Mobile Computing | Feature

The Launch iPad: Ready for Blast Off

Thinking of starting an iPad initiative on campus? UMass Boston shares its experiences for launching a successful program that will thrive.

Last year, the United Arab Emirates' Higher Colleges of Technology announced that their schools were going iPad only, removing all paper and pens from classrooms, and relying instead on iPads for note-taking and information management. Similar programs are being rolled out at more than 60 other top colleges around the globe, with more than 8 million iPads sold directly into educational institutions worldwide.

In the meantime, more than 4.5 million of those iPads have been sold into the US educational system. The rapid influx of iPads into colleges has prompted criticism from some quarters that educators are simply following the latest fad, with little evidence-based data to support their adoption as a teaching and learning tool.

In the eyes of Mary Simone, though, the time for such doubt is past. As manager of the Digital Learning Studio in the IT Division of Education Technology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Simone oversaw the launch of the school's iPad program last year. Since then, her experience working with students and staff confirms her view that iPads have a valuable role to play in higher education. Plus, given how hard it can be to engage faculty with technology, she cannot understand why anyone would shun a learning tool that faculty are actually clamoring to use.

"The program got underway in the spring of 2012 as a result of demand from faculty to project app content to students in their lectures, and to enable students to engage in problem solving and creative activities in such courses as digital art, music theory, and physics," recalled Simone. Since then, the program has grown quickly and is expected to double in size for the upcoming fall semester.

"At the end of the spring semester, I sent out a request to participating faculty, and 95 percent of them wish to continue with the program," added Simone. "The response from faculty and students is overwhelmingly positive. Right now, 15 faculty and 900 students are involved in the program." Another 10 faculty will be added in July. To accommodate the growth, the budget for the program will rise to $20,000 this year, including $16,000 in iPads, $2,500 for carts, $1,500 for apps, and $200 for routers and power supply.

In analyzing the success of the iPad among students and faculty, Simone pinpointed its portability, interactivity, and creativity. In addition, she said, it helps students learn content and develop analytic and communication strategies, as well as enabling faster and easier sharing. Equally important, the iPad gives students and faculty a sense of personal control that other technologies imposed by central IT often don't.

"Deploying mobile learning at UMass Boston has succeeded because faculty and students have harnessed the potential of the iPad to personalize their teaching and learning in meaningful ways, and to share their knowledge of best practices with one another," explained Simone. "Both faculty and students have created a community of iPad-in-the-classroom advocates."

Request for Proposals
But it would be a mistake to think that UMass Boston simply dumped iPads on the campus and walked away. In reality, the program has been methodically planned and rolled out. "The Digital Learning Studio gives iPads only to faculty who submit proposals," said Simone. These proposals must fit within one of four categories:

  • iPad as a Teaching Tool: This category encompasses using the iPad in the classroom as everything from a digital whiteboard to a presentation tool, as well as the use of any of the 500,000-plus apps available.
  • iPad as a Learning Tool: Proposals in this category must take advantage of a mobile cart of iPads that are available for student use, along with selected apps for faculty and student use.
  • iBooks Author: Launching as a pilot in the fall, this project encourages faculty to partner with Simone's Digital Learning Studio to create an e-book.
  • iPad as an e-Text: Also undergoing pilot testing in the fall, this project involves having faculty adopt an e-book as a course textbook.

To support faculty participants, Simone has four staffers working an average of five to 10 hours a week on the iPad program. Work/study and grad students work about 10 hours a week. Face-to-face and online workshops are conducted monthly, and drop-in sessions at the Digital Learning Studio allow faculty members to meet with technology consultants. "We kept the flexibility and the scope of program small in its early stages, and always adapted support to stakeholder needs," said Simone.

Simone is simultaneously conducting a campaign to spread the word among faculty members who are not yet involved with the program. The staff schedule media events, and invite faculty to listen to colleagues talk about using iPads in their teaching. In addition, they maintain a blog and wiki about using the iPad in the classroom. But nothing can beat word of mouth. "I would recommend building a strong base of advocates," advised Simone. "They spread the word across the campus, and expand the user base quickly."

It's All in the Apps
How faculty ultimately decide to use the iPads differs from professor to professor. While some work interactively with their students, others select apps to enhance their lecture presentations. "The most important factor to ensure the success of using iPads in teaching has been the discovery and identification of appropriate apps," noted Simone. "Instead of queuing up one at a time at the only piano in the room, for example, a music theory class gets to play with a piano keyboard app to practice keys and harmony. And a physics professor can use various astronomy apps to pinch and zoom around the night sky, focusing on individual stars, as well as seeing statistics on those stars."

To gauge the success of the program, Simone relies on surveys of students and faculty, as well as anecdotal evidence. She also tracks attendance at media events and discussion groups.

She acknowledged that some types of class are more successful than others in utilizing the iPad. She specifically cited freshman English, art, and music. "These courses provide a great deal of interactivity with apps for students," she explained. In addition, she believes that classes with fewer than 30 students are best for interactive work. It's a finding confirmed by English professor Victoria Kingsley, who asserted that with 28 students doubled up on 14 iPads "one can readily see the onset of real student engagement."

iPad Starter Kit
For schools considering iPads in the classroom, the University of Massachusetts Boston offers the following list of recommendations:

  • Wireless connectivity is a must in every participating classroom.
  • All iPads should have a sturdy cover to protect them from breaking.
  • Every iPad cart should be equipped with router and laptop for installation of apps, VGA adapter dongles for projection, and extension cords.
  • Every faculty member who uses an iPad should receive a dongle with a dongle extension, which connects to the computer in the classroom. 
  • If you are installing e-books, use iTunes--not Apple Configurator--to install apps on iPads. With iTunes, you can buy 16 copies of the same app, install one copy on 16 iPads, and keep 15 out of circulation for later use.
  • Trained staff should provide field support to classrooms, and there should be staffed media labs for the drop-off and pick-up of equipment.
  • All field support staff should receive their own iPads before starting the program, so they are fluent with the technology.
  • Staff should be available for consultation with faculty, as well as trainers to give workshops and train faculty in the advanced use of the iPad.
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