What I’ve Learned from Teaching with iPads

[This is a guest post by Doug Ward, an associate professor of journalism and the Budig Professor of Writing at the University of Kansas. You can find him online at and, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting. He's written about iPads before on ProfHacker, and on using music in class.--@jbj]

I had high hopes when I handed out iPads to students in my graduate seminar this semester. I wanted to explore the possibilities of tablet computing and see firsthand how tablets might be used in higher education. I also wanted students to see for themselves where the iPad might fit into their lives and their careers – and into the future of media and communication.

For the most part, students ended the semester with a collective shrug. They simply weren’t all that impressed with tablet computing as it now exists.

That’s surprised me, though I still consider the semester a success. I learned several things about teaching, about the iPad and about students that will help me – and, I hope, others – in the future.

First, some background

After my dean heard my ideas for a Future of Media seminar this semester, she offered to buy 10 iPads so students could explore mobile and tablet computing. Students could use the iPads as they wished but had to return them at the end of the semester.

I had read about Cathy Davidson’s experiences with the iPod Touch at Duke and decided to distribute the iPads with few stipulations. Thanks to my school’s technology staff, each iPad was loaded with more than 50 free apps, from Kno and Kindle to Flipboard, Dropbox and Evernote, along with many media apps (newspapers, magazines, television, radio). We later added the paid apps Instapaper (for reading) and ACT Printer (for sending documents electronically). Students were free to add and subtract apps as they wished.

Nearly all of these students fit the profile of what Marc Prensky calls “digital natives,” those who have used digital tools their entire lives. They rely on text messages to communicate. They carry laptop computers. When they research, they go online. They subscribe to Netflix or use torrents, and listen to downloaded music. Multitasking comes naturally.

They also showed a traditional streak. Some took notes on paper. One printed everything she needed for a research project, insisting it was easier to make sense of the large amount of information. One had sold his first-generation iPad because he hadn’t found it all that useful. And as I wrote in the fall, most of the students were initially embarrassed about using the iPad in public. They simply weren’t used to being at the cutting edge of technology.

Each week, we discussed how they were using their tablets, what apps they found most useful, and why tablet computing was growing worldwide. Those discussions were interesting and illuminating. They helped me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the iPad as an individual and classroom tool.

The give-back factor

As the semester progressed, some students used their iPads less and less, ignoring them for a week or two at a time. One explanation for that is that students had no sense of ownership in their tablets. They knew they had to return them at the end of the semester. The Duke students that Davidson wrote about were able to keep the iPod Touches they received. Other universities have done the same with the iPad. That provided an incentive to learn the technology and find apps that would serve them in the long term.

My students said they saw little or no return on investing large amounts of time to personalize the iPad’s settings, organize the many apps, transfer their address books or even learn new apps that might make the iPad more functional. Why become attached to something they had to give back? students said.

Convenience and function

For most students, the phone is still more convenient than an iPad. They not only rely heavily on text messaging but on text messaging with their phones. The iPad has several apps for texting, but most require a new account and a new number. Phones slip easily into pockets or small bags, too, something you can’t do with an iPad.

Like some students at other universities, those in my class said laptops were far more functional, especially for writing and researching. Besides, their phones perform nearly the same functions as the iPad but are far easier to carry. The iPad became just one more piece of technology they didn’t want to lug around.

Two students had hopes of using their tablets to temporarily replace laptops that died. They soon gave up, growing frustrated by the iPad’s limitations (lack of a mouse, lack of a USB port, and a virtual keyboard that favors two-finger typing).

Some professional writers have had success using the iPad, even as a primary writing tool. They use detached keyboards, though, something my students didn’t have. They also found it much lighter and easier to travel with an iPad than a laptop. That requires a fair amount of setup, though. Research files have to be transferred to online storage. Writing programs need to be tested. Those are minor issues, but they do require time. When my students traveled, they took their laptops.

As one of my students said, “The litmus test is that it has to simplify rather than complicate life.”

The iPad failed in that regard.

Where the iPad excelled

Students said the two areas where the iPad excelled were reading and viewing. No surprise there.

One student read 140 books during the semester with the Kindle app. (Yes, 140. The number left the rest of us slack-jawed.) She said, though, that if she were choosing a device for reading e-books, she’d buy a Kindle. It is cheaper, is easier on the eyes and offers fewer distractions than an iPad.

Others found the iPad convenient for watching movies on Netflix. “The best portable TV I’ve ever had,” one student said.

