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CIO Predicament: What To Do About the iPad

There seem to be two camps when it comes to supporting Apple's iPad on campus: those rushing to adopt the device on a massive scale and those who want nothing to do with it. Timothy M. Chester, CIO and vice provost for academic administration at Pepperdine University, suggests a third possible approach, one that may benefit to students without cutting into limited resources.

Steve Jobs has done it to us once again. With the release of the iPad, Apple has unleashed another revolutionary device upon information technology organizations in higher education. Within hours of its release, the iPad began showing up on campuses as faculty and students attempted to use the device to access library, portal, and other services through our campus networks. How should we respond to this latest encroachment of consumer technology? Do we have a responsibility to quickly support the device and adapt our technology services for consumption on the iPad, or should iPad support fall at the bottom of a very long and under-resourced list of priorities?

Over the last several weeks, there has been a flurry of discussions on this topic in forums such as the Educause CIO listserv. Many of my colleagues have also responded with posts on their blogs. Based on these conversations, there appear to be two very different approaches to supporting the iPad on campus.

The first camp, the early adopters, is rushing to adopt the device on a massive scale. Many are considering whether to provide an iPad to every student and faculty member. At least two institutions, Seton Hill University (not to be confused with Seton Hall) and George Fox University, plan to provide an iPad to every student later this year.

The second camp, the skeptics, wants nothing to do with the device. Some institutions, including Princeton University and George Washington University, are banning or limiting the use of the device on their campus networks until Apple provides fixes to possible connectivity and security bugs.

The two camps could not be more diametrically opposed. One camp sees institution-wide adoption of the iPad as a precursor for innovation; the other views the device as an unwelcome disruption introducing new security and operational risks. Which camp is taking the right approach? If increasing the effectiveness of teaching, learning, and scholarship is the goal, perhaps both approaches leave something to be desired.

For early adopters, rapid and mass adoption of the iPad tends to be driven primarily by the need to gain competitive marketing advantages. That is not to say that these institutions are not engaging in some truly innovative work around the application of technology to learning; they are. However, the trigger for the mass adoption of the iPad comes from the need to distinguish the institution competitively. The mantra of the early adopter institution is: "Adopt aggressively: Innovation and increased effectiveness will surely come."

This approach ignores the fact that most new technologies fail to live up to their hype. Gartner uses a model called the "hype cycle" to illustrate this point. The cycle starts at the "peak of inflated expectations," where new technologies are aggressively adopted based on unrealistic expectations. When reality collides with those inflated expectations, the technology descends to the "trough of disillusionment." Eventually, some technologies may reach the "plateau of productivity," while others are made obsolete by new technologies or atrophy because they fail to gain a critical mass of users. Technologies reaching the "plateau of productivity" do so because their benefits have been widely demonstrated and they are broadly perceived to increase effectiveness in some important way. Effectiveness is related to the use and application of the technology and has little or nothing to do with the nature of the technology itself.

At my institution, we calculated that it would require an annual commitment of approximately $800,000 to purchase an iPad for every incoming student. This does not include the costs of ongoing hardware maintenance or staff support. That's the same cost as six new faculty members. While it is too early to report the effectiveness of devices like the iPad, there is evidence that shows that reducing the student-to-faculty ratio substantially increases the effectiveness of teaching and learning. If our institution were to have $800,000 in annual funding available, I would vote to hire additional faculty. With comparisons like this in mind, mass adoption of consumer technologies like the iPad just does not seem prudent.

On the other hand, refusing to provide basic connectivity and support for the iPad does not make much sense either. University technologists have well known aversions to proprietary consumer technologies. In the case of the iPad, proprietary tweaks to the wireless connection protocols (required to maximize battery life) are deterring many of the skeptics. Although these technological distinctions are important to IT administrators, our faculty and students find them irrelevant. Refusing to provide iPad users with the same basic services provided by the local Starbucks or Barnes & Noble makes us appear outdated and unreliable. It reduces the credibility of the IT organization, which many times is the cause of unnecessarily duplicative or rogue technology services. It also unnecessarily increases the gap between those who build and support technology and those who use technology. If we've learned anything, it's that faculty and students will do whatever is necessary to adopt compelling consumer technologies--with or without our blessing.

What is a CIO to do in this predicament? Charting a middle ground between the early adopters and the skeptics is the most prudent approach. At my university, we're taking these steps.

  1. Adjusting the campus network to support the device. We are working with our wireless security vendor to ensure that the iPad will work seamlessly on the University network. When necessary, we are manually registering iPads so that faculty, students, and staff can use the device on the network.
  2. Each department within IT is testing the iPad on their technology services. Through these efforts, we are quickly determining whether our portal, Web sites, library resources, and other technology services will function on the device as designed. Almost all Web services are functioning nominally.
  3. We are actively supporting our faculty as they experiment with the device. Several faculty teaching multiple sections of an identical course plan to provide the iPad to students in one section and compare their mastery of course objectives to students in the other section. By tying the use of the device to mastery of course objectives, we hope to develop some direct evidence to answer the question of whether the iPad increases the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

Refusing to quickly support new consumer technologies needlessly frustrates our student body, while limiting the educational innovation of our faculty. Our "adopt, adapt, and experiment" approach is designed to acknowledge student expectations to support the iPad while we uphold our faculty as they determine the pedagogical usefulness of the device.

Will the iPad reach the plateau of productivity? Only by supporting our faculty and students will we be able to answer that question. The best part of our approach is that it does not require a major outlay of financial resources, which is vital in an era of slashed budgets.

Personally, I remain an enthusiastic and ardent fan of the device. I was one of the first in line at the local Apple Store and I carry my iPad to most meetings. I have found the convergence of information to be revolutionary, as I can access a broad range of media effortlessly on this device. While the iPad has had a positive influence on my work as a technologist, it would be a mistake for me to assume that every person who picks up the device will find the same advantages. Within higher education, there are a variety of aspirations, expectations, skills, and abilities. The iPad will be helpful to some, and to others it won't make the slightest difference. By focusing on what we do with technology, instead of the technology itself, we put our institutions in the best possible position to increase the value of what we provide to our students.

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