A Sea Change on Campus

If this survey is to be taken seriously, we are on the brink of a sea change in higher education. In that article, The Chronicle reports that the number of students with a tablet tripled in a year, and many more plan to buy one soon. The survey was performed long before the new iPad was announced, and I can imagine the high-resolution screen will only accelerate this trend. It is, in many ways, the perfect computing device for campus.

Students have been bringing computers to campus for decades, though, so why should the arrival of tablets like the iPad be any different? I think there are several key qualities of the iPad not shared with regular notebook computers. First, it is hard to overstate the importance of battery life. While a notebook computer may eke out 4 or 5 hours when brand new and not heavily used, it won’t be long before 2 to 3 hours of battery life is the norm. Most students I see with a notebook computer have it plugged in. Meanwhile, the iPad can be used heavily all day without a charge. I argue this is a huge deal on campus.

A second factor that favors the iPad in the classroom over a notebook is the position of the screen. Having a screen between the student and me changes the dynamic of exchange in some way. I know it sounds silly, but it does. Students who take notes on their iPad just seem to look up and pay attention more because of its position. It’s like students with a notebook open are waiting for something to happen on their screen, their default gaze includes their screen. This matters, and relates to the next issue…

The iPad only ever has ONE thing on the screen at a time. Apple is rigorous in enforcing this for apps — they actively deny apps that try recreate a desktop or windowing metaphor. This encourages focus and concentration in a class setting at a level that a more traditional notebook computer simply cannot do. Sure, sometimes this is not an advantage, if a student needs to gather information from a variety of apps simultaneously. On the iPad, they could double-tap the home button and bounce around their apps if they need to, but there is not a similar temptation to notice distractions as much.

Fourth, as a touch-based device, the iPad is a great tool for freeform note taking and drawing. In most of the classes I teach I lean heavily on visual aids to explain abstract ideas (diffusion? operons? signal transduction?). These are hard to capture on a notebook computer, but the iPad was made for drawing, especially with a stylus.

I could go on and on, but let me try to wrap it up here. Campuses have seen personal computers come in with students for decades. The iPad is not a PC, and represents something completely different and, in many ways, better. We are on the cusp of seeing the majority of our students coming to class with these in tow. What could we do to better prepare for this?

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