The Learning Launch Pad

Author: Madeline Stone

Originally published in Scholastic on February 28, 2013

The modern textbook may not be a book at all. A new pilot program has students accessing course material using iPads leased from the bookstore. In English and law professor Elliott Visconsi’s class, “Introduction to the First Amendment: Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age,” students contribute to a digital textbook created through iTunes U, supplementing legal documents and other informational content with their own opinion on issues relating to the First Amendment.

Students share links to articles and videos and use Google+ to discuss a wide range of topics, including censorship, piracy and hate speech. Tweets with the class hashtag (#visconsi1a) help to continue the conversation even after class is over.

“Doing it online allows people to participate when inspiration strikes them,” Visconsi says. “It allows people to share all types of resources — links, articles, videos — that they wouldn’t be able to do in a 50-minute discussion class.”

Visconsi teamed up with the College of Arts and Letters, Office of Information Technologies, Office of Financial Aid and Student Accounts, Office of the Registrar and the Hammes Bookstore to explore how the iPad could actually be used in class. The “Introduction to the First Amendment” class, newly redesigned for this semester, is the result of that partnership.

“It seemed like a good fit for the pilot with the iPad because what we wanted to do was say, ‘Let’s use this device not just to consume content, but as a tool of creation, a tool of argument and a tool of interaction between students,’” Visconsi says.

Many students in Visconsi’s class, such as junior finance major Cameron Roberson, have responded positively to the device, citing improved organization and more flexible studying.

“What I’ve liked about using the iPad is that everything you need is right in front of you,” Roberson says. “You can read the course textbook, research articles and take notes all from the same place. It makes everything a lot easier in terms of organization.”

Junior biological sciences and Spanish major Clare Yarka says that the device also incorporates study materials beyond just plain text.

“The use of the iPad allows me to be fully engaged in all facets of the information being presented,” she says. “The ability of the instructor and text creator to incorporate digital components into the text is invaluable, not to mention more interesting in the eyes of a student faced with 100 pages of assigned reading. … I honestly have not yet found any downsides to using it.”

Art professor Andre Murnieks teaches an iPad pilot course called “Introduction to Web-based Interactivity.” He says he had to arrange funding to allow all stuents to participate. By NCAA rules, university officials cannot give student-athletes free gifts or discounts that could be seen as compensation for their performance.

“As a required material, the iPad has to be eligible for financial aid or scholarship money so that, for example, my student athletes may participate in the pilot but also be NCAA compliant,” Murnieks says.

Murnieks says the iPad is the ideal complement to the course.

“It allows us to think about the web beyond a browser and a mouse,” he says. “Already we have sketched compositions for our first website, photographed the sketches with the iPad and shared them wirelessly to the classroom’s projector.”

Many professors outside of the pilot program are incorporating the iPad into their curricula.

American studies professor Joshua Roiland teaches “Future of News,” a class centered on iPad use, in which the 17 students received the tablet for the semester free of charge. Roiland obtained a grant through the College of Arts and Letters, the Department of American Studies and the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.

The grant paid for the iPads for the class, enabling students to use apps such as Ustream, Photoshop, Flipboard, Newsify and Feedly to learn about as well as participate in the changing nature of journalism. These apps allow for a streamlined approach that is useful to journalists in the digital age.

“We’re doing things and practicing journalism, but that’s not all we’re doing. We’re seeing how things are changing in the news,” Roiland says. “They find stories and then post them on Twitter to continue the conversation.”

Students in Roiland’s class, such as sophomore American studies major Meg Handelman, have both created and consumed news using the iPad’s unique capabilities.

“As the semester progresses, we are going to be creating news stories across multiple media using the many capabilities of the iPad,” Handelman says. “The class has focused on teaching us valuable skills about the tools that can help in mobile reporting.”

Handelman was in Roiland’s “Journalism and American Democracy” class last semester, which was the first class to use the iPads.

“I love how user-friendly the iPad is,” Handelman says. “It’s very easy to stay updated on the news because the iPad offers so many options for condensing news from many media so that I can get it all in one place.”

The turn to the iPad is a trend that has grown in schools all over the country. Apple reported in July that it had sold one million iPads to high schools and colleges in the previous quarter, which was double the iPad sales to schools during the same quarter the previous year.

Many South Bend schools are also participating in this trend. Students at Marquette Primary Montessori Academy can use iPads, which were obtained by the school with a grant under Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act, to reinforce the lessons they learn in the classroom. Last year, the school’s fourth graders used iPads to create a book presentation.

“It mimics the exact material that we have in the classroom,” says Deb Cyrier, the school’s Montessori facilitator. “Occasionally we use them as a sort of reward if we see a student who needs to be more motivated.”

Other schools have also found unique ways to use the iPad. Teachers at South Bend’s Rise Up Academy can check out classroom sets of iPads to guide students through content-specific apps, as well as word processing and multimedia exercises. Administrators across the school district use the iPad to conduct math and reading assessments and compile data several times throughout the year.

The relatively low price of digital textbooks is another advantage of the iPad. According to a College Board report from 2012, students at four-year colleges will pay about $1,200 for books each year. For Visconsi’s class, students could pay $70 to rent an iPad from OIT and have access to the rest of the materials for free.

The high price of the device itself, however, which starts at $500, may limit the expansion of iPads into all schools. Some critics doubt that the technology is worth the cost, wondering if money spent to recruit and train teachers would be more worthwhile.

“There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines,” Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, told The New York Times in 2011. “IPads are marvelous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.”

Others worry that the iPad provides students with so many entertaining resources that it could become more of a problem than a solution in the classroom.

“I don’t believe that many professors will switch to tablets because although there are many benefits from using them, they also present a large amount of distractions during classes, like social media and iPad games,” Roberson says.

Roiland, however, says that classes should be engaging enough to keep this from happening.

“It’s my job as a teacher to keep the class interesting enough so that for an hour and 15 minutes people aren’t compelled to check Facebook, so if I can’t do that I shouldn’t have this device in class in the first place,” Roiland says.

This is not the first time a Notre Dame class has experimented with iPad technology. In fall 2010, just months after the iPad first went on sale to the public, management professor Corey Angst taught his seven-week “Project Management” class as part of a year-long study of the use of eReaders in university functions. The students used the iPads to manage real projects, with one team employing them to help the Center for the Homeless establish a coffee shop.

At the end of the yearlong pilot program, researchers concluded that the iPad helped to facilitate classroom activities.

“Our findings suggest the greatest value of the iPad may not be its ability to function as an eBook reader, but instead its capacity to consolidate or aggregate information,” Angst said in an article published on at the end of the one-year pilot program. “A statistically significant proportion of students felt the iPad made class more interesting, encouraged exploration of additional topics, provided functions and tools not possible with a textbook and helped them more effectively manage their time.”

Visconsi hopes that his model can be replicated in other classes in the future.

“If we can do this for 120 kids, we can do it for almost any class at Notre Dame, should we choose to do so,” Visconsi says. “The more we ask them to create or do, the more interactive it becomes. It’s really an invitation to unlock student creativity.”