Those are both valuable pieces of information, but hardly revelatory.

The consensus among them was that the iPad needed five or 10 years more development to be really useful. (I don’t think it will be that long.) Students said they could see its benefit for someone with a long commute. Otherwise, they were in no rush to buy iPads for themselves. One who replaced a computer during the semester chose a laptop over the iPad. She and others said that until the iPad reached a sort of critical mass, they had no interest in rushing in. They will reconsider when not having an iPad becomes a real cost.

Retrain yourself

Like other professors, I’ve integrated the iPad into my life. I rely on it for reading (Flipboard and Instapaper), for tweeting about articles (again, Flipboard), for note-taking and reference (Springpad and Dropbox), for a calendar and a to-do list (Pocket Informant) and sometimes for email. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money making my iPad functional (a keyboard, a stylus and many apps).

That functionality and time investment initially blinded me to the drawbacks that students found. If you really want students to use the iPad, I found, you have to rethink assignments with what Prensky calls “Digital Native methodologies.” He uses the term to refer to digital education games, though I see it as broader. Teachers must change their mindset so that assignments match the technology.

For reading assignments, that may involve using different formats (epub, for instance, or PDF) or even requiring e-books rather than paper texts. For other assignments, you will need to find and suggest specific apps that will help students complete assignments: audio, photo or video tools, for instance, annotation programs, spreadsheets and any other formats specific to your discipline. If students don’t have an incentive – and the knowledge – to work specifically on the iPad, many will default to the tools they already know.

Train students

Too often, teachers assume that students know how to use technology or will pick it up quickly. Not all do. Find apps that will work for your discipline and demonstrate how those apps work and how students will use them in assignments. Talk about the tablet’s strengths and weaknesses, and how it fits in with assignments, classes and studying. Time spent on training will ease frustrations later.

Get buy-in from others in your department

Using the iPad requires more than just a change in mindset; it involves a cultural change, one that can be painful. One of the drawbacks I found this semester was that students used and discussed the iPad only in my class. That made my class unique, but it also meant that students defaulted to familiar technology outside class.

At an education conference recently, an Apple representative said the iPad was most successful in schools where administrators pushed for widespread adoption, and faculty received training in how to adapt assignments. That commitment usually involved infrastructure such as wireless networks for classrooms that allow teachers to broadcast class materials to students (think of each iPad screen as the classroom screen) and give students and teachers alike the option of sending material to everyone. As one participant in the conference pointed out, schools save paper when everyone uses the iPad but spend the money on infrastructure and technology instead.

Consider, too, the cost of apps your students will need. Will you require them to buy those apps, or will your department supply them? Will you be able to show students how to use those apps yourself or will you need the help of technical support staff? And if you are on your own, will the technical training detract from other, more valuable assignments?

Have a specific goal in mind

Consider why you want to use the iPad in class. Will it really improve learning, or is it just a cool toy that will make your department look trendy? Do you have specific uses in mind? Are you willing to change the way you teach to incorporate iPad-friendly formats? And if you do, how will the revamped assignments help students?

My sense is that the iPad might be more useful for undergraduate courses than for graduate courses. Graduate education generally focuses on independent research while undergraduate classes are often more assignment- and test-oriented. Larger classes might also fare better than smaller classes. In my class of nine, I had no need to send material to individual screens or have students use the iPad as a type of clicker. I can definitely see an advantage in a large lecture hall, though.

Textbooks alone may provide the incentive for some departments and students to adopt tablet computers, something that others have warned about. An electronic format offers potential cost savings, easy updating and the potential for links, video and other enhancements. E-books are certainly increasing in number and quality, but the book market has yet to reach a point where most students see the value in investing in an iPad rather than trekking to the bookstore. Again, that will require a cultural change.

So now what?

I made no giant advances in education by using the iPad this semester, and my mixed experiences seem similar to what others have found. but I’m still happy with the results. Students learned. I learned. And I hope others can learn from my experiences. Tablets are certainly no educational panacea, and I’d be careful about wholesale adoption without a specific purpose.

I’m going to use the iPad in a graduate class again this spring. The content and format will be different, and I’ll go into the class with a different mindset. Rather than expecting revelations, I’ll watch for small steps in learning. At its core, teaching is still about connecting with students, exploring ideas, and understanding the world better. Technology is part of that, but only a part.

Photo “Digital Aid” by Flickr user mortsan / Creative Commons licensed

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