Universities are testing the iPad's value in class, but will students use the technology correctly?

The iPad measures a mere 9.56-by-7.47 inches.

But for being such a seemingly small device, it could have an immeasurably large impact on the world of college education.

Marrying the mobility of smartphones and the power of a laptop, the iPad has proven to be quite the wonder. Although met with mixed reception, the technology has impressed users with its speed, purpose and quality.

Finding the appropriate niche for its capabilities have been a bigger challenge.

But it might have found its perfect companion: college students.


It's a notebook, textbook, pen, eraser, dictionary, folder, tape recorder, highlighter and binder "¦ all in one. But it comes with something none of those things do: an endless sea of distractions in the form of social networking, games and web surfing.

Universities across Central Oklahoma are hoping that students will be able to utilize all that is good about the iPad " and skim over all the bad " and are beginning to test its value in the classroom.

It seems it's mostly going to depend on whether students will be able to use it in the right way. The iPad very well could revolutionize how students are educated. The world shall see if it's for better or worse.

Schools have always experimented with new technologies in the classroom, but lately, with a boom of new devices, colleges are starting to make an even more aggressive push to test new technologies and see how they can alter the process of education.

Students at Oklahoma Christian University receive both a MacBook and their choice of an iPhone or iPod Touch when they enroll, and now they can opt to pay an upgrade fee and receive and iPad instead. The University of Oklahoma has developed a mobile version of Desire2Learn " a program students use to read classroom announcements, receive assignments, check grades and participate in discussions " for smartphones and the iPad, as well as an update for its OU2Go application.

"Mobile development is critical to recruiting, retaining and communicating with the new generation of students who have grown up with a mobile phone in their purse, pocket or hand," said Nicholas Key, OU IT spokesman. "Mobile services could revolutionize how information is presented to and consumed by students and could soon become the standard nationally."

The seven members of the OU Board of Regents also received iPads so they could have digital copies of their agendas instead of printing hard copies.

But at Oklahoma State University, one of the most dramatic, intensive experiments with the iPad is gearing up to get started.

The university has experimented with tools like iTunes U and YouTube, testing their practical applications with prerecorded lectures, and other mobile applications for years. But with the launch of the iPad, Bill Handy, a visiting assistant professor in the School of Media and Strategic Communications, saw the potential for drastic changes in the way colleges educate their students.

"When you look at technology like this, it's a no-brainer, you've got to test it," Handy said.

He and Tracy Suter, an associate professor of marketing with OSU's Spears School of Business, are leading the Apple iPad student pilot initiative, in which 125 students in five different courses will receive iPads. In these courses, the students will almost solely use the e-tablet for everything they do in the classroom, including taking notes and tests and giving presentations.

All their reading materials will be viewable via the iPad; even the textbooks will be available for download on the digital device.

This prompts questions of how long hardback textbooks will be able to survive and what a paperless classroom might be like.

Education could be in the process of making a dramatic shift toward all things digital, where endless possibilities " and liabilities " exist.

"I think that people misunderstand what is meant by integrating technology," Handy said. "This is about how we are shifting in the world of technology, about what takes place in the classroom and outside of it."

With society veering in a more digital direction, Handy holds that classrooms should at least try to do the same. Kathryn Steele, an expository writing professor at OU, teaches a class that focuses on the shifts of media over history. She agrees that both the world and the means of education are in the process of moving to a very different place.

"Right now, we are in a transitional moment," Steele said. "All of us have learned to read using print. In the future, we will learn to read using screens."

Screens offer a lot that print cannot. Devices like the iPad offer endless flexibility, dozens of functions and the possibility to exponentially increase productivity.

While Handy noted he has no preconceived notions of what will come out of the initiative, he did speak of what the iPad has done for him since he purchased one.

"What the iPad can do, from what I can tell right now, is pretty dramatic," he said. "Since I first got my iPad, I have kept trying to do things I didn't think would be feasible to do. I've found that the only limitations with the device were my own.   

"Speaking personally, it has increased my productivity, reduced the amount of time I spend at my personal computer and reduced my paper usage," Handy continued. "I was most surprised to find that the iPad increased (the) amount of time I had to read."

