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Making the iPad the Center of the Academic Experience

iPad programs are gathering steam in higher education, but there's a growing recognition that the key to success lies in building faculty support and adequate infrastructure first.

It could be said that higher education greeted the 2010 release of the iPad with irrational exuberance. Some schools rushed out to buy the hot little device without even contemplating how they were going to use it. Others failed to recognize that--despite the iPad's intuitive design and mobility--its success on campus would be largely dependent on the support of faculty and the underlying network.

Despite this, much of the initial excitement survives. "In the past two years, advances in tablets have captured the imagination of educators around the world," notes the New Media Consortium's 2013 Horizon Project Preview. Tablets, it continues, are ideal tools because they are "easy for anyone to use, visually compelling, and highly portable."

But tempering that enthusiasm is a growing understanding of the heavy lifting needed to make an iPad implementation a success. Today, colleges are putting together comprehensive programs that are driven not by passion for the latest tech bling but a studied conviction that iPads can--and do--improve student learning.

A Massive Rollout
A case in point is the Brown Mackie College System. With 28 campuses in 15 states--and more than 17,000 students--Brown Mackie is moving to equip all of its students, as well as 1,700 full-time and adjunct faculty members, with iPads. Simultaneously, the college system is transitioning to e-textbooks.

The road to this massive implementation was very deliberate. Last March, the college system rolled out a test conversion for new students at select campuses. "We worked out the bugs and did a full launch last November," said Danny Finuf, president of Brown Mackie College. So far, nearly 13,000 students have opted into the program, and Finuf predicts that every student and faculty member will be working on iPads by June.

Along the way, the college has made a conscious effort to keep its eye on the prize. "The first question one should ask before implementing any new technology is, 'How will this affect the student?'" explained Finuf. "The goal is always to improve the academic experience."

In choosing the iPad, Brown Mackie felt the device had the attributes that would allow its faculty to teach at a higher level. "The tablet--and the resources embedded within it and available to it--along with our faculty create the most powerful academic resource for our student body," said Finuf. "Using the iPad and e-textbooks, the faculty create an academic experience of excellence for our students."

As part of the program, the college preloads several apps, and students can choose to download additional ones. Faculty members determine which apps to make available in their subject area and also make recommendations to their students. In addition, Brown Mackie College is creating its own app for the college itself.

Equally important, the iPad serves as the platform for the school's transition to e-texts. "In moving from textbooks to electronic textbooks, we not only make it easier for students to access their books but the overall cost is lower by approximately $200 per quarter," said Finuf.

In hopes of making it easier for students to receive instruction, students who are ill or off campus will also be allowed to attend class using the iPad's FaceTime application.

To pay for the program, Brown Mackie has rolled the price of the iPad--as well as an Apple warranty--into the student technology fee. Students are free to purchase their iPads elsewhere, however, in which case the technology fee is waived. Among newly enrolled students, 10-15 percent bring their own iPads, while 85 percent purchase them through the college, which charges the same amount as an Apple store. "Ours is a pass-through cost that allows them to get their iPad through the institution," explained Finuf.

The Foundation of Success
One thing is clear, though: It's not sufficient to simply go out and buy a bunch of iPads. Without adequate education and preparation--of students, faculty, and infrastructure--even the most well intended initiative is doomed to fail.

 "You won't be successful if the faculty is not on board and don't see the value for them and their students," Finuf emphasized. "Administrators have to make sure that faculty are integrated into the process, that they understand this is where education is going, and that they have the training and resources to feel properly supported."

It's also vital that schools don't take a one-size-fits-all approach to educating faculty. "Not all faculty will adapt at the same speed, so be careful to meet individual needs," advised Finuf.

The need for faculty buy-in is a lesson that Lynn University also learned. Like Brown Mackie, the Florida school has taken a slow-and-steady approach to its iPad initiative. In 2011, the school initiated a small iPad pilot involving about 150 students and 16 faculty members. Last year, more than 100 iPads were issued to all full-time faculty, who also received two months of basic training. And, starting this May, the school will mail iPad minis to all incoming students, and is digitizing and creating iBooks for its core curriculum courses.

According to Chris Boniforti, Lynn University's CIO, initiatives like these must come with the support and lead from academics. "This is not an IT project," Boniforti explained. "Our faculty and VP of academic affairs are really leading the content-creation and digital-movement strategies, with the assistance of IT."

Infrastructure Needs
While faculty must help drive the overall digital strategy, the "assistance of IT" should not be underestimated. The infrastructure needed to support the intensive use of mobile devices in instruction is considerable.

"Brown Mackie College invested well over $2 million in infrastructure, including wireless upgrade, multiple-location data points so that all students would have access, and training resources," noted Finuf. "Some of the infrastructure was already in place, but the enhancements were significant."

It was a similar story at Seton Hill University (PA), which may have been the first school in the nation to pursue a major iPad initiative. Launched in March 2010, the program committed the school to issuing all full-time students with iPads by fall 2010, as well as providing them to all full-time faculty, student affairs and academic support service staff, and employees involved with retention, recruitment, retention, and sports.

Unlike some schools, however, Seton Hill took the time to build the necessary foundation first. According to Phil Komarny, vice president for information technology and CIO, the school's network was 20 years old when he joined the staff in 2009 and set about replacing every switch on campus.

Seton Hill spent a year "ripping out the system and upgrading it," recalled Komarny. "The entire network was replaced to facilitate a mobile learning environment. We started by upgrading the infrastructure, training the faculty, and instituting a cloud-based community portal. Our cloud-based portal became the springboard for our campus community to teach, learn, and innovate."

Lynn also needed to upgrade its infrastructure to enable a mobile learning environment. The way it got there, however, was unusual: It hosted a presidential debate in October 2012. "One of the great benefits of the presidential debate was that we needed to create a state-of-the-art network and wireless infrastructure to host more than 3,000 media personnel," explained Boniforti. "We were able to completely upgrade our wired and wireless network."

For Boniforti, the presidential debate was the means to an end—obviously not many schools will have a similar opportunity. The real takeaway is that schools must find a way to improve their mobile infrastructure if they are to succeed with a broad-based iPad initiative. "This is a must in order to be able to provide students with a reliable and stable network," noted Boniforti.

In preparing for an ambitious iPad rollout, it's easy to overlook the students themselves. After all, the conventional wisdom is that students are born with texting thumbs. In Finuf's view, this would be a mistake and, given the investment by the school, he was not prepared to risk turning off his customers. As a result, each campus at Brown Mackie has an "iChampion," many of whom are faculty members, to help students. Each iChampion goes through training in partnership with Apple, which conducted a nationwide training program at all 28 campus locations.

It is this kind of comprehensive planning and preparation that spells the difference between success and failure. "Don't rush through the process," Finuf cautioned. "Be methodical. Roll it out in small pieces." It was a two-year process for Brown Mackie to launch its program. "We knew that we couldn't do this quickly if we wanted this to be the center of the students' academic experience." 

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