The future of Apple’s iPad in the classroom


Every now and then a technology comes along that has the potential to change the way we think and learn. Sometimes these devices revolutionize our lives; often they simply fade into obscurity. Right now, university campuses around the world are abuzz with talk of the learning potential of Apple’s iPad, and Pepperdine University in Malibu, California already has a plan in place to find out the true value of this year’s most talked-about gadget in the learning environment.

While many universities have already rolled out plans to embrace the iPad, often at a cost of millions of dollars, Pepperdine is taking a more pragmatic approach. According to Dr. Timothy Chester, vice-provost for academic administration and CIO at Pepperdine, the real value of the iPad in higher education will not become clear until it is tested in the classroom.

“Pepperdine’s approach to the iPad is centered around the question of how it can increase the potential for learning. We have no evidence available to us so far that suggests the device increases effectiveness in the classroom, so our approach is to carry out research around question whether the iPad has an impact on learning outcomes,” says Dr. Chester.

“We are conducting an experiment over the next three semesters. We have several faculty teaching multiple sections of an identical course plan who will provide the iPad to students in one section and compare their mastery of course objectives to students in the other section. When we compare one group to another, that will give us evidence of its effectiveness in terms of learning outcomes.”

One course participating in the research is Religion 101, taught by Chris Heard. In one of his classes each student will have an iPad for collaboration, accessing interactive classes, tutorials and quizzes, and accessing content outside the classroom. The other class will be using normal laptops. After three semesters, Dr. Chester is confident that Pepperdine will have a clear view of the value of the iPad in the classroom.

“Our research is to find out where it will have an impact and where it won’t have an impact. We are trying to get more clarity on its strengths and weaknesses in the learning environment. In terms of education, we can only decide after we conduct our research,” he says. 

The iPad research is causing quite a buzz at Pepperdine, with faculty queuing up to become a part of the project.  “The faculty interest has really taken off. The demand and interest in the project was incredible. That forced us to make difficult choices, as everybody was interested in getting involved. That was quite unexpected,” says Dr. Chester.

Another hurdle for Pepperdine was actually getting its hands on the 200 devices needed to carry out the research. In the end it got the shipment that was needed and everything is in place for the research to begin.

Whatever the outcome of Pepperdine’s iPad experiment, its now fairly certain that the device is here to stay. Hours after it hit the shop shelves last April the device started showing up on campus and, three months after its release, Apple is still struggling to cope with demand. 

“I have seen some iPads being used by students and faculty on campus. Students return in about six weeks for the Fall semester and it will be very interesting to see how many students bought an iPad compared to a normal laptop,” says Dr. Chester.

Although the iPad will have only limited direct use in the learning environment in the coming months, Pepperdine is already prepared for the likely influx of the device when students return in a few weeks. Unlike in many universities, the iPad works seamlessly with all of Pepperdine’s online services, such as its learning management system and its various tools for the distribution of content and online collaboration.

Although Dr. Chester is pragmatic regarding the iPad’s impact on learning outcomes, on a personal level he feels that the device has more than exceeded the hype, even going so far as to describe it as “astounding”.

“I think the experience is more user friendly than the normal laptop. It provides much better portability and battery life and the user interface and software is much more advanced. This is a device built for leveraging content from the cloud and I think the experience is really good,” he says.

“I have found the convergence of information to be revolutionary, as I can access a broad range of media effortlessly on this device. While the iPad has had a positive influence on my work as a technologist, it would be a mistake for me to assume that every person who picks up the device will find the same advantages.”

So as another academic comes around Pepperdine is ready to test the merits, or otherwise, of this year’s must-have device. Although the jury is still out, something tells us that the iPad is here to stay.

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