Teaching with iPads

Expanding the classroom one tablet at a time

Chris Fearrington

Wayne Morse

Donna Troka

It’s the moment that professors dream about: the “a-ha moment.” When everything you have been teaching finally comes together for your students. You can almost see a light bulb go off over their heads, and suddenly, they get it.

I (Donna Troka) had my own a-ha moment in the second week of my class From Archives to iPads: Investigating the Discourse of Sexuality at Emory. In this fall 2012 course, my students and I spend half our time in a classroom in Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT) and half our time doing archival research in the Manuscript and Rare Book Library (MARBL). The ECIT classroom is equipped with all the technology a teacher could ever need; the MARBL classroom is a meeting room at best: heavy wooden furniture, overstuffed leather chairs, and a breathtaking view of the greater Atlanta area. It is an ideal room for a wine and cheese reception but less so for impromptu lectures or internet searches during class.

Enter the iPad. When I first approached Chris Fearrington and Wayne Morse at ECIT about collaborating with me on this class, I explained that it was important to me that the students spend class time using the university archives in MARBL. I wanted them to engage the archives and capture what they found photographically, so that it could be part of the larger database of artifacts on sexuality that I hope to present in an exhibit. They suggested the students use iPads as a way to meet that course objective. Students could photograph what they found, upload the images to Dropbox, and then also download them to our class blog. I was sold on the use of iPads as a way to accomplish my goals for the class.

My a-ha moment happened when we actually put our hands on archival material. As a class, we were looking at the diaries of South Korean theology student Yun Chi-ho. In these diaries from the 1880s, Yun talked about traveling through the southeastern United States to lecture about the Methodist Church and Korea, and his relationship to the Emory community. Students were fascinated by the ornate handwriting and the stories he told of his attraction to the white women he met on Emory’s campus. As students read more, they began to encounter terms or abbreviations they were unfamiliar with. They raised their hands and asked me what these terms meant. I didn’t have an answer for them, so I took to my iPad and began to research it. Together, using information we extrapolated elsewhere in the entry, we were able to decipher the terms. I moved from student to student, iPad tablet in hand, and for a moment I stopped and thought, “I can only teach this class, in this space, the way I want to because of this iPad.” I looked around at students using the magnifying function to better read their entries, and I realized this technology was integral to achieving the outcomes I set forth in my course.

Several faculty are experiencing a-ha moments around campus using the iPad in and outside the classroom. The device is allowing faculty to extend learning beyond the classroom walls and help students learn visually, orally, and kinesthetically. Students are learning visually by creating video projects and taking pictures, learning orally by recording speeches and audio interviews, and learning kinesthetically by building music in GarageBand and editing video with iMovie.

Sissel McCarthy of journalism recently implemented iPads as part of her curriculum. Students were given the assignment of recording video and sound outside their everyday environments. How would students produce their videos? They used the iPad2 to record video, take pictures, and edit their projects in the iMovie application. The iPad offered students the flexibility to record, edit, and share their videos on the go. Additionally, inside the classroom, students used their iPads to take notes and research content for the course. 

Gary Motley of jazz studies used iPads to help maximize class time and expand the student experience. Outside class, he sent sheet music to his students, and through the GarageBand application on the device, they created musical segments. Conversely, students created sheet music for compositions Motley provided. The assignments better prepared the students for class, and they allowed Motley time to introduce additional topics. Through GarageBand, students were also exposed to a variety of instruments—different sounds and elements—before they played the instruments in class. In the past, Motley’s students were predominantly consumers of musical content, but through the iPad, they become producers of content that could be shared among classmates. 

ipadTo be sure, faculty and students have been using technology in the classroom for decades. But the iPad is unique because both its design and functionality allow students to work virtually anywhere and therefore remain in contact with the course content for more time. Its distinction comes largely from its portability and tablet format, which encourage collaboration and mobility. Simply put, the iPad becomes a student’s primary connection to their coursework, research, and social lives.

Learning is a social activity, so it makes sense that a device for social computing is helping shape today’s learning spaces. Use of tablet computers in all aspects of life builds upon the success of smart phones as devices to connect to friends and acquaintances. Tablet computers such as the iPad can forge new connections among students as they explore insights into class assignments as easily as they share images from last night’s party. With the advent of these devices, such activities easily flow through the classroom walls into the outside world and vice versa.

As access to online resources becomes ubiquitous, the desire for students to interact with this information increases. Walking by a discussion on campus, you will often hear, “Let’s see what else we can find out about that,” and the search for more information online begins. Results from these searches can now include audio, video, and animations. The iPad’s screen size and unique navigation built into the operating system are well suited to organize and display any result.

The iPad’s form and function support a dynamic, shared learning experience—one that encourages learning anywhere. Conversely, a laptop screen can become a barrier between public and private information. The flat screen on the iPad can be used to easily share information between the owner and others. The iPad’s surface can be viewed by more than one person, similar to the experience of sharing images in a book. Exploring online information with the iPad can also be a shared experience with multiple people directing the research with a touch of the screen. Using the device requires only a few seconds of instruction, and then anyone in any location can be part of the learning experience.

Whether a student is creating a new jazz composition, recording and reporting on the sounds of a MARTA train, or capturing and analyzing the diaries of one of Emory’s first South Korean students, the iPad is a useful pedagogical tool that allows learning to happen where learners are and teachers to teach in new and unusual places.