Giving iPads to students: crazy, genius or both? A three year retrospective

iPad1Three years ago in July 2010 shortly after the worldwide launch of the iPad1 the University of Minnesota hit the press for announcing that they would be providing all 450 first year students in their school of education with iPads.  This quickly made national and then international news.  Three years on they are still providing iPads for their students and at the ELI Educause conference in New Orleans last week they were kind enough to share their experiences.

While they presented an organised well planned project to the press at the time, citing ebooks and online assessments as the reasons for the implementation, the reality is that they had no idea what they would be used for, essentially the project came about because the Dean at the time was really keen on the idea (these days she is commonly referred to as Dean Jean the iPad Queen).  The University have decided to continue issuing iPads to new students, and have decided against moving towards a BYOD model (Bring Your Own Device), because the reliability on students always having a device, and the same device has been really valuable, especially with the reliability of iPad battery life, and appropriate software.

Alongside Dean Jeans enthusiasm the University has a big emphasis on accessibility and the iPads were being funded through donor funding and therefore cost neither the school of education or the students any money.  They therefore viewed this as an opportunity to explore the educational possibilities of iPads.  Out of 29 tutors, 27 got on board in the first year, with the remit that they just had to use them for something in class but it didn’t matter what (of course it helped that they received a free iPad for their trouble).

Staff asked all the expected questions, and had much the same issues as our staff at City University London when issued with an iPad, the first discovery being that an iPad is not a laptop, for staff used to Microsoft laptops the adjustment is quite large, you cannot just plug in a USB stick, how do you project from them? What software are you supposed to use and who pays for this?  And what happens if we design collaborative exercises with them for class and then the WiFi goes down?

However it is clear that over the last three years the impact that the iPads have had on their classrooms and students has been enormous, and by the time the project ran for the second year the school had the following answers for the press around how they used iPads with their students:

–    to create sustainable paper free classrooms

–    To bridge the digital divide, all students now had the latest technology to assist in their studies

–    For media production

–    Personal productivity

–    Information literacy

–    Learning beyond the classroom

The top students uses are no surprise, and even three years on are still video projects, downloading reading materials and taking quizzes, however all students owning the same device allowed tutors and lecturers to introduce projects around digital storytelling, in class polling, wireless projection in classes by both staff and students, and digital course packs (collections of digital readings in a particular area or subject).

The biggest impact however has been the faculty adoption of open textbooks.  Open textbooks are real, complete textbooks licensed so teachers and students can freely use, adapt, and distribute materials.  The number of staff that adopted open textbooks is currently saving their students around $200,000 per academic year!

So to summarise the project for Minnesota the has been a success, and they plan to continue issuing iPads for students in the future, however it was obvious that it has been a heavily resourced project, rather than something that has grown organically.  It takes a lot of support for both staff and students.  Aside from the IT support a full time learning technologist was appointed just to support the iPads and work with staff and students to make the most of them.  In reality the biggest success of the project was the move to open textbooks is device agnostic, however at an institution like Minnesota which has an emphasis on accessibility it is useful that they are providing all students with a device to access their digital reading, and from a teachers perspective I did find myself envying the ability to rely on students having identical and reliable technology in the classroom.  I am also aware that this was one of the reasons why our own informatics department at City University has chosen to issue students with laptops.

What I took away from this session was that issuing students with devices needs to be well resourced and thought through properly before entertaining the idea further, however the move towards open textbooks was of great interest.  At a time where we are introducing large student fees, then expecting students to purchase text books on top of these fees, I think that the platforms that are emerging such as Open Textbook  used by Minnesota for sharing texts and teaching materials is really promising and something I am keen to investigate further.

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