Thinking through iPads in Higher Education

It’s all too easy to get excited by the introduction of new technology and get sucked into a prevailing trend without taking that all important step back to consider, ‘What is it that this technology is going to offer me?’ One such technology ‘du jour’ is the iPad (or tablets). Equally, it is all too easy to be sceptical of educational buzz words that filter their way into our daily lexicon and dismiss them without really seeing what lies beneath the rhetoric. One of these being ‘mobile learning.’ So what should we do?

The answer perhaps, is to look at the implications of both the device, the concept of mobility and the context in which it is being applied, to really understand its potential and impact, as described in the JISC Mobile Learning infokit .

Mobile device ownership is high and the Ofcom Communications Market 2012 report highlights that “Two fifths of UK adults now own a smartphone, with the same proportion saying their phone is the most important device for accessing the internet.” Smart phone ownership is predicted to grow as devices and networks continue to advance.

Such statistics indicate that a fundamental change is taking place in the way in which people are connecting through digital communications and accessing information.

According to the Horizon Report 2012, mobile apps and tablet computing have been identified as technologies that are expected to enter mainstream over this coming year (2012-13).  The report states that in the US, in the fourth quarter of 2011, the iPad was selling at the rate of more than 3 million units a month. The report identifies six key trends most likely to affect teaching and learning in higher education. Mobile apps and tablet computing are integral to these trends.

Of course, there are other tablets available but at the time of writing (December 2012), the iPad is still the market leader.

However, with the release of Microsoft’s new Windows 8 tablet Surface, Apple’s new iPad Mini and Amazon’s Kindle Fire, tablet devices continue to proliferate. As a result of the popularity of the iPad, manufacturers have recognised that this is where consumer demand for digital technology is leading.

JISC’s Mobile Learning infokit has begun to summarise how educational institutions need to recognise the transformative nature of mobile technology and the commensurate changes in student expectation that will follow. It suggests that at the heart of this is a dilemma between the affordances of mobile technology and established educational practice and that this needs to be investigated and resolved to ultimately define the true value of devices like the iPad. So how can this be achieved?

At the University of Brighton, the School of Education has begun a project to investigate the the use of iPads by practitioners through the Mobile Technologies Project (MTP). Members of teaching staff have been given an iPad and asked to explore the possibilities, the results of their practical experiences formulating the direction of the project. This open approach has the potential to enable academics to become their own agents of change: to discover technology on their own terms, in their own way, at their own pace and consider dynamically how the technology can best be applied.

Similarly, the University of Manchester’s Medical School has undertaken a pilot project, giving iPads to 4th year medical students. Professor Tony Freemond explains in his introduction to the project that the iPad was selected because the choice of Apps provided the “biggest educational advantage.” More broadly, he explains that it is the portability of tablet devices with instant access to stored information that can improve the educational experience of students. It is intriguing to watch the videos of students explaining how they have used their iPads, as these demonstrate the flexibility and adaptability such devices offer as learning tools in appropriate situations.

Ultimately, as Doug Belshaw explains in his blog post ‘Some thoughts on iPads and one-to-one initiatives’, the success or failure of such projects will be influenced by the context in which mobile devices are used and the educational lens chosen to assess their effectiveness. And that we perhaps should not exalt the iPad to the detriment of other devices and approaches. This opinion does not detract from the impact that such devices are beginning to have on the delivery and accessibility of education at all levels and as we find ways to engage with mobile technology, the iPad and its decedents are going to have a wider role to play.


Written by Adam Bailey and Joyce Webber.

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Posted in News

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