When Apple released its first iPad seven years ago, the company thought one area it would revolutionize was education. But today the device’s presence in classrooms is spotty.
So when Hiram College announced last month that it would provide every student and professor an iPad starting this fall, it made us wonder what the state of Apple’s sector-creating tablet on campuses is these days. (It got even more interesting when Apple announced a low-cost version of the device last week.)
Hiram calls its initiative “Tech and Trek,” emphasizing that both digital and real-life experiences play a part in learning. “We’re very interested in having the mobile technology used outside the classroom where so much learning takes place,” says Hiram president Lori Varlotta. “Students will be able to capture video and write about their experiences when they’re studying abroad or working on research projects.”
Varlotta says giving everyone—faculty and students—the same device with the same apps will be a learning equalizer. “It’s hard to assign electronic journaling, blogs, or FaceTime when you’re not sure what the students’ various devices are able to handle,” she says. “Now everyone will have access to the same kind of learning resources and training to help them prepare for coursework and take their studies seriously.”
Hiram joins a handful of higher education institutions in the U.S.—mostly small, private colleges or professional programs at state universities—to adopt the devices in a comprehensive way.
One of the first to try it was Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida, which launched its own iPad initiative in 2013. At first, the university provided iPad Minis to incoming undergraduates and worked to build a library of custom electronic textbooks written by faculty members. By 2014, the university’s leaders had purchased iPads for every undergraduate student and moved toward placing readings and multimedia materials from core courses on iTunes U, the company’s long-running platform for educational materials, and encouraging professors to flip their classrooms. “I think this platform has allowed our faculty to experiment and do less lecturing and more digitizing of their content,” says Lynn’s CIO, Chris Boniforti. “As a result, students can spend more time participating in classroom activities and discussion.”
Boniforti says the university chose Apple because in 2012, when they were considering a big move toward more technology, tablet options were limited and iPad had an appealing support system. “Apple was the only solution that had hardware, software and technical support,” he says.
Since introducing the iPad initiative, Lynn has adopted a comprehensive system for ongoing e-textbook development. “We’ve created a digital press, available for our faculty to use in construction of the multi-touch books,” Boniforti explains. “We have an editor, who’s also a rights and provisions expert, helping faculty determine which content they can use.” Lynn’s digital press team also includes instructional designers and traditional reference librarians who locate relevant digital content. “We’ve constructed a resource that takes out a lot of nervousness for our faculty,” Boniforti says. To date, Lynn professors have developed more than 50 interactive e-textbooks.
Starting in 2016, Lynn supplied an iPad Pro to each undergraduate, seeing the new devices as replacements for laptops. “Students had a hard time writing papers on the Minis because of their size,” says Boniforti. “When the Pros came out, we thought, ‘Wow, we can use the same infrastructure and provide them with a tool to create content.’” The iPad Pro has a larger screen size, comes with a stylus for drawing and writing, and fits with Apple’s line of Smart Keyboards.
Denisse Rodriguez was a freshman at Lynn at the beginning of the project in 2013. Rodriguez had always preferred traditional books, but has grown to appreciate the interactivity of e-textbooks she’s used on her iPad. “They help you explore the topic more deeply,” she says. “Professors can send links and update the course materials on iTunesU and all the students will get instant notification.”
She also appreciates the iPad’s portability. As a journalism major, Rodriguez used the tablet to record interviews and write articles without having to carry extra equipment. “You hardly see students on campus with backpacks anymore,” she says. “On the iPad, all my docs are organized for me. I just have to click on the class and the week we’re working on, and all the slides, videos, and worksheets will be there.”
While Rodriguez is a big fan of the iPad and says she’d purchase the device herself even if the university didn’t provide one, she thinks students still prefers traditional research methods. “I think it’s important for students to understand how to identify reliable sources for our projects, and the library is a great resource for that,” she says.
Most colleges that have experimented with iPads in teaching have done much smaller experiments. Trina Marmarelli, director of instructional technology services at Reed College (where Steve Jobs himself attended), says her institution has incorporated iPads with success in several pilot programs for professors and students. But she says there are no plans to adopt a more widespread initiative. “I don’t see it as a replacement for a computer in any way,” Marmarelli says. “Students who have tried using iPads for writing papers give up fairly quickly, and software related to social and natural sciences doesn’t really run on an iPad, so the lack of the full desktop OS is also a hurdle for us.”
Marmarelli also views the Apple platform as a limitation. “We’re not comfortable mandating a platform for faculty and students to use,” she says. “If this technology were more alternate-platform friendly and didn’t require a buy-in to Apple, I think it would be hugely useful nationwide.”
A tablet might not fully replace a desktop computer, but has it become a necessary tool in higher education? That depends on the subject area, according to Guy Trainin, professor and graduate chair at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s College of Education and Human Sciences. “In higher education in general, what we’re trying to do is create a situation that simulates the work environment,” Trainin says. “Today you find mobile devices in hospitality, in education, in hospitals – and when you’re training professionals, it makes a lot of sense to use devices that they’ll see in the field.”
Trainin’s research looks at the impact of mobile devices on learning. “We’re finding that iPads are fantastic because they’re portable, they can easily take pictures, and have a touch interface,” he says. “We know from research that sitting in a lecture and typing everything is actually counterproductive and causes your brain to process less. We want students to jot down a few notes or draw something, and the iPad is perfect for that.”
He also notes the growing number of educational apps available on the iOS platform. “There’s a world of apps that support learning, and they’re mostly high-quality programs,” Trainin says. “In the Android world, the quality is not quite as strong.”
The cost of iPads, considerably more than Microsoft Windows devices and Google Chromebooks, is a likely deterrent to many institutions interested in launching a large initiative. Last week Apple announced a new, low-cost iPad starting at $329—a price that can compete with other tablets in the education market. “I think the lower price point would make it a better choice in private higher education and K-12 settings,” Trainin says, “but I’m not sure the impact will be as large at public universities, which tend to require students to purchase the device.”