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Reading, Writing and – iPads?


The Apple iPad was recently lauded as the device with the fastest adoption rate in history. The iPad isn't just being snatched up by consumers, though. It's making a big splash in the education system as well.

Since it was released earlier this year, the Apple iPad has been selling about 4.5 million units every three months. Educators have taken notice of its popularity and begun testing to see if it can help students learn.

Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania, was one of the first schools to adopt the iPad as a learning tool. Last spring, the university announced that it would provide an iPad to every incoming freshman.

"The iPad was chosen by Seton Hill because of its mobility and the ease with which faculty and students will have immediate access to e-textbooks and comprehensive and integrated learning," said Kary Coleman, director of Media Relations at Seton Hill.

With a starting price of $500, the iPad is relatively expensive, but several universities have found early success in giving students access to new technology. Seton Hill professors have found that the instant access to information through apps and the Web has significantly helped students find the information they need. For instance, e-textbooks have a search function that allows students to immediately find information they seek instead of paging through an actual textbook or trying to look up a term in the index.

Other schools, such as Notre Dame and Rutgers, have also started integrating the iPad into their curriculum, but in smaller trial cases. Instead of giving every student a laptop, they are handing out iPads in select classrooms to see how it can help the learning process.

Positive reactions

So far the reactions are mostly positive, but that may be in part due to the iPad's celebrity status among electronics.

"The students in my class are very much enjoying using their iPads, and they tell me that their peers are jealous.  Several professors have asked me about my experience using the iPads in class, and a few have asked how they can get a pilot study of their own," said Corey Angst, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who helped pioneer use of the iPad in classrooms.

Angst also pointed out that the iPad is appealing because it is so intuitive.

"We offered no training on the iPad and the students learned how to use them almost immediately," Angst said.

Eric Greenberg, a business professor who helped pioneer the use of iPads at Rutgers University in New Jersey, agreed that the simple but powerful nature of the iPad made it an interesting tool for teaching.

"The powerful thing about the iPad is that it engages people. Students want to use it," Greenberg said. Versatility, however, is the single most laudable thing about the iPad for teachers. It offers so many functions in one simple device.

For example, “students are using an iPad note-taking app to record their notes from class.  With the iPad, students can create, produce and share work instantly with faculty and fellow students," Coleman said.

The variety of apps available seems to be the most effective part of the iPad as a teaching tool. Professors can find apps that cater specifically to the topic they teach, and students can find a myriad of apps that help with study, research and preparing for tests.

"We gave the iPad students $30 in iTunes credit with the recommendation that they purchase all or at least some of the iWorks [productivity] apps. We have also recommended various apps that support academics and student time management," said Greg Smith, chief information officer at George Fox University in Oregon, where the iPad is also an option for incoming students.

Apps are a big success with teachers and students alike because they can streamline the learning process and lessen the amount of paperwork involved.

"We replace all the traditional things we give the students, such as books and case studies. Instead of carrying around a big binder, it's all in the iPad,” Greenberg said. “We now use the iPad for all the administrative stuff. It's been a tremendous success in terms of getting rid of the paperwork. And instructors can update the curriculum instantly online, instead of changing a document and printing it out again for everyone.”

Not perfect

And yet, despite all the benefits, pilot programs are revealing that the iPad is not the perfect education tool. For instance, there is the problem of typing on the iPad's touchscreen.

"When given the choice between handwriting and using the iPad, we've found most students don't use the iPad. Having no [physical] keyboard is limiting,” Greenberg said. “We're thinking about giving out portable keyboards for future classes."

The difficulties don't seem to be enough to make students give up their beloved iPads, though.

"While a few students have struggled with annotating and highlighting using the iPad and our e-textbook, I have offered to provide a physical textbook to anyone who wanted one and no one has taken me up on the offer," Angst said.

Some educators also worry that the iPad could actually be a hindrance to learning by providing too many distractions.

Greenberg has seen little or no distraction from iPad use in the classroom, but he admits that his is a special circumstance. He teaches business executives in a "mini-MBA" program.

"I'm not sure if I'd want to give undergraduates iPads with games during a lecture. We only give them to executives, people whose companies’ are paying for them to get an MBA. I'd be more cautious to use it in undergraduate classes due to the propensity to distract students in the classroom," Greenberg said.

The sheer volume of apps available for the iPad can also pose a problem because there is often something better that has just been released. Switching apps in the middle of a course can cause frustration for students and teachers alike.

"It's a challenge for the faculty to stay up to date with all the developments and app changes,” Greenberg said. "The apps we found in June are already replaced with better apps.”

The use of iPad apps can also be frustrating in classrooms where not everyone has the device. For instance, at George Fox University students can choose between a MacBook Pro and an iPad, and at Seton Hall University, only the latest incoming freshmen have received an iPad.

Caitlin Corning, a history professor at George Fox University who teaches in just such a mixed-device environment, has to be very flexible in order to accommodate all kinds of technology.

"I cannot require the students to all have access to a specific app if they do not have the equipment for [it].  So, if I am using, say, PollEverywhere, I set this up to work on the Internet, on cell phones, via Twitter, etc., so the students can participate with the device of their choice," Corning said.

Start of a revolution?

And that seems to be the lesson many people are learning from their experiments with the iPad in the classroom. The important thing isn't necessarily the iPad itself, but the versatility and flexibility it provides. It's more important that students have a variety of tools to choose from and be allowed to decide what works best for them. Educators must provide information in multiple ways to accommodate them.

The iPad is well suited for this kind of learning environment, but it’s not the only device that can do it, teachers say.

"I wouldn't be surprised if next year we have a class using a Barnes & Noble Nook [e-book reader], or another tablet, or even a smartphone.  I wish, for example, that in our social media class we had explored using a smartphone instead of the iPad. That would have given students important features such as a camera and mobile marketing experience," Greenberg said.

Angst also believes these iPad tests are more valuable for learning how to integrate technology in Notre Dame classrooms than for proving if the iPad itself is the best option.

"I would say this is definitely a successful pilot program in that we are gaining information about how to integrate e-devices and e-publishing platforms in the classroom. I know most students are still using laptops and smartphones.  Our intent was never to replace laptops," Angst said.

Ultimately, the true legacy of the iPad among teachers may be as the device that proved Word docs and textbooks aren't the most effective ways to help students learn.

"I would encourage everyone to use technology in different ways," Greenberg said. "I think the way we teach kids hasn't changed much in fifty years. We need to do a better job of engaging and educating our youth. So we might not always use the iPad, but I know we won't be going back to paper."