Reposting Guest Blog: iPads in the Higher Education Classroom

Forgive me for a departure from the medieval for this post. My university is doing an iPad pilot to test out the possibility of using them in our classrooms. I am a member of this pilot. I have had several concerns about this initiative, and I was asked to do a few guest posts for a blog that is documenting the project. Below is a copy of the text of my first post, originally published here. I would be interested in hearing thoughts and responses from anyone.


It’s Different.

First, I should define where I stand on the “iPads in the classroom question,” which is a much more difficult task than it seems. To begin, what am I not? I am not a full-fledged “skeptic.” I believe that technology can be incredibly effective in the classroom. Indeed, I have promoted pedagogical technologies for several years, and I am currently working on research heading towards a book about wikis in higher education. I also recognize that students should be aware of and proficient with these tools as they will be a part of their future professional and personal landscapes. This leads to what else I am not. I am not a “technology novice.” While the finer points of software, hardware, and the infamous coding are outside my realms of expertise, I can make my way around devices, applications, programs, and electronic toys relatively easily and confidently. Thus, I fall somewhere between the so-called digital native and digital immigrant (phrases I find to be incredibly inaccurate and deceptive, particularly with respect to my students, who missed the memo that everyone their age should be technologically-proficient).
So what am I? I suppose the best term for me at the beginning of this pilot is “concerned.” I believe there is a vast amount of considerations that need to be addressed as institutions move forward with iPad (or similar) initiatives. I could make a long list of concerns that I have, but I will categorize them in three areas for now.1) Reading. The move toward e-(text)books appears, at this stage, to be inevitable, and there are several advantages – not the least of which is cost, something I am constantly aware of given the average socioeconomic status of our students. There is, however, a great deal of research concerning how different it is to read digitally than on paper. I am not proposing (unless further studies determine thus) that either digital or paper is the better medium. However, it isdifferent, and this difference needs to be considered in our approaches to teaching. Handing a student a book and linking them to an e-(text)book simply cannot be viewed as requiring the same skills. We attempt to teach our students to read at a college-level, and we will need to teach them to read digitally at a college-level. Leaving aside academic research on the subject, the Scientific American posted a useful article entitled “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age,” which highlights this issue very well:
  • “[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
  • “Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.”

2) Writing. Much the same argument applies to writing (for my purposes as an instructor in higher education, academic/college-level writing) on a mobile device. It is different. And I would argue even more so if e-(text)books are used in conjunction with it. As a literary scholar, I think about how I write – with several books open in front of me, or PDF’s open on parallel screens, with a document/notepad available for notes, and then another document for the actual writing. Such a process necessarily changes on a mobile device. Multiple screens might be possible, but in a much more limited way. I will not pretend that my undergraduates have the same process that I do, although getting closer to something in that ballpark is one of the goals of their education. Still, even having an e-(text)book open as well as the word processor is awkward on that platform. Then, of course, there is the physical act of typing a long paper on a small device – keyboard or not. Put simply, it’s different.

3) Research and information literacy. After mulling about how I write, I think about how I research. How often I focus on footnotes or endnotes. How often I have several different portions of a book open at the same time, ready to be compared, analyzed, and cross-referenced. I think about how I line up passages next to each other. Then I turn to how I engage with sources – not as isolated, individual entities, but as a cog in a network of connections: the books next to the one I went to find in the library, the rest of the articles in the same issue, the sources found in notes and bibliographies. I again am not arguing that I think this is impossible on a digital (especially mobile) device (indeed, we have gained much in terms of resources), but I think the process is different. While our students struggle with the traditional ways to research, they also struggle with the new, burgeoning ways to research, particularly in how to access that network of connections and follow it down the rabbit hole. We should consider carefully how and when we are going to teach both; there is every possibility that they can eventually complement each other, but curriculum will need to be developed deliberately.

In case you missed it, I have a theme in my concerns: namely, that teaching on a mobile device such as the iPad is different in multiple ways. These differences are my focus as I prepare for this experiment.


Filed under Non-Medieval, Teaching, Technology

3 responses to “Reposting Guest Blog: iPads in the Higher Education Classroom

  1. Hi Dr. T. I actually had a discussion about this in a class one day when we were doing evaluations, and I believe with you during the conference, but I’d like to make some points about having mobile devices such as iPads for classroom learning and use compared to the tradition mode of a laptop and paper textbooks.

    1) Many people enjoy having the large, heavy textbooks for the sole purpose of being able to mark it up to their heart’s content using whatever color or medium they want, plus they are able to view content on two pages, not just one. Having e-textbooks would take that type of studying away and students may find it more difficult to navigate information because they would have a much harder time to compare what they read to something they read earlier. With a physical textbook they can mark it, tab it, fold pages, etc. to easily find the place they were at whereas e-textbooks you have to find a way to maneuver around that – not every e-textbook has a book mark feature.

    2) Many students were concerned about the price. Yes, we understand that there will be some sort of “school discount” added to the iPad, but they are still the most expensive mobile technology that is out there, unlike something made by Google or Amazon. iPads, at their cheapest, start at around $499, whereas many students can get a laptop that can cost half the price – including the discount if they get it through the school. Also, iPads have glass screens which can shatter a lot easier than a laptop.

    3) I agree with the point about writing on an iPad. The Autocorrect feature is a pain to get around, and even though there is an option to switch it off, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be problems with typing on a virtual keyboard. Depending on how the student holds it they will have to either stretch their fingers to reach certain letters or have to squish their hands together to type. They have the option of buying a separate keyboard, but that’s just more money out of their pocket whereas a laptop already comes with said features.

    I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to require incoming freshmen to have an iPad simply because of the difficulties there would be in using one in a classroom. Also, let’s not also forget that not everyone who has an iPad also has a Mac or other Apple device that they can sync their papers and work to. It would be that much more difficult to type papers because the student would only be able to work using an iPad, rather than typing on an actual laptop. I understand that there are some ways in which using an iPad would be fantastic, but in the grand scheme of it all, it just sounds like a mess waiting to happen.

    And like you said, you’d have to take a day or two to teach the kids how to use what app on their iPad before even beginning the class itself, so that takes away the time needed towards learning the curricula in the class.

  2. Rayna – I very much appreciate this thoughtful reply! It’s going to be helpful thinking this through.

  3. Anonymous


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