Apple of Their Eye?

Early reports suggest the iPad will not replace the laptop, but is a better academic tool than the Kindle.
December 22, 2010

Following the iPad’s cotillion ball in April, colleges were lining up to try out the Apple computing tablet before Steve Jobs had kicked off his tennis shoes. Campus technologists greeted news of the device — consistent with the tide of mobile computing but lacking an obvious “killer app” in the education world — with curiosity, enthusiasm, and some skepticism. Could the iPad unseat the laptop as students' portable computer of choice? Might it finally convince students to buy e-books? Or would it prove to be little more than the latest classroom distraction?

One semester of campus pilots has hardly resolved those questions. But early returns from a number of institutions offer some clues about the iPad’s applications, and limitations, on college campuses.

Many colleges observed what iPad’s critics had foretold: that the device is great for consuming content, but not so great for producing it. At Seton Hill University — which has used its decision to give iPads and Apple MacBook laptops to every full-time student as the basis for a major marketing effort, which now includes a microsite — technology officials used a network-access controller to distinguish iPad activity and MacBook activity on the campus wireless network. The network registered twice as much activity coming from the iPads as from the laptops.

Since network use most often implies Web surfing and e-mail reading, officials deduced that students might prefer the iPad for those activities while favoring their laptops for offline coursework. “It seemed to be more of a content consumption device compared to the MacBook,” says Phil Komarny, Seton Hill’s executive director of computer information and technology.

Students participating in an iPad pilot at George Fox University, in Oregon, also suggested that the tablet might be better as a complement to the laptop than as a replacement. At George Fox, each of the university’s 670 first-year students were given the option of taking a free MacBook or a free iPad. All but 67 took the laptop. In an end-of-semester survey, the university asked a subset of those 67 if they thought the iPad was all they needed for their college computing needs. None said it was.

“I can’t use it for writing essays and long word documents, so I would need something else for that,” wrote one student. “Word processing and file-managing require a full computer,” wrote another. Others remarked that the iPad’s touch screen was difficult to type on, and that laptop keyboards are “much more familiar.”

Matt Kirschenbaum, director of the digital cultures and creativity program at the University of Maryland at College Park, asked the students in that program (all of whom were given iPads at the beginning of the semester) if they'd ever left home in the morning toting their iPads but not their laptops. Only a third said they had. “I think the consensus among students is it is what it’s advertised as, which is a consumption device,” said Kirschenbaum. A useful one, he added, but not a miracle machine, and probably not a game-changer.

Librarians at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who loaned out iPads to 1,367 patrons (mostly undergraduates) this fall, reported that their borrowers found it “difficult to do extensive writing on iPads” and that the devices were “not a popular choice for paper-writing,” according to Kathryn Crowe, the associate dean for public services there. (Disturbingly, patrons frequently returned iPads with their e-mail, Facebook, or campus information accounts still open, Crowe said.)

A survey of 22 iPad users at George Fox revealed that the most popular academic uses of the devices were for e-mail, surfing the Web, and accessing the university’s learning-management system — all consumption-oriented activities.

“Most of the students had the Pages [word-processing] app and a note-taking app, but only about half of them said they were confident using the touch screen for typing,” noted Greg Smith, the chief information officer there, in an e-mail. “A common complaint was that they did not trust or like the way the iPad would auto-complete words.”

Meanwhile, top non-academic activities included browsing Facebook, playing games (especially Angry Birds), and watching free videos. Based on student feedback, about half of students seemed to treat the devices primarily as entertainment tools, added Smith. “My overall impression is that they all feel very fortunate to have an iPad,” he said, “but treat it as a luxury supplement to their computing needs.”

Students at various colleges did find the iPad useful for small-scale content creation, especially taking notes. Bill Handy, visiting assistant professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University, said he actually noticed more note-taking in his two business marketing courses this fall, when the university gave iPads to each of Handy’s 120 students. Handy, who admits that he tends to talk quickly in class, says his students often availed themselves of the iPad’s recording function. The popular note-taking app Evernote allows students to store typed and audio-recorded notes in the same file, he said.

Handy added that his students often chose to take tests on their iPads, even though one of his classes met in a computer lab with desktop computers close at hand. “Each student used it to their own needs,” he said. “Some students were using it more as a reader, some were using it to replace their current laptops” — in class, anyway.

As e-readers go, officials at Reed College said the iPad has been an improvement on Amazon’s Kindle DX, which last year faced criticism from students who found it difficult to digitally mark up texts. Not so with the iPad, wrote Trina Marmarelli, an instructional technologist there, in an e-mail.

“Students reported that the iPad was particularly useful for discussing texts in class, because they could quickly and easily navigate between multiple assigned readings and locate specific passages,” she said. “By contrast, students in our Kindle DX study last year found the same tasks to be much more cumbersome and time-consuming with the Kindle than they would have been with paper copies of the readings, and reported that class discussions became more superficial and less engaged with the texts as a result.”

Marmarelli said the Reed students used the iPad for many of their course readings — another change from last year’s Kindle pilot, where they reported using the device primarily for pleasure. “Because the iPad offered the students efficient tools for annotating, highlighting, and organizing texts, and was more portable and less disruptive than a laptop computer, they were able to avoid printing hundreds or even thousands of pages of journal articles and other texts,” she said.

Portability and easy accessibility are probably the main points on which the iPad has notebook computers licked. And while the difference isn’t huge, it is not insignificant either. “It does seem more palpably accessible than opening up a laptop and waiting for it to wake up,” says Kirschenbaum. That makes the iPad an ideal tool for quick tasks such as checking e-mail or Twitter, or finding something quickly on the Web, he says.

The iPad might be the fastest-selling gadget ever, but it is still in the early stages of permeating college campuses. According to recent data from the Student Monitor, only about 7 percent of students at four-year colleges have e-readers, and only half of those are iPads. At the same time, Apple appears to be winning the hearts-and-minds game: 26 percent of students surveyed in October said the iPad is “in” on their campus (compared to 5 percent for the Kindle). About 16 percent of students who did not already own an e-reader said they were interested in buying an iPad.

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