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Colleges Take Varied Approaches to iPad Experiments, With Mixed Results

Several colleges that have been trying out iPads in the classroom will be sharing their experiences at the annual Educause conference, which kicks off Tuesday in Philadelphia. The officials plan to talk about what they’ve learned, though most still say it’s too soon to judge the long-term potential of tablets in teaching.

At least four sessions at the conference focus on teaching experiments with Apple’s popular gadget, and The Chronicle caught up with the presenters to get a preview of their planned remarks.

Pepperdine University, for example, has been experimenting in a few courses, where some students are given iPads loaded with reading materials and applications, and others stick with laptops and traditional printed books. The initial findings show that iPads increase engagement and collaboration, acting as a facilitator for more easily sharing information, rather than the clunky barrier that a laptop can sometimes be in a group setting.

When observing classrooms with and without iPads, the difference ranged from barely noticeable to a stark contrast,  said Dana K. Hoover, assistant CIO for communications and planning at Pepperdine. The most noticeable difference was how students in the iPad classes moved around the classroom more and seemed to be more engaged in the material.

“The goal is specifically to see if the iPad has the potential to impact student performance on learning outcomes in the classroom,” says Ms. Hoover. “Our secondary goal is to see if we can produce some sort of formula for success.”

The study, which began last fall, is now in its third and final semester and is in the data-collection phase. At the conference, Ms. Hoover and a colleague will be presenting some of the preliminary results from their study. The main findings they will discuss, which they did not have when Ms. Hoover was interviewed, will be results from a quiz comparing students in sections with and without iPads.

Colleges have taken a variety of approaches to their iPad experiments.

Oberlin College, a private liberal-arts institution in Ohio, is also in its third semester of its iPad program, and Forrest H. Rose, an instructional technologist at the college, says it values the immediacy the iPad brings to the classroom by giving students an easily transportable tool to use on field trips and in other group settings. But since Apple designed the tablets to be a single-user device, some professors have found issues with having multiple students lean over the machines to try to use them together. And on top of that, some students at the college have been reluctant to embrace the technology in the classroom, saying they prefer pen and paper.

Others, such as those in a music-theory course, seemed more open to a device that let them go paperless to carry around their sheet music. For those students, the iPad applications enhanced their music classes by giving them more options for composing music. But in other classes, such as writing composition, some students said the iPad proved to be a hindrance for detailed note taking and drafting papers.

“Technology isn’t at the forefront here because we’re a small liberal-arts school,” Mr. Rose said. “There have been mixed reactions and there has been some pushback.”

But for the most part the experiment has been a success, officials say, and the college’s technology center has been looking for a way to keep the devices in the classroom beyond the end of the study.

At the Universities of Cincinnati and of San Francisco, officials chose to give iPads only to faculty members, which proved to have both advantages and disadvantages.

For San Francisco researchers this meant they were able to get the devices into more classrooms, reaching up to 40 faculty members to date. But after hearing all the feedback, they’ve decided to run another iPad study, says Kenneth Yoshioka, a graphic, media, and training specialist at the university. Next time the study will include students as well.

At Cincinnati, where the study is also exclusive to faculty members, researchers say the experience has been useful so far, particularly in science and engineering courses because there are a number of useful, interactive apps available for these subjects as compared with the humanities courses.

“We’re looking for people who have clear goals in mind based on what they’re going to do in the classroom,” says Carolyn J. Stoll. They choose the faculty members carefully and purposefully, focusing on the individual’s pedagogical goals and analyzing the methodology.

The university, Ms. Stoll says, is now looking at purchasing new types of tablets to add to the study, and they have no end date for the experiment in sight.

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