Can an iPad Lead to a Better Learning Experience?

We’re not exactly sure yet, but around 450 freshmen in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development are about to find out. According to My Fox Twin Cities, the university decided to distribute the iPads to its incoming freshmen in the college so that faculty could research how the devices, and similar technology, could affect things like "student retention, engagement and learning outcomes."

Although it’s easy to get excited over the large amount of free gadgetry being passed around, the research will be the most important aspect of the pilot program. The university hopes to figure out just how exactly this technology can help future students maximize their education. David Ernst, director of academic and information technology in the College of Education and Human Development, told the Star Tribune, "We won’t simply say, ‘Here’s an iPad,’ and that’s the end of it. It will be part of a coordinated, focused research agenda."

The pilot program is the latest in a string of similar initiatives in universities across the country, that of Seton Hill University in 2009 being most notable. Seton Hill University handed out MacBooks and iPads to every full-time undergraduate student that year, though Seton Hill students must pay a $500 technology fee each semester. The iPads at the University of Minnesota are free through a private donation to the school.

The Minnesota program, the Seton Hill program, and other technology-related initiatives speak to our fascination with the potential that technology offers us; however, one educator thinks differently. Last summer, Jose A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, removed computers and other electronics from lecture halls, leaving behind just enough so that professors could plug in their own laptops if they absolutely needed to. Instead, he’s challenging them to ‘teach naked,’ without relying on technology. His goal is that by no longer relying on technology, it will allow students and teachers to turn to the real activity of learning: discussion. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education, "If the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline." He believes that often technology-fueled presentations can actually be too boring.

A recent study in the April 2009 issue of British Educational Research Journal reported findings in support of this worry that technology can be boring. Fifty-nine percent of students surveyed thought their lectures were boring. They also said that Power Point lectures were the worst. Of course, this is a very narrow result, but it represents perhaps the greatest danger of relying too heavily on technology.

For educators concerned about gadgets in the classroom, the research that will come out of the University of Minnesota iPad program may very well dictate the future of learning technology for years to come.

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