iPads Could Hinder Teaching, Professors Say

Rival tablet PC's foster more interactivity, studies suggest. But students' craving for the Apple devices could matter more.

Ron Hall, Pepperdine U.

At Pepperdine U. Timothy Lucas, an assistant professor of mathematics, shows a class how to use iPads for calculus. The device improved student-to-student collaboration.
March 13, 2011

When Paul Steinhaus, chief information officer at Chatham University, met with his colleagues last summer to discus getting iPads for incoming students, they knew the move could raise the profile of the small institution in Pittsburgh. Across the country, institutions had grabbed headlines for adopting Apple's tablet computing device.

But Mr. Steinhaus and other administrators soon realized that the iPad, with the slow finger-typing it requires, actually makes written course work more difficult, and that the devices wouldn't run all of the university's applications. "I'd hate to charge students and have them only be able to use it for e-mail and Facebook," says Mr. Steinhaus. Chatham charges a $700 annual technology fee, which now pays for standard laptops.

Still, he adds wistfully, "it would have been nice to get the publicity out of it."

Despite the iPad's popularity—Apple has sold nearly 15 million of them and just came out with the iPad2; and there are dozens of competitors, like the Samsung Galaxy—early studies indicate that these finger-based tablets are passive devices that have limited use in higher education. They are great for viewing media and allow students to share readings. But professors cannot use them to mark up material on the fly and show changes to students in response to their questions, a type of interactivity that has been a major thrust in pedagogy.

Even students have issues. When the University of Notre Dame tested iPads in a management class, students said the finger-based interface on its glassy surface was not good for taking class notes and didn't allow them to mark up readings. For their online final exam, 39 of the 40 students put away their iPads in favor a laptop, because of concerns that the Apple tablet might not save their material.

"When they're working on something important, it kind of freaks them out," says Corey M. Angst, the assistant professor of management who tested the tablets.

For some professors, an older, less-hyped model of tablet computer offers far more advantages. That device is the tablet PC. It's clunkier than the iPad—and so uncool that it runs Windows—but it allows instructors and students to write precisely because it uses a penlike stylus, and to type quickly on its attached keyboard.

Pluses and Minuses

Keyboardless, finger-based tablets like the iPad do have several advantages over laptops and tablet PC's. Their smaller size and extended battery life means that students can, and do, carry them around without having to worry about finding a wall outlet.

Mr. Angst could send articles to students hours before classes met with the confidence that they would receive the articles on their iPads and be prepared to discuss them.

At Reed College, having all the texts available in a political-science class on the iPad meant it was easier to refer to readings and pull in outside material for discussion, says Martin Ringle, the college's chief technology officer.

iPads also foster collaboration. Students using them for group assignments in a math class at Pepperdine University were more in sync than were students in a section not using iPads. The iPad-equipped students worked at the same pace as one another and shared their screens to help one another solve tough problems, says Dana Hoover, assistant chief information officer for communications and planning.

Laptop screens can create a barrier to discussion—and also hide unrelated Web browsing—and Ms. Hoover says students were more engaged in classes using the iPad because those barriers were removed.

But these iPad pluses are countered by a fair number of drawbacks.

Annotating texts is a big one. Course readings were converted to PDF's at Reed, which allowed students to mark them up using an application called iAnnotate, but Mr. Ringle acknowledges that this wouldn't work for all classes, because many texts can't easily be converted to PDF's, and many electronic textbooks don't allow annotation.

Instructors also worry that, at least for now, fewer textbooks are available for the iPad, which requires special formatting. For instance, Mr. Angst's Notre Dame class used a textbook from the e-textbook vendor CourseSmart, but found that it had limited options for annotation.

That may improve soon. The academic publisher McGraw-Hill is working with a software company called Inkling, which makes textbooks iPad-friendly with multimedia-rich text that allows note-taking. "It goes well beyond a reading experience; it's more of an interactive experience," says Vineet Madan, vice president for learning ecosystems at McGraw-Hill.

But only nine of the company's 1,500 higher-education titles are currently available through Inkling, although Mr. Madan says the total should reach 100 of the most popular titles by next year.

