to remaining on Earth; space Internet isn’t cheap). Chat functions are included, too. We’ll leave you to work out the possibilities for this one.


Hands-down the best note-taking app out there, Evernote is the epitome of everything cloud computing stands for. One account can sync with virtually every mobile device that exists, and sharing and transmitting your data couldn’t be easier.

This is perfect for, say, taking notes in a lecture and then accessing them at home on your desktop, or sending them to friends who haven’t quite made it in that morning, or making to-do lists, or just about anything text-related really.

Color Uncovered

If you’ll excuse the American spelling in the name, this is a gorgeous little app teaching you about the basics of colour science, through the medium of smart, interactive optical illusions.

It gets its polychromatic hooks into you with its sumptuous design and elegant tricks, and then takes the time to teach you exactly how and why your brain has let you down in that particular instance.

This is another of those apps that really showcases the unique powers of the iPad, and while it may not be especially heavyweight, it’s a lovely diversion and you will come away from it with your life enriched.

And that is that.