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Has the iPad revolutionized education?

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The early adopters

Several schools, colleges and universities, particularly in the US, used the iPad for entire programmes, sometimes even distributing them campus-wide.

Some didn't even wait for it to be piloted by others: New York City schools, for example, ordered 2000 devices, costing $1.3 million (Ferenstein, 2011).

Other examples include:

  • The School of Medicine at Stamford University, which provides all its first year intake, and Master of Medicine students, with iPads.  There were four reasons for this: "student readiness", the facility to annotate course content and take notes in lectures, any place, any time access to high quality information, and the desire to go green and replace printed syllabi and PDFs with a "sustainable practice" (Dilger, 2010).

  • Seton Hill University, which also issues iPads to freshmen, and George Fox University, which allows its freshmen to choose between an iPad and a MacBook Pro. An example of an app used by Seton Hill students is Art Authority, which allows one to browse through art galleries.

  • Memorial University of Newfoundland, which used iPads pre-loaded with texts and apps for a blended course in English Directing (films etc.). Students were generally positive about the experience.

  • At the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development, all freshmen, and their instructors, were given iPads. The objectives were to encourage student engagement, and explore new ways of teaching and advising.

  • Reed College has tested both the Kindle and the iPad: course texts were loaded onto the devices and students asked whether or not they preferred them to print textbooks.

  • Scottsdale Community College journalism students used their iPads for research and for interviews.

Some organizations used Android rather than Apples tablets: the University of Southern Mississippi gave Honours students 1000 Samsung Galaxy, and some Seton Hall University students had Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet PCs.

What does the research say?

Institutions that adopted the iPad generally did so because of its portability, its interactivity, and etextbooks; they also wanted to encourage innovative learning.  But what does the research say about the iPad's educational effectiveness?

The carried out a survey on students' views on the educational value of tablets, and found that eight out of 10 students responded positively. However, students were less positive on etextbooks, preferring print to digital (Kiley, 2011).

Students reported that the iPad was useful for discussing texts in class, because of ease of navigation, annotation, portability, as well as being easier to "wake up" than a laptop (Kolowich, 2010).

Similar features came up in the evaluations, this time of faculty.  The annotation feature was used to mark student assignments.

It did, however, have a number of shortcomings, such as lack of file management system, difficulty of creating content due to the touch keyboard, and lack of flash (Marmarelli and Ringle, 2011).

The Sloan Consortium's 2011 Annual Conference on Online Learning included presentations of a number of trials of the iPad, some of which are mentioned above.

Students are using their iPads for course-related activities, but chiefly briefer tasks such as taking notes.  For larger projects, such as essay or report writing, computers were preferred (Venable, 2011).

One drawback mentioned was the capacity to distract; interestingly, another study reports that the difficulty of switching between applications (hence surfing the Internet) proved an unintended benefit in keeping students focused on the class (Ferenstein, 2011).

The above studies concentrate mainly on user experience, particularly of the functional aspects of iPads. Do tablets actually assist students learn, particularly in metacognitive tasks?

This was the question that drove research by van Oostveen et al. (2011):

"How the [sic] students perceive the relationship between levels of technology usage and the meaningfulness of the learning experience?"

Defining "meaningfulness" against criteria proposed by a number of educational theorists, and acknowledging the usefulness of many of the affordances mentioned above, the study's findings were that there was little evidence of "meaningful learning".

However, as the authors themselves note, this was just one study, and the tablet PC used was not an iPad, and did not have a touch interface. Read the paper .