by Dr. Jonathan Fingerut
The ability to present and use these guides on the iPad is what really makes this a breakthrough product for use in labs where students’ hands are gloved, messy, wet and slippery. Viewing iBook format files is not currently possible on traditional computers but even if that changes, goopy gloved hands do not play well with keyboards and mice. For this lab, iPads were mounted on inexpensive (~$40) stands that placed the iPads at eye-level, up off the bench away from spills. The position of the tablet allowed students working in pairs to both navigate the guide without reaching across each other for mice and keyboards. Cheap ($1 per unit) plastic sleeves designed for using the iPad in the kitchen, were placed over the tablets allowing them to be used with gloved hands without fear of damage. The sleeves could be wiped down and lasted the entire semester.
Students responded well to the new guides and the iPad interface. While a true assessment of the project was not possible, (I did not have a comparable comparison group), students reported that they felt the guides allowed them to work independently. In my estimation this was true to a greater extent than when traditional paper-based guides were used in previous years. This provided me greater opportunity to move around the classroom asking questions, pointing out interesting features of the specimens and answering more sophisticated questions than the previously common “where is the ____” or “what is that blob?”. To facilitate studying of the material outside of class, PDF and iBook versions of the guide were made available via BB and iTunesU (necessary for dissemination of iBook files).
One additional useful feature is the iBook format’s ability to provide students with instant feedback on their mastery of the material through custom, auto-grading embedded quizzes. At the time of the guides’ production, question types were limited to multiple-choice, matching, and a format where labels must be correctly located on an image. New third party software now allows free answers, but they are not graded in real time as the simpler built-in choices are, and must be emailed to the professor from the tablet to be graded by hand. This may be very useful for other types of assessment, but for the purposes of an exit quiz or self-examination, it is less useful.
Overall, the process of making the guides was fairly simple. The learning curve for using the software is not steep if you are already used to other WYSIWYG authoring software (PowerPoint, Page Mill, Desktop Publishing etc.) and the growing availability of CC-licensed content makes populating the files relatively easy as well. The question as to whether the new format makes a difference in terms of student learning has yet to be determined, but in this situation I saw students that were less stressed, more engaged, and overwhelmingly preferred the new format over previous traditional paper guides they had used in other courses. As the software and media resources mature, I envision that this technology can provide benefits to a range of educational situations and that more educators will feel comfortable producing their own content or using the eventual flood of commercially produced texts that are soon to follow.