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Teaching with tablets: A brave new world?

Tablet pilot program tests theory that the devices break barriers, engage students

Professors Megan Mahowald and Deborah Getz had surprises waiting when their students showed up in January. Both instructors distributed tablets to their classes as part of a semester-long pilot project. Each student in Mahowald's class gets use of an iPad 3, and each student in Getz's class gets use of a Galaxy Note 8.

Mahowald and Getz volunteered for the IU Bloomington phase of a pilot that kicked off at IUPUI last fall. The aim is to use next generation learning technologies to explore the possibilities and implications of running a class with tablets.

"Access to tablets helps break down barriers and get students actively engaged," said Mahowald, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. "What I love most about this pilot is that we can see how access to technology increases learning and engagement -- or how it distracts from it -- before asserting that having tablets will help all our undergraduate students."

Mahowald uses the tablets for instant feedback via quizzing and polls. By distributing annotated texts prior to class discussions, she flips the traditional classroom structure, having students work through course content at home so class time involves more personalized guidance. Since some of Mahowald's assignments are multimedia-focused, her students also use the tablets to compose presentations, slideshows, and movies.

Getz, director of the Center for Leadership Development in the School of Public Health and a veteran eText instructor, notes that "eTextbooks make classes a lot more interactive and current because students actually want to read the books. After successfully using eTextbooks for a few semesters, it's clear to me that it will be something that I'll always do."

One of the pilot's objectives is to compare tablets to desktops and laptops. When linked to IUanyWare (IU's cloud software service), a tablet's portability means students gain access to a variety of applications they can run nearly anywhere -- including some, like Microsoft Office, which don't run on the iPad. Tablets in the spring pilot also came equipped with a keyboard attachment. Paired with extended battery life and lighter weight, this could mean much broader functionality.

Mahowald is already seeing results in the brief time the pilot has been running. "In our first class," she noted, "I asked a question and waited for students to raise their hands to answer -- I waited for a while. When no one spoke up, I asked students to vote through a poll on their tablets and then type in their answers. I had 26 answers in a minute."

Increased student engagement is only one aspect the pilot will review. According to John Gosney, faculty liaison for UITS Learning Technologies, "We're interested in a broad range of questions -- from whether or not having access to a tablet allowed classes to go truly paperless, to seeing if students interacted differently with an eText via the tablet, to seeing how they used the tablet outside the classroom." 

Due in part to skyrocketing textbook costs, more than a third of IU students go without required textbooks. The tablet pilot and eTexts initiative make it clear IU is implementing measures to help students clear this hurdle. The pilot means instructors can count on all their students having a tablet, and can also count on professional development related to incorporating technology into their classrooms.

What's more, by eliminating paper costs, tablets are greener, more sustainable options. In short, tablets may bring added advantages to an increasingly digitized learning environment. Mahowald thinks tablets can be important tools for teachers in today's classrooms, and sees tablet use as the path universities will take into the future. "Higher education is moving away from the model of standing in front of the room and lecturing," she said.

The paperless pilot will continue through the end of the semester, at which point participants will return the tablets and fill out feedback surveys.