Other content providers are taking a wait-and-see approach to iPads and other slates.

DyKnow, an educational-software company, makes a program that is often paired with tablet PC's. Functioning as a virtual, interactive whiteboard, it allows professors to mark up lecture material, share it with students, and accept and display in-class work from them, the company says. Mr. Steinhaus, who championed use of DyKnow at Chatham, says it made classes, particularly in the math and the sciences, more visual and interactive.

Michael Vasey, sales manager at DyKnow, says it is tracking new tablets but is hesitant to start adapting its Windows-based program to the newer formats.

"We're waiting for that killer device to come out," he says. "If there was a clear leader that was doing this, it would make it more compelling." He would like to see a device with both pen and finger-touch capabilities.

The Lure of Tablet PC's

Actually, such a machine already exists. Beth Simon, a lecturer in the computer-science department at the University of California at San Diego, owns a tablet PC made by Lenovo that has both finger and pen-based sensors.

It wasn't the answer for her. She says she stopped using the finger option because it was impossible to write. "My finger wasn't pointy enough," she says.

As an instructor, Ms. Simon relies on writing with tablet PC's to foster interactivity. She helped develop Ubiquitous Presenter, a free program similar to DyKnow. It works particularly well in large lecture classes, she says, because it brings the professor's notes to each student, and the submission of in-class assignments makes diagnoses easier when students have trouble with new concepts.

If professors can't write, that interaction is impossible, she says.

Stylus inputs are available for the iPad, but William G. Griswold, a computer-science professor at San Diego, says they don't solve the problem.

When people write with a pen, they frequently rest their hand on the page to give them more control, he explains. The iPad and other finger-based devices would detect the resting hand as well as the stylus, throwing off the input process. (Mr. Griswold and Ms. Simon have received support from PC makers to test their tablets.)

Apple seems to be aware of the issue. The New York Times's Bits blog has reported that Apple filed a patent for a stylus with a built-in accelerometer that relies on motion, rather than the screen's touch sensor, to determine what's being written. But Apple hasn't said when, if ever, the device would be available.

The extra precision afforded by a stylus is particularly important, Mr. Griswold says, because of the small size of the tablet screen—seven to 10 inches in diameter for the models released so far. Even larger models have screens two to three inches smaller than most tablet PC's.

While Apple has promoted the iPad's ability to change learning, Ms. Simon says that as far as she knows, the company isn't working with leaders in the learning process: professors themselves.

Apple didn't provide discounted hardware or extra support for any institution in this article, and the company says it has scaled back support of conferences and hardware donations.

It's not just Apple. Robert H. Reed, a marketing consultant who worked at both Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard promoting tablet PC's to colleges, thinks computer makers have been less focused on higher education during the recent economic downturn.

In the 1990s, Microsoft largely financed the development of a precursor to Ubiquitous Presenter at the University of Washington, and Hewlett-Packard donated equipment to the university for a tablet PC lab and sponsored academic conferences. Nothing like that is happening now, even though HP is about to bring out its own iPad competitor, the TouchPad.

Student Choice

Despite professors' preferences for other machines, the choice of education tools may belong not to them, but to their students.

Tablet PC's have never caught on with the consumer market, and Ms. Simon, at San Diego, says most of her students have never even heard of them. They are priced high, and even their partisans admit they are not easy to use.

The iPad, in contrast, is intuitive to use and relatively inexpensive, says Reed's Mr. Ringle. That's a powerful draw. At the conclusion of its study, Reed offered participating students the option of purchasing iPads at a $250 discount, half off the $499 base model. All of them did.

As competition from multiple manufacturers drives down the prices of newer tablets, Mr. Ringle thinks more students will be likely to bring them to campus.

Some of the devices may prove more conducive to education than others, but consumer decisions rather than educational ones will probably determine which tablets students purchase—and which ones colleges will support, he says.

"I don't think the institution is going to get to decide about the uptake of these devices," Mr. Ringle says. Colleges, and their professors, will have to adapt to their students' choice whether they like it or not. That hasn't happened yet, but as more content becomes available, he is confident it will.