Exploring the use of iPads and mobile devices in education.
It's almost a year since the iPad was first released and we have been using them in a high school pilot program since September. Our intent was to explore different ways that the iPad could be used by students and the hope was that we could also transition to using e-Books instead of paper textbooks during the course of the year.
The pilot has been a source of observational and anecdotal information. After four months I felt we should get a more precise evaluation of how students rated their experiences with the iPads. We had them complete a Google forms survey and collated the results of 126 students that responded.
It's important to detail the background for the pilot study in order to set the stage for the analysis.
How the iPads are being used in class
We're constantly experimenting with how the iPads are used in class. Some activities have worked more effectively than others. In many cases, we're hamstrung by our need to share the iPads. The resultant inability to store personal student data on them (such as login information) has made it virtually impossible to use many apps and web services.
Their use in class has been focused primarily on the following activities:
A. Reference tool
Teachers have used the iPads extensively as a research tool. Students use the Google app for general web research and we also subscribe to several web based library services that students can access. The Religious Studies class has also been using apps for the searching of different biblical texts.
B. Documents and Presentations
The specialized apps we have used most often involve reading, creation and marking up of documents and presentations. The apps include:
We had intended to make the use of e-Books an integral part of the pilot program. As it turns out, the availability of quality digital textbooks for the course curriculum being covered was pretty thin. To this point, we have not used e-Books much but hopefully that will change as more content becomes available. One option we may start exploring is the creation of our own e-Book content.
D. Collaborative Projects
We are attempting to facilitate as much collaborative work as possible in the pilot program. Furniture has been re-arranged into “pods” and teachers have been encouraged to consider using group projects in class. As outlines in a prior article (“Class Research on iPads – How Well Does it Work”), it's not unusual to find students working in groups with some doing research on the iPads while others take notes (often on pen and paper) or work on a Keynote presentation. The size and weight of the iPad make it an ideal tool for group work and it can easily be passed around and shared.
E. Distributing and Annotating Documents
A substantial portion of the work in both History and Religious Studies involves the use and marking up of source documents. Teachers can easily distribute the documents to students and we have been using iAnnotate as the app for highlighting and annotating the document. This has presented students with some difficulty and many have commented that they find the touch interface difficult when attempting to select or highlight text.
The survey was conducted in late December and early January. Students had been using iPads in class for three to four months. 126 students responded to the survey. Their responses are summarized below.
1. On a scale of 1 (difficult) to 5 (simple), how easy has it been for you to use an iPad?
Response: Overall average: 4.11 Class range: 3.55 to 4.44
At first glance the average response seems to indicate that students found the transition to using iPads very simple. It's important to note however that teachers have time-sensitive course objectives and they therefore avoided activities that students found difficult. For example, in general students were not required to take notes on their iPads. Some elected to do so but it was not unusual to find students doing research on their iPads while taking notes with pen and paper. This simplified the process for those that had issues using the iPad keyboard, and also avoided dealing with the iPads' inability to keep multiple windows open when researching.
A few students commented that they actually found the inability to open multiple windows to be an advantage. As one student noted, “I like using the iPad instead of laptops, because I don't get as distracted as much on the iPad ... it's easier to get distracted on a laptop/computer than it is on the iPad.”
When looking at the class range, it's interesting to note that the lower end score of 3.55 was from the one class whose teacher was most ambitious in using iPads and used them for a wider range of activities than the other classes. This "stretching" of iPad use may have contributed to making some students feel less comfortable.
Overall the students responded very positively regarding the iPads' ease of use. As with any new interface paradigm, it's not unusual to see a very wide range of comments and responses. Some students reported that they loved the touch interface while a small number found it very difficult and cumbersome. The main source of frustration was the difficulty many experienced trying to use the touch keyboard. However, as indicated by responses below, the more often students used the iPads the more comfortable they become with the interface.
2. On a scale of 1 (not helpful) to 5 (very helpful), to what degree has the use of iPads helped your learning in class?
Response: Overall average: 3.38 Class range: 3.00 to 3.80
The average response was positive but fell short of the ringing endorsement for which we had been hoping. I believe there are two contributing factors:
3. On a scale of 1 (difficult) to 5 (easy), how well can you manage typing on the iPad?
Response: Overall average: 3.60 Class range: 3.27 to 3.84
The response to this question correlated closely with the response to the prior question. The most common source of frustration was easily the difficulty many students had using the touch keyboard. Having said that, a majority of students still reported they could type comfortably on the iPad. However, students were only required to type short notes, annotations and emails in class rather than longer documents. The number of students that elected to type all their class notes on the iPad was relatively small.
4. On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (every class), to what degree would you want to use iPads in other classes?
Response: Overall average: 3.41 Class range: 2.85 to 4.09
The statistic that jumps out on this question is the large disparity between the high scoring class and low scoring class. It's not surprising that it correlates with the amount of iPad use in class. In classes where the iPads were used more often students reported a greater degree of comfort using them and a far greater desire to use iPads in other classes.