While Handy has seen a boost in his productivity and increased efficiency, the lingering question remains: Will students simply give in to the endless diversions digital devices offer, effectively shifting a zoology course into Facebook 101?

"If you know why you are using (the new technology), and you are using it in a focused way, then it's great," Steele said. "But the main detraction with technology is its distraction factor."

Steele noted she already has a problem with texting in class, and worries that if all her students were using iPads, she neither could keep the group collectively focused on the same task, nor keep them focused at all.

"I do think there's not enough self-discipline to keep the students from doing others things," she said. "The flexibility it offers probably doesn't yet balance the distraction it can create."

Steele said there is also a value to being able to read something coherently, linearly, from beginning to end, and that we haven't gotten to the point where we can do that on a screen.

However, she knows that this is not the first time we've seen problems like these.

"We were asking all the same questions and had all the same worries when we made the shift from orality to print," Steele said. "It's not necessarily better or worse, it just takes a little time to complete the transition. So right now, yes, it's a little dangerous, but we'll never go there if we don't start."

Where exactly will "there" be?

Handy is prerecording his lectures. All of his classroom reading materials, presentations and graphs can be downloaded to the iPad or viewed over mobile applications. Theoretically, a student could have all the value of a classroom lecture at their fingertips at all times. Classroom time could become something of more importance.

"You start looking at the holistic change to how we use our time face-to-face with students," Handy said. "The biggest impact I see is opening classroom time to real interaction with students. The value to something like that is astronomical."

Classrooms could become a place that fosters a more collaborative, engaging experience, leaving coursework to be done at the leisure of the student. Or, it could do the exact opposite.

"It's easy to envision a classroom where everyone is just kind of doing their own thing," Steele said. "Things, at least now, could become more diffuse in the classroom, but I'm generally optimistic for the future of it."

This could be it. This could mark the beginning of the end for chalkboards, textbooks and classroom lectures " the end of classrooms altogether.

The world could see education become more efficient, more engaging, and possibly increase the amount of material learned in the time it took in the age of print.

Or, the enticing temptations of things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could completely derail the entire process.

The results could be spectacular or very disappointing. Since the world has conquered such shifts in the past, will it learn to master " or at least adapt " to the latest trend?

"I think we'll eventually catch up to all the distractions that come with this technology," Steele said. "Or we'll just change what the tolerance level for distraction is."  

Although people may argue over the perceived faults and benefits that come with iPad use in a classroom setting, most everyone agrees that it's mostly beneficial financially.

"The goal of introducing new technologies or integrating technology in an academic setting is to reduce costs and improve efficiency and productivity," said Nicholas Key, IT spokesman for the University of Oklahoma. "Joshua Boydston

All seven members of the OU Board of Regents received iPads so they would no longer have to print hard copies of the agendas, which are both costly in terms of finances and waste.

But this could also mean an end to everyone's favorite preterm purchase: textbooks.

"As technology gets smaller, cheaper, better "¦ things like the iPad could very well replace textbooks in the classroom," said Kathryn Steele, an expository writing professor at OU.

Students spend anywhere from $700 to $1,100 annually on textbooks, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Textbook downloads come at a fraction of that cost.

But while publishers like McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin have signed on to develop digital textbooks, they aren't widespread yet. That doesn't mean students won't see more and more coming in the near future. Bill Handy, a visiting assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, noted that all four textbooks he is using in his class are available for download. In some instances, that equals a savings of almost $100 a book.

And with prices for the iPad ranging from $499 to $869 " depending on its memory and network options " it could theoretically pay for itself in just a few semesters, unless textbook companies adjust with higher download prices to compensate. "Joshua Boydston

top photo Kathryn Steele is an expository writing professor at the University of Oklahoma. Photo/Mark Hancock
middle photo Oklahoma State University students Allison Griffith, Isaac Rocha and Wendelene Rios discuss the iPad program with Bill Handy, visiting assistant professor.
bottom photo Students make their way between classes on the OU campus. Photo/Mark Hancock