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Evaluating the iPad for Education

A private liberal arts college in Oregon took Apple's iPad through its paces to test its value as a a tool for learning inside the classroom and out. The evaluation followed a pilot of Amazon's first-generation Kindle, which the college eventually decided against. In the words of the college's CIO, the Kindle just wasn't an adequate "alternative to paper." Did the iPad fare any better in the college's rigorous and methodical testing process?

As one of the first small liberal arts schools to begin adopting technology as early as the 1960s, Reed College of Portland, OR knows a thing or two about the due diligence process behind such purchases. No matter how insignificant the investment may seem, Martin Ringle, CTO, said the college puts the prospective tool through rigorous research and testing phases before shelling out any money or introducing it to students, teachers and/or administrators.

"The prevailing attitude here has always been to look very carefully at emerging technologies, and not implement them until we're comfortable that they will benefit students and enhance the curriculum," said Ringle. "We don't adopt technology because everyone else is doing it."

That philosophy has helped position the 1,450-student college as "one of the first tier of technology evaluators in higher education," according to Ringle. "If we adopt it, everyone knows that the equipment or software has been through a rigorous level of scrutiny. If the technology makes it past us, it will generally be welcomed by and applicable for many other schools."

Not all technology passes muster at Reed College. Take Amazon's first generation Kindle e-reader, for example. In the fall of 2008, Ringle and his team met with a group of colleges and universities to discuss the possibility of evaluating a new e-reader (later identified as the Kindle DX) in a higher education setting. Reed College was selected by Amazon as one of seven institutions to participate in a pilot study.

The study took place during the fall semester of 2009 and involved 43 students enrolled in three upper-level undergraduate courses: English, French and Political Science. The college's review criteria centered on immediate, searchable access to all course materials in one lightweight device; a reduction in the total cost of course materials; a decrease in the use of paper; opportunities for faculty and students to share electronic comments on course materials; and the integration of e-book technology with other curricular tools, such as Moodle.

The process produced mixed reviews, with the overall consensus being that the device didn't measure up for students or faculty. "The Kindle did have some strengths," said Ringle, "but it didn't meet the needs of higher education in terms of being an alternative to paper."

Not willing to give up on the idea of a "paperless" classroom, Ringle said the next device to catch his eye was the iPad. As a member of Apple's University Executive Forum, Ringle jumped at the chance to conduct due diligence on this new device, much like he did with the Kindle. Using the same courses, faculty members and students, the college evaluated the iPad, comparing it to what Ringle refers to as the "single-purpose e-reader."

"The reaction was pretty much night and day, when compared to the results of the 2009 study," said Ringle, whose team is currently drafting a white paper detailing the results of the iPad evaluation. In general, he said students found the iPad to be flexible and versatile enough to allow them to read course materials, annotate and highlight passages of text, pull up reference materials, store notes, and prepare reports.

During the evaluation, Ringle said faculty also kept an eye on the level of distraction created by a tablet computer versus a laptop or desktop. The consensus was that pupils were less apt to be using e-mail, instant messaging, or social networking sites while sitting in class with a tablet computer. "Tablets don't have the same form factor, so you can't hide behind them," said Ringle. "Our hope is that students will use them primarily, if not exclusively, for classroom work."

For some colleges, the results of the institution's tablet computer test would be enough to send the IT department into a buying frenzy, but not at Reed College. Ringle said the next step will be to assemble all faculty members and students who were involved in the evaluation to participate in roundtable discussions.

Faculty will write up short reports that detail their experiences with this piece of technology. Those missives will then be collected and shared with the college's computing policy committee.

"The discussion will focus on the question of whether or not tablets have a place in the curriculum," said Ringle. Pending the outcome of that discussion, he said the school will or won't allocate funding for the next funding year "to make it possible for other faculty members and students to gain access to the technology and use it across a wider variety of courses."

As Reed College's tablet evaluation continues, the institution is already looking ahead at what new technology might be able to withstand its comprehensive selection process.

Ringle said cloud computing options are likely to be next on the agenda, with an emphasis on how these Web-based software options best blend with an institution's homegrown, proprietary infrastructure. "Some schools are rushing off into the cloud willy-nilly right now," said Ringle, "but we're taking the same, methodic approach that's served us well since the 1960s."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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