iPad pilot project reveals limitations as an instructional tool

by David Raths

October 30 2011

Intrigued by potential of app development, University of San Francisco faculty members see room for improvement.

Universities that roll out iPad programs are signaling to students that they are willing to experiment with new technologies, and several schools have begun to study where tablets fit in the mix of student technology usage. But so far, less attention has been paid to studying the ways faculty members can use these same devices.

At the mid-October Educause conference in Philadelphia, John Bansavich, director of the Center for Instruction & Technology at the University of San Francisco, described findings from a six-month iPad study in 2010 involving 40 faculty members. The presentation (“The iPad: Implications for Higher Education”) was made to an overflow crowd, with attendees lined up at the door to get in, a sure sign a sign as any that the level of iPad interest is high among instructional technologists.

Based on faculty input, the USF study concluded that the iPad needs some fundamental improvements before it can realize its full potential as an instructional tool.

Bansavich said his team originally planned to work with only 10 faculty members, but when 112 people applied to be part of the project, the provost agreed to expand it to 40. Study members were asked to make regular contributions to an iPad study wiki and maintain a personal log of uses and ideas during the period of the study.

Some of the faculty expressed frustration in learning how to use the iPad to meet their instructional goals, Bansavich said. “For many, it didn't make sense to use the iPad in the classroom when their laptop worked just as well.”

Although some of their concerns were addressed when the iPad 2 was introduced, other issues remain. When asked to identify some of the weaknesses of using the iPad in the classroom, faculty identified the following (in order of frequency listed):

• VGA-out issues (resolved with the release of the iPad 2 in March 2011)

• Lack of a USB port

• Keyboard issues (i.e., size, difficulty)

• Inability to play Flash video

Faculty members also struggled with the lack of a file management system on the iPad. Despite these concerns, he said, several faculty members were intrigued by the idea of app development and would have liked to further explore developing apps specific to their research or instruction.

Fifty-two percent said that they used the iPad to present websites. Thirty-nine percent used the iPad in the classroom to share videos and presentations. And 30 percent stated that they used it for presenting Blackboard and PDFs.

When asked which apps were most helpful, those mentioned most frequently were: Safari, Mail, Keynote, iAnnotate, GoodReader, Evernote, Pages, Dropbox, Blackboard Mobile and YouTube.

Faculty reported using the iPad in the following areas: meetings (28 percent), entertainment (24 percent), research (16 percent), and productivity tasks (16 percent).

The USF researchers found that because the iPad 2 improved the functionality of the device, it may prove to be a more powerful tool for teaching and learning. USF would like to expand its study to include students. They also want to explore the potential of electronic textbooks to reduce costs and lighten the load of textbooks for students.

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for Healthcare Informatics, Campus Technology and Government Technology magazines.
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