Piloting the iPad

A growing number of colleges and universities have launched pilot projects to test how the iPad might be used to produce a positive impact on student learning and engagement. In May 2010, we published an article in which Tim Chester, CIO at Pepperdine University, offered 3 critical questions for academic leaders and chief information officers to answer before adopting the iPad on any large scale. This week, we returned to Pepperdine University to find out what lessons could be gleaned from Pepperdine's own iPad pilot project.

We interviewed Dana Hoover, assistant CIO for communications and planning for IT, and Hong Kha, project manager for pedagogy development and special projects. Here's what we learned.

Initial Findings

Pepperdine University's iPad Research Initiative is a three-term study (consisting of classroom observations, surveys, and focus groups), and Pepperdine has just completed the first third of the study, looking at how students are actually using the iPad in class when given the opportunity. Future terms will assess effectiveness on teaching and learning. The preliminary findings from the first term suggests that students have found value in using the iPad because of its:

  • Ease of use (students noted its touch-screen and the fact that unlike a laptop, the iPad has no "boot up" time)
  • Mobility (students noted how easily the iPad could be passed around a group of students, making for smoother collaboration and group study)
  • The vast variety of apps available (students in Pepperdine's math course pilot praised the graphing calculator app and other programs that they perceived as having a positive impact on their learning)

One of the things Pepperdine University hoped to learn this term was how quickly students would adopt the iPad. Moving beyond the hype, would students actually adopt and use the device? Dana Hoover remarks, "Before assessing anything else, we needed to observe how students would use the iPad. At this early stage, it was like throwing a rock into the water and watching the ripple effect."

As it turned out, students had a lot of excitement about the iPad, and expressed that they hoped to use the apps they discovered for future math courses.

What Support Faculty Need

What Hong Kha has learned from the initial term of this project is that individualized faculty support is critical to the project's success. In an ideal sense, this may be true of any adoption of an emerging learning technology, but it is especially true of the iPad, given the nature of the device.

"If you bring clickers into a classroom, or have students watch an online video on YouTube, that's a technology with a specific purpose; it's a one-off thing. The iPad, on the other hand, has many, many possible purposes, depending on what Apps you use for the course. The faculty member has to define the tool's purpose. The iPad is an empty plate that you hand to a faculty member; what gets put on the plate is what matters. It's all about the apps."
Dana Hoover, Pepperdine U

Hong Kha adds that there is, initially, a steep learning curve for faculty. Not only do they need to understand the capacities and strengths of the device; they also need to be able to identify specific apps that are relevant to their subject matter and to the specific learning activities of their course. Kha suggests that the best way to support faculty is to provide a faculty developer or instructional designer who can:

  • Work with faculty to clarify the learning outcomes for the course
  • Get to know the faculty member's teaching style (are they a lecturer? A facilitator? Are they used to interactive group discussions?) and, rather than attempt to change the instructor's style to fit the new technology, help them choose apps that will support their existing pedagogy
  • Go over a sample lesson plan with the instructor
  • Search for the right apps

This last point is the real time-saver for faculty. The number of apps available on the iPad increases by the week; rather than expect a given number of faculty to become expert on what's available, appoint one instructional designer who can ask faculty guiding questions and then search for specific apps that meet their needs.

Here's an example:


A math instructor wants students to narrate their notes on a problem and explain how they are solving it. Ideally, if other students could both see the first student's math while it is in progress and hear the student's narration -- simultaneously -- they could discuss the math problem actively and problem-solve in class. In effect, the students would be teaching themselves by talking through the problem and reflecting on it; they would be taking ownership of the learning.


Having discussed the pedagogical challenge with the faculty, the developer searches for and evaluates possible Apps. In this case, the developer selects Underscore Notify, which achieves two purposes at once. First, the student can handwrite notes using a stylus; second, the app will record the student's voice. The student is able to handwrite the math and narrate his or her thinking process out loud. The app saves both the handwritten notes and the narration as one recording, which can then be played back for other students or emailed to the faculty member (who can then see the students' thought process as they solved the math problem). The instructor then sets aside time in class to review the recorded narrations.

"This makes the learning experience very real," Kha remarks. Hoover adds that this kind of problem-and-solution approach to bringing the iPad into a class can help an instructor to define specific, finite, and measurable learning activities.


In summary, to bring the iPad into the classroom in an effective way, you need to provide faculty development support to assist the instructor in:

  • Defining a specific pedagogical objective or challenge that the iPad can be used to address
  • Identifying the app and the use of it in a learning activity, to meet the challenge

"We found that many professors find it challenging to integrate the iPad into their teaching. Without a specific goal and a plan, the iPad has no more impact on the classroom than a cellular phone. Students will use it to chat or to surf. You have to have an explicit plan."
Hong Kha, Pepperdine U