Eight months after handing out iPads to students enrolling in a science degree at the University of Adelaide, the Faculty of Science executive Dean, Bob Hill, said the project has improved communications and driven down student costs.
The faculty launched the initiative in February and spent about $700,000 to issue each first year science student with the device; a total of 700 iPads, a number that grew to about 800 following mid-semester enrolments.
Students were given the iPad to keep without any restriction from the university, Hill said, except a six week census date of 31 March; if a student dropped out of the course before the census date he or she would be required to return the tablet. According to Hill about 10 or 12 iPads were returned before this date.
The project was driven completely by the faculty and was linked to a completely new first year curriculum focusing on research and framing the university’s “10 big questions”, Hill said.
“These were the 10 questions we felt best explained the research we do in the faculty and now we anchor our lectures on one or more of those questions so students can see the relevance of the curriculum,” Hill told Computerworld Australia.
The new curriculum structure also sought to eliminate paper-based textbooks and embrace electronic textbooks, Hill said, as students won’t buy the traditional science textbooks because they are too heavy and bulky.
“It was counterproductive as only about a third of students were buying the textbooks,” he said. “They’re also very expensive, close to $1000 per year.”
“Having made all those decisions we looked around for the best way to deliver it and the iPad option came on the scene at that time,” Hill said. “It was the tool to deliver the new curriculum and the new way of presenting the curriculum that we wanted after doing some experiments with phones and laptops.”
“Much to our surprise, for every major first year course we have had an electronic textbook this year, the publishers came to us in droves once they heard what we were doing,” he said. “The publishers were ready to go, they just weren’t telling anybody because obviously they would prefer to be selling paper-based books because that’s where their biggest profit margin is.”
According to Hill, the cost of electronic books is only 60 per cent of paper-based textbooks. However, they will only act as an interim solution until the university can eliminate textbooks completely and use free electronic sources.
“This will partly be in place next year and hopefully it’s fully in place the year after.”
“It was really important for me that education be a level playing field and we know a lot of students couldn’t afford the textbooks, so it gives us the option of moving toward an environment where every student gets the same treatment no matter what their economic background.” The transition to iPads was complicated, Hill said, but made easier by the staff who embraced the devices from the get-go.
“Every one of our first year lectures is taped and all the PowerPoint presentations are put on the Web so students can download a version of the lecture, the audio plus the slides so they could revise the lectures or even not turn up if they want to,” he said.
“Many of them work part time and have problems getting to some lectures so that was an advantage for them.”
They also enable much better communication, Hill said, as he would prefer face-to-face time with students needs to be used in the most valuable way possible.
“A person standing in front of a class of 400-500 students is not the best way to use face-to-face time; there are better models and we’re working towards that.
“We’ve always had trouble communicating with our students on a mass scale. Now they all have at least email sitting in front of them and every iPad was 3G enabled to ensure that if they didn’t have access to wireless networks away from university they could pay to get 3G on the device.”
Teachers use scientific applications on the tablet, but due to first year science classes including students studying under other faculties many courses had a combination of students with and without the device.
“We did have one course where every student had an iPad and it was very interactive and we got very strong feedback,” he said. “It went well but to make the move really strongly into that space is really complicated and we’re working at it over some time, I see this as maybe a five year project to make the real transition from our traditional teaching into a brand new approach that really properly uses the resources available to us.”
Hill did not rule out developing apps themselves for the course in the future but said the faculty will tread cautiously into the space.
The university has not implemented any security measures for the devices and has a strong philosophy not to dictate how students use them or what content they access.
Of the 800, just one didn’t work out of the box and one other was returned with a major fault. None have been stolen and any lost devices have been returned to users.
Enrolments have increased by 10 per cent (70-80 students), Hill said, with the aim for a flow-on effect as those first year students progress to second year for which a whole new year of electronic content will need to be prepared.
“In terms of their utility and people using them, it’s been much more successful than we dared to hope, students have really taken to them very well and a really convenient way of carrying information around and getting access easily from any place and that alone has made it a worthwhile investment for us.”
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