Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Future of Learning?

Unlike some people, I am quite excited about the iPad, which was announced yesterday. A tablet computer with a touch screen will have many uses, even if it seems to be somewhat awkwardly positioned in a strange niche between laptops (more powerful, but cumbersome) and smartphones (lighter & smaller, but smaller screen). I think where it will be really useful is in education.

The iPad seems to me to be an ideal device for students: you can easily keep notes, check email, have textbooks accessible, look things up, check your schedule with the calendar, etc. You can even write essays on it. And then, because of wifi, you could submit them with the touch of a button.

So far the biggest obstacle with electronic essay submission for me has been the marking. Marking an essay electronically on a computer just does not work for me. You cannot easily scribble comments on the margins, and annotating a text file like you would a submission to an edited journal is just too much. But if you had a large touch screen on which to read the essay, you could just swipe over a stretch of text, it gets selected and a comment box appears, together with the keyboard. You quickly type your comment, the keyboard disappears again, and the annotation sits on the margin. Back to normal reading. You don't even have to sit at your desk. You can mark a pile of essays easily, even on a cramped train.

I think the universities should set up a subsidised scheme where each student gets an iPad - this would probably push the costs even lower than the current $499 for the basic model (due to bulk buying and/or educational discounting). Teaching staff would also get one, and then we will all sit in the seminars, iPad on lap, looking at texts or media together, sharing group work live on wikis, and have more interactive lectures. This would also save a lot of money currently spent on paper and toner - all hand-outs would be electronic, in colour, and multi-media capable.

This of course is all a bit speculative, as anything regarding the iPad, as I've only seen a video and some photos of it; but if it is anything like a bigger iPhone, I think this should work. But I am rather pessimistic. Such a scheme might be set up at Harvard or Stanford, but Birmingham is so deeply committed to Microsoft software and PC compatible hardware, that I don't see much of a chance for the iPad becoming the learning and teaching enabling tool it could be.

Shame, really.


  1. Fantastic idea - and you never know, talk to the right people about it and it could happen... perhaps! But, what if this happens, too:

  2. I love this idea! I could mark like this... Seems like a distant dream rather than an achievable reality at present though.

  3. Sorry it's taken me so long to comment on this! As you describe it, the IPad does sound rather marvellous and would address many of the problems we experience when teaching and marking. But I do have a few worries. Would the expectation that they use this sort of technology discriminate against certain categories of students? What about the environmental implications -- it would take a lot of saved paper and toner to compensate for the costs of producing the IPad in the first place? And what about the Big Brother implications? Universities could use devices like this to keep track of students. This is not just leftie alarmism; I have heard it suggested, quite seriously (w.r.t. mobile phones, but the principle still applies).

  4. I'm probably too naively optimistic about the Big Brother scenario; and this would surely be covered by all sorts of data protection and privacy laws, unless you're looking at students as potential terror suspects, in which case all bets would be off...

    What categories of students do you have in mind? If it is subsidised, then everybody should be able to get one, and as to the environmental concerns: they'd be a lot cheaper and efficient to run than a standard PC (or laptop). Just go to one of the computer clusters in the afternoon, and you'll notice how much heat a normal PC is pumping out all day. And for what? Websurfing, email, and word processing. Those machines are far too powerful for what they are actually used for. An iPad would use a lot less energy, and if all students have got one, we don't need as many computer clusters, saving not only on buying computers and running them, but also on air conditioning and rooms.

    I see the iPad (or similar devices) as a great step forward, which can really change HE in terms of learning and teaching, and at the same time reduce the enormous IT carbon footprint of your average university. And if used well, then the student experience would be greatly enhanced.