eTextbooks and Educational Apps: iPads Enter the Classroom

Rolling backpacks are lame.  There, I said it.  No one wants to be that kid rolling into class, crushing people’s toes and running into desks with their weapon on wheels.  On the flip side of that coin, no one wants to be the kid in the back brace either.  But textbooks are heavy, and there’s really no way around them, or is there?  Trinity College in Melbourne Australia recently conducted a study to find out – they dispatched iPads to a small group of students and teachers at the start of term, and monitored how the new technology affected the classroom.  The results of their study – called the Step Forward Pilot Project – were recently published online and outline a few of the pros and cons of iPads as a learning tool.  Trinity College isn’t alone – schools around the world are incorporating iPads into their daily routine and changing the way students of all ages access and learn new information.

iPads in education are a hot topic at the moment, with entire websites dedicated to the discussion of their use, and the general consensus is positive.  The results of the Trinity College study were generally positive as well, though the conclusions are based mostly on qualitative statements about how much the students and teachers liked using the iPad, without much data to support conclusions.  Some of the key findings include “iPads are effective, durable, reliable and achieve their educational aims of going further, faster and with more fun” and “Past TCFS students and current TCFS students in other intakes have expressed interest in iPads and a wish that they had the chance to use iPads at Trinity.”  A recent study conducted at Notre Dame provides a slightly more quantitative view of how students used the devices, ultimately concluding that the devices were mostly a good thing.

Schools around the world are incorporating iPads into their school day.  Check out this AP report on the use of iPads instead of textbooks and notebooks at some US schools, including Stanford’s School of Medicine.

High school, college and graduate students alike are making use of eTextbooks from companies like Inkling and CourseSmart.   These companies work with textbook publishers to provide digital versions of the cumbersome textbooks we are so used to lugging around.  There are also apps available that aid in note taking and information gathering.  Older students aren’t the only ones with iPads.  In some schools, children as young as 5 are using iPads to learn the basics.  At Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland, every student from age 5 to 17 was given an iPad as part of their “1:1 technology” program.

One big argument against the iPad in classrooms is the potential for distraction.  With the ability to check their email and surf the web, many fear that kids will stop paying attention all together.  Let’s be honest though, kids will find ways to be distracted, technology or not.  It used to be paper airplanes and passing notes, now its text messages and games on cell phones, and iPads really don’t add a whole lot if you ask me.  Just because you can check Facebook every 5 minutes in the middle of math class doesn’t mean you should, and with the ubiquity of the internet these days, that is a lesson that kids need to learn.  Students that can overcome distractions will succeed, and those who can’t, well, we can’t all be winners.   One staff member in the Trinity College study commented that iPads did provide a potential for distraction, but that “This is not a large problem, rather it fits within the typical classroom management issues faced by teachers dealing with younger student cohorts.”

So, what do we think?  I am all for it, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have already jumped on this bandwagon.  I am halfway through my first semester using eTextbooks on an iPad and it has been great.  It did take some getting used to, but ultimately it has been both a money and time saver.  Buying subscriptions to digital versions of my textbooks has saved hundreds of dollars, and since I have them with me everywhere I go (I can access books from my iPad or iPhone), I actually read them.  Whether I am stuck in traffic or killing time before an appointment, any unexpected free time can now be used to catch up on homework.  Granted, using an iPad in grad school is a lot different than in a 6th grade classroom, but I am in favor of technology in the classroom at any age.   The children of today have grown up in front of the television and video games, it seems almost ridiculous to expect a traditional approach to hold their attention.  Introducing high tech aids into the classroom only makes sense.  Its got to be difficult to concentrate on your teacher’s boring, black and white, PowerPoint based lecture when minutes before class you were watching an HD video on YouTube, playing AngryBirds on your phone in one hand and playing Wii tennis in the other.  Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but still.  Technology has changed the way we live and work, and school is meant to prepare us to function productively in the world.  So it seems to me that, by necessity, technology should be infiltrating our classrooms at least as fast as it is changing our lives.

[image credits: Trinity College]

[source: Trinity College, NYT]

Whitney Ijem
Whitney Ijem
Whitney's thesis research revolved around creating a 3D patch of skeletal muscle tissue from stem cells and much more.
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