Report Cards Are In: So Did the iPad in the Classroom Make the Grade?

Following the launch of the iPad last spring, many schools made headlines by announcing their plans to distribute the devices to teachers and students and to incorporate the iPad into coursework. Now that the fall term is over, several of those schools are reporting on what was, for many, the first full semester using iPads in the classroom.

So does the iPad make the grade? If so, will it usher in a new wave of educational tablets as some analysts are predicting?

A recent story in The New York Times highlighted the iPad's increasing popularity at the K-12 level: The New York City public schools have ordered more than 2000 devices. More than 200 Chicago public schools recently applied for the district's 23 iPad grants. And six middle schools in four California cities (San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno and Riverside) are teaching an iPad-only algebra course. The story paints a pretty rosy picture for iPad adoption. Indeed, as an elementary school principal notes in the story, of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids -- and with administrators too by the sounds of it.

But does that star power work on college kids?

iPads and College Composition Classes

A story in the Penn State newspaper gives the iPad mixed reviews.

The story examines the use of iPads in a Penn State technical writing course this fall. Each student in the class received an iPad, along with an accessory keyboard for the semester. Apple donated iTunes gift cards to cover the cost of apps needed for the class, and Bedford/St. Martin's gave students a gift card that to cover the expense of the course's digital textbook. This financial support may have taken a lot of the sting out of students' technology and textbook budgets, but interestingly, the reports back - from the students and instructor - weren't all glowing.

Students in my class were juniors and seniors who had already developed their reading, writing and research habits, said English Department instructor Michael Faris said. The iPad forced them to adapt to different strategies and change the way they think about their work.

Students said they liked the lightweight convenience of the iPad and thought it was a great took for reading and doing simple writing tasks. And they liked the idea of having Internet access, class notes, and potentially all their textbooks in one device lighter than a laptop. But when it comes to writing essays and creating multimedia and other technical projects, the iPad is cumbersome, if not useless.

Like Writing Papers on a Cell Phone

One of the technical writing students, math and CS major Niko Kovacevic said that Auto-corrected typing, especially in conjunction with the onscreen keyboard, makes composition feel like writing papers on a cell phone. He said that he would do much of his work on a full-version computer rather than on an iPad. Kovacevic also pointed to issues around data transfer and hardware connectivity as the iPad lacks a USB port and, for now at least, a camera.

So while Kovacevic said he could see himself using the iPad more in the future, he wouldn't take another course based around it. He did say, however -- despite a recent study that indicated college students may prefer print versions of their textbooks -- that he'd like to have better availability of digital textbooks so that he could store them in one place, and yes, read them on an iPad.

Kovacevic's observation that writing an essay on an iPad is akin to composing on a cell phone might sound like a drawback. But Stuart Selber, an associate professor of English who helped design the iPad-focused class, says that because today's students already do a lot of writing using non traditional means -- texts, IMs, emails, for example -- they may adapt more easily to the iPad and tablets for composition and communication.

Consumer Tech and/or Ed-Tech?

Even if students are amenable to using the iPad for reading and writing, there are still some significant barriers to its adoption. There's the cost, of course. Students need a credit card and an iTunes account (not a huge barrier admittedly). More importantly, iPads don't plug into the university's computer labs or into its learning management system.

Like many educators and analysts, Selber does think that tablets -- the hardware, the apps, the digital textbooks -- will get more student-friendly in coming years. And even in the interim, the Penn State English department views this fall's iPad experiment a success, and Selber says that department instructors are interested in more iPad implementations.


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