Why use iPads in higher education?

The Faculty of Life Sciences at The University of Manchester launched a series of workshops on Tuesday entitled ‘Teaching with your iPad’. The aim of the workshop series is to equip teaching staff with the skills to use their iPad to innovate their teaching and provide students with an engaging and informative learning experience. But why are we exploring using iPads to teach in higher education?

One could argue that iPads lessen the need to print reading material, so they have a positive environmental impact. One could also argue that student expectations are evolving with technology and therefore higher education institutions need to keep up to date. Primarily though, we are looking at the use of iPads in higher education teaching because the research to date (this is a new area so research is somewhat limited) and experiences to date would suggest that it makes good pedagogic sense. In fact, so popular is the iPad in some teaching and learning circles that the term ‘padagogy’ is making its way into mainstream use.

In a nutshell, iPads and apps offer new possibilities in teaching. In fact, The University of Manchester’s own social work lecturers have found that iPads have impacted so much on their teaching that they are currently re-examining their curriculum and the way they deliver it. One example of new possibilities in teaching might be the use of apps such as NearPod and Socrative when teaching large lecture groups of approximately 300 students. These apps enable these large lectures to become a more interactive, rather than didactic, experience as students engage with their individual devices during the course of the lecture. These apps also have the potential to store data for the lecturer about the group and their responses to questions asked during the session. If using a Twitter stream while teaching, students in large lecture groups can also use their iPads to ask questions of the lecturer, which is often difficult in such an environment.

The danger in the case of any technology-enhanced learning is that those of us who are not specialists in this area allow technology to dictate the learning, when in fact the technology must serve the learning. With so many bells and whistles at our disposal we often feel compelled to use them, when in fact this can detract from the learning experience. Educational apps, for the most part, focus on discrete areas of learning (see for example the iCell and 3D Brain apps, which are free to download). Working in conjunction with educationalists, the app builders consider how the technology can best deliver the learning required, which ensures the app is sound both educationally and in its use of technology.

iPads can be used anytime and anywhere, which also allows for greater contextualisation of learning. Students undertaking work placements (e.g. The University of Manchester medical students) or attending field trips can carry in one portable device reference books, numerous relevant apps, a GPS, communication tools, a camera and an audio recorder. For additional information about how some iPads are being used in fieldwork, click here.

Their portable nature and ability to tap into our e-mail, social networks, the internet and reference material has enabled iPads to bridge the gap between work, study and our personal life. Consequently, it could be suggested that iPads are promoting study habits for lifelong learning.

Finally, iPads enable students to personalise and become co-creators of their learning. For example:

  • the creation of information is as a simple as pushing a button to take a photograph of a specimen, videoing a short laboratory experiment, recording a lecture
  • apps can be used in collaborative or individual projects to create information for peer review or assessment purposes
  • reference material of interest to the student can be downloaded and stored
  • information can be shared with like-minded students through social networking sites.

Wider reading would suggest that the possibilities are endless – especially as new apps are being released on a daily basis. The difficulty is keeping up with these developments and possibilities. In the UK, the Media Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) is running some very informative days on iPad use in higher education. I recently attended one and hope to post about my day and what I learned sometime soon.

About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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