450 U students hit iPad lottery, to learn

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2010 - 12:00 AM

All freshmen in the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development will get free iPads soon. The handout will also allow for research on whether the devices help students learn.

Forget notebooks.

Laptops? Passé.

Soon, about 450 University of Minnesota students will pull iPads out of their backpacks.

The U's College of Education and Human Development will give all its freshmen free iPads this month, joining several colleges and universities across the country in bestowing the Apple devices on their students.

But the University of Minnesota's iPad pilot might be the largest ever done by a major research university.

Research will be a big part of the project. The college will study how the iPads change -- or fail to change -- how students learn and classes are taught. Those are topics its professors study anyway.

"We won't simply say, 'Here's an iPad,' and that's the end of it," said David Ernst, director of academic and information technology for the College of Education and Human Development, or CEHD. "It will be part of a coordinated, focused research agenda."

The college notified its first-year students late Tuesday night that they'd get the iPads -- plus a training session -- at the end of the month.

That will give students and faculty time to play with the technology before using it in earnest for their spring semester courses, said Jean Quam, the college's dean.

"We really hope the students and faculty will help us to figure out new ways to use this tool," she said.

Lighter on the budget, too

The iPads also have practical purposes: The college hopes that accessing e-books and other texts via iPad will help students save on textbooks and printouts.

Plus, the iPads are lighter than laptops, so students might be more likely to bring them to class each day.

A 2009 University of Minnesota survey showed that 89.1 percent of students who responded said they owned laptops. However, the survey notes, "anecdotal evidence suggest that students find it burdensome to carry their laptops with them across campus."

David Arendale, a lecturer and researcher in the CEHD's Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, teaches about 80 students in a first-year history course. "Not more than 10 of them use a laptop during class," he said.

He's excited about the documents and apps the class will be able to explore when each student has an iPad, and he's interested to see how they'll use that device, vs. a laptop.

"That will be one of our research questions," Arendale said. "I think students will sort out different tasks for different devices."

Who pays? It varies

Although the College of Education and Human Development is providing the iPads for free this year, eventually it might ask future classes to buy the tablets at a reduced price, Quam said. The iPads' total cost of about $216,000 is funded by private donations -- not increased tuition or fees, as at some other schools.

Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania made headlines last spring when it announced that each full-time undergraduate would get an iPad and a Macbook laptop as part of a bigger technology project. "An iPad for Everyone," its website boasts.

This fall, the school brought in the largest incoming class in its history, said Phil Komarny, vice president for information technology. "It's an easy one to look at and see why it happened," he said.

Seton Hill's 1,850 undergraduates pay for their iPads through a $500-a-semester technology fee, which was also used to boost wireless access and faculty training. The fee allows families to see exactly what they're paying for, Komarny said.

Komarny said that although the university has been accused of bribing students with toys they later pay for, the iPads were part of a larger, longer project to bring needed technology into the classroom.

"We've built a model here," he said, "not just on how to integrate the technology, but to actually teach with it."

Seton Hill student Abigail Sloan loves her iPad. "It's very handy for taking notes, e-mails, and is a lot easier to carry around than a laptop. I also like that some of my textbooks are on the iPad because they are sometimes half as expensive.... Altogether, I think they are an excellent technological investment."

Faculty is all for it

That same 2009 University of Minnesota technology survey showed that a growing number of students -- in 2009, 79.6 percent -- "strongly supported the use of a large to moderate amount of technology in their classes." They also insist that instructors use that technology in constructive ways. No technology for the sake of technology.

The survey also shows "strong support" for mobile technologies. The number of students reporting they "aspire to own" a smart phone, for example, rose dramatically over the past few years.

Professors, too, are showing interest.

At a recent meeting, Quam and other leaders told the group of professors gathered that teaching with the iPad was not mandatory. If they were interested, they'd get an iPad and the college's support.

"We had 24 faculty calling within the first 24 hours, which is practically the whole department," Quam said. "A couple people are teaching courses that don't quite fit, of course, and a couple professors don't feel ready.

"I equate it, back in the old days, to when some faculty would use video, or invite a guest speaker, or eventually, create a PowerPoint. It's just one more very exciting tool we can use."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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