iPads in the Classroom – Julie Newman’s Sustainability Course

In last week’s session, we learned from the Yale School of Medicine that iPads can be used to completely replace paper in a professional program. This week, Julie Newman, Director of the Office of Sustainability and lecturer in Forestry and Environmental Science, came to TwTT to describe her experience using iPads to replace paper and enhance teaching in her undergraduate seminar titled “Sustainability: From Theory to Practice in Institutions.”

The initiative started when the CLC set up a pilot program to loan out 20 iPad2s to a seminar that would integrate them most effectively into its structure. The library would loan the devices, and ITS’s Instructional Technology Group would provide technical and teaching support. After a successful spring 2011 project in the digital humanities, Julie Newman’s class won the fall semester challenge, both for its ambitious goal of eliminating paper use in the classroom and for its use of iPad optimized assignments and projects.

Julie described to the audience how her class goals were uniquely suited to the iPad. First she wanted to go paperless, both to lessen the seminar’s carbon footprint and to enhance text with media integration and instant research. She also wanted to go mobile with the class, leaving the seminar room to visit local sites while students could continue to watch the presentation or take notes. These would be accomplished without the social barrier of a laptop screen. Finally, she asserted that she wanted to start a conversation on not only about technology as a teaching tool but also the role of technology in sustainability.

The environmental impact of the iPad was central, Julie pointed out, since it was being used to replace paper in a class on sustainability. After carefully considering the impact of the device she concluded that it did serve a net positive, and in conjunction with her laptop was able to almost completely eliminate paper use in the class, making it the “most paperless she’d ever been.”  This impact, however, is tied to two conditions. The first, she argues, is that it cannot be constantly replaced every time there is a new version of the same technology. The second is that the device must be used to its fullest capacity – replacing paper in contexts outside the classroom and providing additional functionality that would have required other devices.

Inside the classroom, Julie structured her assignments  to take maximum advantage of the unique features of the iPad. Course texts were acquired as Amazon or Google eBooks, articles were posted on Classes*v2, slide shows were given via Google docs. Although Julie admits that she didn’t have a comprehensive plan when she started the semester, by the end she had found a rhythm of iPad use, reaching an even greater level of integration than even she had expected.

The flexibility in assignments and projects allowed by the iPad was especially remarkable. Although adoption of the iPad was complete in daily assignments, with students pulling up homework on screen at the beginning of the class and PDF readings completed on the popular GoodReader app, it was in special projects that the iPad really showcased its educational potential. An example comes from her assignment of an “ideas forum.” This project involved students identifying a local sustainability challenge and working to develop, propose, and discuss solutions. Despite leaving the submission format open, Julie expected most students to use the iPads to assemble and deliver keynote presentations, which some students did. Others, however, used the iPad’s integrated media tools and software to construct multimedia shows or short films. In this context the combination of iMovie and a camera on a single device  made the iPad an ideal tool for the on-site assembly of a compelling multimedia presentation. Other students used the mind mapping software iDesk, only available on iOS, to diagram their understanding of the problem in a format that is both faster and easier to understand than traditional blocks of text.

With the success of coursework and special projects on the iPad, Julie explains that she will certainly integrate the device into new attempts to reduce paper consumption and to integrate technology more closely with teaching, although if she cannot secure iPads again then she will try to replicate the functions using laptop computers. The iPad does convey a number of distinct advantages over a laptop, however. First, limited multitasking keeps students focused in class, while still having access to internet and processing tools. The extra mobility and integrated cameras allow students to take the device with them to field sites, bringing practice and learning together in a way that is difficult even with portable computers. Finally, Julie felt that after learning about iDesk she had underutilized it in the classroom, something she will remedy in a future class if the devices appear again.

Besides using iDesk more heavily, Julie points out that there are a number of things she would do differently in the future. First, she feels that more training is necessary, and that professors should start using the device at least a semester in advance of teaching with it. She also feels that more training for both students and faculty would be useful, particularly on applications like keynote, iMovie, GoodReader, and Evernote. Finally, a more efficient content transfer system and possibly keyboards for in-class note-taking should be considered in future iPad based classes.

Besides the user challenges associated with teaching with iPads, IT Staff overcame significant challenges to deploy iPads on short notice. It was only two weeks before the devices were to be given out that staff was able to begin the process of deciding how to configure and distribute the devices. Particularly challenging was the process of deciding what applications to pre-load, and how to keep track of all 18 devices and accessories to make sure that nothing could be lost. Despite these challenges, however, the iPads rolled out successfully, and integrated with course materials to a degree nobody had anticipated. While future classes may not encounter some of the initial obstacles associated with a pilot program, it is certain that they will all benefit from the educational potential of the iPad in the classroom.

For full coverage of this session, please click the video below (note a slight delay upon initial playback):

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