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iPads: Bane or Boon to College Teaching?

There’s division in the news media about iPads this week. Optimism about the tablets in the college classroom abounds in a  Financial Times article. But The Chronicle‘s coverage, “iPads Could Hinder Teaching, Professors Say,” pointed to serious pedagogical limits to the finger-touch computers.

How could this be? The two articles even reported on some of the same studies. One possible reason for the differing conclusions is that the FT story focused more on students’ reactions—the devices are great for reading, and just plain cool—and less on teaching.

For instance, both articles quoted Corey M. Angst, an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame who tested the tablets in class. The FT reported, correctly, that students felt the iPad was easy to use and hard to give up. The Chronicle, however, also noted students’ complaints that it was hard to use iPads to take notes—the finger-touch interface isn’t good for writing. And one more telling fact: “For their online final exam, 39 of the 40 students put away their iPads in favor a laptop.”

Mr. Angst felt the iPad was an overall plus, but other professors who use computers in class to highlight material and respond to students’ questions said the iPad couldn’t do what they wanted.

There’s a textbook case to be made, too. The FT notes that handing out a tablet for about $500 is cheaper than asking students to buy hardbound books. E-textbooks are less expensive. But while that’s true, Ben Wieder, who wrote our article, says one publisher told him that e-books for the iPad would be only 20 percent cheaper. And students can’t recoup money by selling them at the end of the semester. So the total cost of e-book/iPad ownership may be higher.

Still, the FT astutely points out that technology moves very quickly, and fixes for some iPad drawbacks are in the works. Other fixes are going to be developed simply because the iPad market is big and getting bigger. That’s something that no textbook company, or software developer, can afford to ignore.

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