Monthly Archives: October 2008

Hyping the iPad, Take 1

TUAW recently published this article, reporting on Abilene Christian University’s study on the advantages of mobile computing for student learning.  While few details were disclosed in the article (presumably because the study itself has not yet been published), TUAW claims the study’s findings were “uniformly positive”:

In one study, students who annotated text on their iPads scored 25% higher on questions regarding information transfer than their paper-based peers. In a separate project covering iPad usage patterns, two researchers studying ACU’s first all-digital class discovered that the iPad promotes “learning moments” and helps students make more efficient use of their time. Grad students working in an online program reported a 95% satisfaction rate for online iPad-based coursework. As far as the ACU studies are concerned, the iPad in education is a success story.

Now, while such a statement might qualify as satisfactory reporting for anyone who has an interest in marketing the iPad (or any other device being hyped as a “game changer” in education) (and I’m saying this as a self-identified Apple fanboy myself), that there is sparingly little information in this article supportive enough to make any claim of a “performance boost” or “success”.  Let’s deconstruct this a little:

In one study, students who annotated text on their iPads scored 25% higher on questions regarding information transfer than their paper-based peers.

I’m not much of a grammarian, but let me first point out that this statement is rather ambiguous in that we don’t know if the questions being asked of the test groups were about information transfer, or if measuring transfer was an component of the study.  Assuming it was the latter, let’s reinterpret this statement as “In one study, the experimental group (iPad users) exhibited 25% more transfer of knowledge than the control group.”  Reading the question as such, several follow up questions jump out:

  1. How is “annotated” being defined here?  Highlighting?  Commenting?  Drawing shapes?
  2. What kinds of transfer was exhibited? Transfer of facts?  Skills? Problem solving strategies?
  3. 25% sounds like a lot, without knowing the sample size, how can we know if this result is statistically significant?
Further, until we know how the iPad users interacted with the device, and how the control group interacted with the text, there is very little we can discern about the iPad’s impact on transfer.
“In a separate project covering iPad usage patterns, two researchers studying ACU’s first all-digital class discovered that the iPad promotes ‘learning moments’ and helps students make more efficient use of their time.”
Please, please, please tell me what these “learning moments” are and how I can find more of them?  If this statement only says that having access to the internet means you can look things up, then I’m not convinced.  Or, is this meant to be in relation to other devices (or no device at all)?  Or is it even just a general statement about access?  I do tend to agree with the last part of the sentence about the iPad helping students “make more efficient use of their time”.  The iPad has made checking email, looking up calendar events, and surfing the web much faster and simpler than it is on my laptop, but are the students in the study experiencing the same benefits that I am?  Without a description of where students’ time is being more effectively used, how do we know that this is related to learning, and not productivity?
“Grad students working in an online program reported a 95% satisfaction rate for online iPad-based coursework.”
That is a fantastic finding for Apple’s devotees, but if we’re in the business of picking nits, then I’d like to know a few things before taking this statement at face value:
  1. Have any of the students in the study had taken an online class before?
  2. What was the subject of the online program?
  3. What constitutes “iPad-based” here?  Materials that are iPad-specific (i.e., interactive Apps found only on the Apple App Store) or was the coursework geared towards iPad-specific activities?
In my own experience, the iPad is convenient, fun to use, and for a light, portable device, is surprisingly powerful, adaptive, and useful in many situations.  And personally, I think the iPad does have the potential to make a difference in the education landscape, particularly in terms of internet access and the delivery of content.  But equating such things to learning seems premature at best.  Until we have the opportunity for some long term, qualitative studies about how the iPad is used in different learning contexts (with emphasis on the “different” here), and how different kinds of students (again, emphasis on “different”) are able to use the iPad to enhance their learning experience, then the iPad’s role in education will fall into the same category as any other over-hyped device that has suffered an untimely obsolescence.