iPads on Campus

April 5, 2010

The iPad has landed. But should campuses be throwing it a welcome party?

At least two are. Seton Hill University, a Roman Catholic institution in Pennsylvania, announced this week that it would be giving Apple’s new computing tablet to each of its 2,000-odd full-time students when they arrive on campus in the fall. George Fox University, a Christian institution in Oregon, will expand its annual laptop giveaway to first-year students to offer students a choice between a Macbook and an iPad. The year after that, there will be no more choice: Everybody will get iPads.

The e-learning giant Blackboard, meanwhile, today is announcing that it is launching an app for the iPad that will allow students to access their courses from the new device.

But the arrival of the long-awaited device has also prompted questions. On Educause’s CIO listserv last week, higher-ed technologists wondered aloud about the costs and benefits of the efforts of some campuses try to seed their student bodies with the gadget du jour.

Theresa Rowe, the CIO at Oakland University, noted the “pattern” of colleges announcing high-visibility technology giveaways of laptops, iPods, iPhones, and now the iPad — each time prompting peer institutions to wonder whether following suit would be strategically wise. “Our presidents or leaders ask ‘Why not us?’ ” Rowe wrote. “And then we scramble to put together a budget and support picture.” (Rowe was one of several CIOs to authorize Inside Higher Ed to quote from her contributions to the usually private forum.)

This time, Rowe decided to crowdsource the question to her counterparts on the listserv. What she got back was a mix of curiosity, enthusiasm, light number crunching, and some pointed skepticism.

Greg Smith, the CIO at George Fox, responded, saying that universities should not worry about justifying iPad giveaways with precise cost-versus-value analyses. The shifts that are happening in higher-ed technology — particularly from bound textbooks and research materials to electronic versions — are “bigger than the iPad,” said Smith. Universities know this change is coming, he said, so they should do what they can to enable it. “The iPad appears to be the perfect device for information at your fingertips which places it in the role to ignite the change,” Smith said.

But Robert Paterson, CIO at Molloy College, was not ready to anoint the tablet as a harbinger of institutional transformation. “Apple has done it again .... created a proprietary hardware with no particular purpose, except it may be cool and then sell, sell, sell,” Paterson wrote. “....[A]nd these initiatives for students .... without any experience in how it might be used, without faculty being able to experiment or to plan how to use them in the teaching/learning process... I apologize but it seems sort of gimmicky.”

Without a firm agenda in place for how the new technology is meant to be used, 5 percent of students at most might figure out a novel use of the iPad for learning, he said — too few to justify a campus-wide giveaway. By the time a substantial proportion of students start following the examples of the early innovators, Paterson said, “multiple iterations, improvement, enhancements to the tool have occurred... So you throw away the one first adopted in favor of better and cheaper versions.”

Stephen Landry, CIO at Seton Hall University (not to be confused with Seton Hill, which is the one doing an iPad giveaway), said that while he is more confident about students’ ability to adapt new devices into their learning processes, “it is wise to have concrete learning objectives that we hope to achieve by deploying that technology” nonetheless. “We should be able to discuss this with the students and parents who may want to know why tuition is going up and with our faculty who may want to know why we aren’t hiring more instructors,” Landry wrote. For example, he said, when Seton Hall first started giving out laptops in 1998, it did so as part of an effort to redesign its first-year English and math curriculums in order to improve learning outcomes through better use of technology.

So how much would an iPad giveaway actually cost for a typical campus? As it turned out, it was Rowe, the Oakland CIO who originally queried the listserv, who did some number crunching and estimated that to purchase and distribute the devices to a 3,000-student campus would cost about $2.2 million.

Other Considerations

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Smith, the George Fox CIO, said that, more than getting students to use the iPad toward educational ends, campuses that choose to make it standard hardware could face pushback from professors, many of whom are used to using Microsoft Office’s suite of tools — Word, Power Point, Excel, etc. — to assign and receive student work (the iPad, unlike Apple's Macbook laptop, does not run Microsoft Office).

He said that having to adjust to new technologies — regardless of whether students are likely to want them — gives professors everywhere jitters. “The biggest fear starting to grip [professors] is that… e-textbooks might actually become reality,” Smith said — acknowledging that there are exceptions, but they are the minority. “If you know higher ed, you know that the biggest fear of a professor is having to change how they deliver their course.”

And then there’s the observation made by a number of reviewers that the iPad is much better for consuming content than creating it — and content creation — of papers, presentations, video projects, etc. — is a big part of being a college student.

But Smith is not worried. One of the reasons George Fox is phasing out its laptop program by way of the iPad giveaway is because most students there already have laptops — or at least have access to computers more oriented to creation. Besides, if you set up an iPad with its docking station and external keyboard — both of which George Fox will be providing to students — it is basically a desktop computer, he said.

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