5. Would you prefer using iPads or laptops in class?
Response: Laptops 74% iPads 26%
Class range: 66% to 89% laptop preference
In speaking to students and reading their comments, the main reasons that most still prefer laptops were as follows:
The class that preferred using iPads most was the class that used them most often and intensively. It’s difficult to assess how the response may have changed if each student had exclusive use of an iPad.
6. Would you prefer having textbooks as eBooks on the iPad or a printed book?
Printed Books 49% iPad eBooks 51%
Class range: 20% to 83% prefer e-Books
While the responses were split pretty evenly across all respondents, note the very large disparity in high and low scoring classes. The high scoring class that preferred using e-Books is the class that used iPads most often and did a substantial amount of text reading on them. Their responses displayed a resounding 83% preference for using e-Books.
1. iPads are always ready for use.
The ability to pull out an iPad, press a button and start work is a very significant advantage. They can be charged overnight and used during the day without any need for charging or concern for cords and outlets (see “The Educational Importance of Ubiquitous Computing”).
2. Don't assume “digital natives” will easily transition to using iPads. It takes time.
There's a common belief that children are “digital natives” that have grown up with technology and can easily learn and adapt to new digital devices. The survey responses do not support that claim. There was a clear difference in response between groups that correlates to their use of iPads in class. Students that had greater exposure reported a greater comfort level and greater desire to use them in other contexts. In general, students that had more limited exposure reported more problems using them and a clear preference for using laptops and traditional paper books.
It could be argued that the results may have differed had the pilot focused on elementary students rather than high school students. It's entirely possible that younger children may have required less time and exposure to the tablet interface to develop a reasonable level of comfort.
3. iPads are designed to be personal devices and are difficult to share.
iPads don't have any process of logging in or distinguishing one user from the next. Further, they cache login information so that users may have access to personal data of other users. This makes it difficult to use many web services and apps.
If iPads are going to be shared then you have to be aware of their limitations. They can still be great devices for e-Reading and web browsing but the range of possible activities will be severely limited.
4, iPads cannot be used in the same manner as laptops.
iPads are designed to be personal devices. Don't expect to use an “iPad cart” as a less expensive alternative to the laptop cart you wheel from class to class.
Also, laptops can be controlled by administrators and teachers to a far greater degree than iPads. For example, software can be installed on laptops that allow teachers to monitor student activity. While you can apply certain “parental” restrictions on an iPad you cannot monitor activity or control use to the same degree as is possible on laptops. If control is an issue for you then you may want to wait before diving into an iPad investment for your school.
5. E-Books and e-Reading will replace paper textbooks.
Unfortunately we weren't able to find a range of high quality digital textbooks when the school year began. Instead, teachers have managed to cobble together content using some textbooks along with a range of web based material and digital documents that they have distributed to students. The availability of a wide range of digital textbooks and general eBook material is around the corner however and tablet computers are ideal devices for the distribution and access of digital text.
Pilot classes that have been reading more extensively on their iPads have expressed a clear preference for digital text over paper books and it only seems a matter of time before eBooks replace paper books in schools.
6. Is the touch interface right for everyone?
Some students simply do not like the touch interface at all. Whether that will change with increased usage is not certain. Most new devices require some period of adjustment but before we jump into demanding a 1:1 program with tablet computers we might want to consider that it's a radical change for many students and some will not adapt very easily.
7. Consumption versus Production
I'm venturing more into the realm of opinion than research on this point but it has become the focal point of many debates around the use of iPads. Many critics of the use of iPads in education claim they are primarily consumption devices that are poor replacements for desktop and laptop computers when it comes to creating content.
Frankly, I think information “consumption” gets a bad rap these days. After all, it's a vital step in any educational process. I'm not referring to the simple reading of a designated chapter out of a textbook. Information acquisition today means connecting to a vast network of information sources – news, books, libraries, web resources and more. With the ever increasing amount of information being produced every day of every year, it's important for any device to enable simple and seamless acquisition of information. And make no mistake, the iPad is a fantastic consumption device. Where I think many critics misstep is in not acknowledging the importance of information consumption to the process of education and secondly, underestimating how superior the iPad is to traditional laptops in this regard.
That being said, creating content is also a vital component in education. Much of the discussion about content creation on iPads centers on the use of apps. Apps tend to focus more on short session tasks. They are smaller in nature than traditional software and tend to have a more focused and limited objective. Longer range, project oriented tasks require more open ended and robust tools than those available today on the iPad. The app market however is still very much in its infancy and is attracting a tremendous amount of innovation and expansion. It's difficult to predict where the market might be in a year or even a few months from now.
Also, software innovation and production is becoming increasingly more cloud based. Important web based educational tools such as Google Docs and flash based websites are either not supported or have limited support on iPad browsers today. This will change and when it does, it will have a dramatic impact on the production value of the iPad.