iPad 2 in the Humanities Classroom: Revolutionary Educational Technology?

by Jim Caccamo, Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Regular readers of the CAS tech blog might remember from a post in May that I recently co-authored a two disc, interactive software and video publication entitled Living Worship. For that publication, I served as technical director as well as author. I did much of the programming, instructional design, and video production myself. I am in the humanities but I am no luddite.

Yet, if you were to visit my classroom, you would find it a relatively low-tech affair. Early in my teaching career, I experimented quite a bit with a variety of ed. technologies. From the humble email list serv to complicated in-class, four point video conferencing, each promised to revolutionize the learning environment. Each was very interesting and novel, but I found that the techs rarely enhanced student learning sufficiently enough to justify all the time and effort behind them. (Yeah, Blackboard, I’m talking to you.). I remained open to new ed. techs, but as time went on, my tech portfolio slimmed down to things straightforward and entirely reliable, and only thing that did something I could do no other way.

Enter the latest ed. tech phenom: the iPad 2. On paper, it looked like a great device. But even with it on order, I was still a bit skeptical. Another “revolutionary” technology? Would it really help me do new things in the classroom? Or if not new, would it actually improve what I already do?

After about 6 weeks with the device, I can say that to my surprise, the answers are “yes” to each.

One way that that iPad has changed my classroom has been to serve as a central hub for my presentational media. When I use media in the classroom, I tend toward things I can’t just write up on the board. Most of the time, this means playing videos and songs, which the iPad is perfect for. With the video mirroring capabilities of the iPad 2, I simply hook the VGA and audio outs to the classroom “laptop in” port, fire up a media item I’ve put on the iPad before class, and we’re good to go. While I applaud IT’s ability to keep classroom computers running at all, no longer having to deal with abused hardware, out of date drivers, and systems that faculty have decided to “fix” has improved classroom flow.

But what I really like about the iPad as a presentational device is it’s elegance. On those occassions when I want to throw a piece of text on the screen, I can use Pages to entirely remove all of the interface from the screen. There are no menus, no scroll bars, no rulers or buttons. There’s just the text. Beautiful and clean, there’s nothing to draw focus away from what’s important.

The iPad has also changed my classroom enhancing two activities we do all of the time: examining texts and laying out ideas on the board. Pretty much every day in class we spend a good chunk of time talking about things the students have read. As we do that, the students and I constantly point out key passages in the readings. The only problem is that there’s always a lag as people turn, for instance, to “the third full paragraph on page 24, about 3/4 of the way down,” trying to find exactly where the quote is. Using GoodReader on the iPad, I can quickly throw the article that we are reading up on the screen (I have my course readers in pdf format) and circle the text we’re focusing on. Students can then quickly find the right spot without much mucking about and feeling lost. It’s a simple thing, but it has been really helpful.

The iPad has also enhanced the way that I lay out ideas on the board during class. Being a more aural than visual person, I have had to work on developing ways to help our visually savvy students engage the material. Many faculty do this by throwing images or outlines of text on the screen. Yet, that never seemed to me a particularly interactive way of proceeding. It is hard to edit PowerPoint on the fly based on student input! So I’ve focused on working with students to build diagrams of concepts and arguments on the board as we move through the class. This works well to facilitate student participation in collaborative construction of knowledge. But it has the disadvantages of being difficult to save, hard to read (due to my poor handwriting), and often quite messy. Interactive yes, but ideal, no.

Using the iPad, I have started to experiment with a couple of different apps (SimpleMind and MindNode) that do what is sometimes referred to (grandiosely) as ”mind mapping”. These apps allow you to draw flow charts, decision trees, and “mind maps” that connect major premises and ideas to their supporting concepts. Using the touch screen, you draw shapes, type in text, and connect items to one another with arrows and lines. Best of all, you can save the completed maps as jpg or pdf files, email them to the class, edit them, and bring them back up in later classes. While I have quite a bit of work yet to do in order to gain real facility with the software, we’ve been able to use it successfully in the classroom to collaboratively create visual guides to course readings and concepts. Again, a simple thing that has been really helpful.

The bottom line is this: the iPad 2 has helped me do what I do better. And in the end, that’s the most important thing to me: I haven’t had to change my teaching for the sake of the technology. I haven’t had to adopt new pedagogical strategies to use it. I haven’t had to rethink class sessions and assignments. I haven’t had to adopt new workflows. And I haven’t had to expend energy worrying about whether or not the hardware or network will work. It has been utterly reliable across a variety of classrooms.

With the iPad, I have been able to keep my mind squarely where it should be: helping students learn. Now that’s a revolutionary educational technology!

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