Massachusetts school uses Lenovo ThinkPads and iPads to determine how and if teaching can be improved by using tablets.
Framingham State University in Massachusetts is among the vanguard of higher educational institutions using tablets -- and not just because of its three innovative pilot programs.
The other reason is that FSU recognizes that mobility will soon be the de facto channel by which most people will absorb information. As Robin Robinson, director of education technology and support puts it:
"Students have to be able to learn from anywhere, at anytime, with any kind of device."
FSU's support of mobile technology is well-established. Students have been required to have a wireless laptop since 2002 and the school offers free, campus-wide Wi-Fi.
Last year the four-year public university with 6,400 students initiated its first pilot program for tablets, according to Deborah Moschella Saks, Director of User Services at Framingham State University.
“We had about 60 students in a biology class. Sixteen used iPads, 16 used textbooks and the remaining students didn’t want to take part in the experiment,” she explained. “Those that used the iPads loved it although there wasn’t an overarching ‘this is the best thing ever’ …but there was no difference in grades between those who used it and those who didn’t it.”
The director said she was surprised at how many students elected not to take tablets during the pilot program.
“We were kind of surprised. We thought all students would want the iPad but they didn’t because it’s a new technology and since they were getting graded, [they were concerned] about what might happen if they ended up uncomfortable using them,” she explained. Under the guidelines of the pilot program, students would not be able to switch to a textbook. Some were also concerned they might want to keep the textbooks and the pilot program uses an e-textbook rental program, she added.
For the 2012-2013 academic year, Framingham State decided to up the ante. It offered a Teaching with Technology Grant to faculty interested in using the latest technologies for the purpose of “designing new instructional techniques and programs.”
Graphic novels and Victorian avatars
There was $30,000 available in total through this grant which was awarded to three professors who’s grants included using mobile technology in different classes.
--The first grant went to continue the pilot and evaluate the benefits of student engagement with mobile technology. But this time the school divided tablets given to students. Half got iPads and half got Lenovo tablets running the Android OS.
--The second grant went to a faculty member who teaches graphic novel and comic book design. He is planning to help students transform work that traditionally goes solely to print into a digital and perhaps interactive format.
--The third starts next spring and is perhaps the most interesting, if not most unique, of the three. A professor will be using the tablets to teach Victorian Literature. In addition to reading from their IPads, students will be using them to create a Victorian avatar and then getting into character and using social networking as those avatars. The tablets enable the students to not only be mobile but to annotate digital texts used in the classroom.
“It’s really an interesting and unique way to use the iPad that we hadn’t thought of,” said Moschella. “Now, students can build these characters and use them outside of class.”
Moschella told TabTimes the program is evaluating Google+ with its Circles online sharing system to build out the online network, but it may use a homegrown system to build these Victorian Literature communities.
Including the pilot programs as well as tablets purchased for some faculty, Robinson estimates the school has to date purchased about 150 tablets. That total does not include an indeterminate number of BYODs being toted around campus.
The classes are using Blackboard mobile apps for teaching in the pilot program, she said. (FSU garnered a Blackboard Catalyst Award for Mobile Innovation earlier this year, which recognizes members of the community who have used mobile technology in a way that created a positive effect on student and learners’ educational experience).
Meanwhile, Clair Waterbury, a university instructional technologist said the faculty wants students to collaborate over their schoolwork on a common virtual space and Evernote is being considered to provide that.
“We’re looking for blog spaces, places to annotate text so that they can do something with information so that everyone can see it,” she said. “it’s not just having a PDF version of the text. The class needs to be interactive.”
The role of tablets and the future of education
To that end, Framingham State—like many schools globally—is debating what role tablets and technology will have in the future of education.
“One of the things we’re grappling with is, will we tell students to bring a mobile device?” said Moschella. “It’s moving fast. I don’t know if we will ever buy tablets for all students or if students will already own them.”
Added Waterbury: “We don’t want students just to consume, but to create. We expect teachers will want to create a more dynamic teaching experience. It’s not happening yet because everybody is still exploring.”