The iPad and the classroom by jgn on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 in Teaching

I've been thinking some about the iPad and the classroom. My bet is that it would be a better book reader than the Amazon Kindle for two reasons:

  1. it seems likely that books will be delivered to the platform as PDFs, which typically means that the page numbers will correspond to the printed editions. In my view, a major flaw of the Kindle is that it gives page locations in "locations," which can vary depending on the size of the font. Therefore, a teacher can't assume that the locations match page numbers, nor can the teacher tell everyone to go to the same location and be assured that all students are in the same place.
  2. Color. Many course texts have illustrations that truly require color. In computer science, it is common for diagrams and charts to differentiate information based on color. When the page is shown in black and white, this is lost. (To be sure, the diagrams should probably be rendered so that they look good in black and white -- students still use black and white photocopiers, and need the information to be preserved, rather than washed out.)

But the other aspect of the computer-in-the-classroom is student usage during a lecture or seminar. Laptops are highly problematic. As a teacher, the "screen up" position blocks my ability to observe student faces, and those faces are focused on their laptop screens, not on me, my slides, or the board. In other words, students may not be paying attention. Students will tell you that they can multitask, but my experience has been that students who pay attention do better. Computer science, like the teaching of literature, which I did for years and years, frequently requires high-speed "checking" between the lecturer and the students to verify that people are "getting it." With the laptop screen up, this channel is somewhat blocked; it's lower bandwidth.

So, at first blush, the iPad might be an improvement. Because it's flat, students are more likely to keep them down on their desks. They may still be focusing on the screen, but at least I can see their faces.

Now that the iPad is down on the desk, how will students interact with it? Apple's promotional material makes much of the virtual keyboard, but I'm skeptical of this user interface for the classroom. It's hard to touch type on a virtual display. Again, the student's eyes are drawn to the screen.

And what if students want to draw a copy of a diagram from the screen? Use their fingers? I don't think the capture resolution will be precise enough. This is a place where pen input can be a godsend. On my ThinkPad tablet, the pen really works. Indeed, on the ThinkPad, it is possible to switch dynamically between pen and voice input, which is surprising effective. Some students will say that they don't need to take such notes, because they can always re-watch the recorded lecture. But this is problematic, because now they have to go through the lecture twice. It's not as efficient. This is why I'm always skeptical of students who want to do audio recording. Audio for what? Re-listening to the lecture? What about paying attention, and taking great notes. It can be done. (To be sure, students with language deficits in English may need the audio copy, but I digress.)

So, in sum: My prediction is that the iPad will be a good reader device in high education; I'm not so sanguine about it as a note-taking machine.

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