iPad pilots launching in higher ed this fall

More than 100 OSU students will test the iPad in the fall.
More than 100 Oklahoma State University students will test the iPad in the fall.

Educators say there’s a simple reason they believe the Apple iPad pilot programs coming to colleges and universities this fall will run smoother than previous trials with popular eReaders: the apps.

Sprawling research university campuses and rural community colleges alike will test the iPad in small groups when students return to school in August and September, evaluating how learning can be improved using a device that has proven popular among 20-somethings who were avid about Apple products even before the iPad was released in April.

University IT departments launched pilot programs for eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX in 2008 and 2009, but student and faculty surveys showed that traditional textbooks were preferred over the eReader devices.

Many Kindle pilots, like one at Arizona State University, were stopped after blind and low-sighted students said the eReader’s small menu and navigation tools were inaccessible. In contrast, an official for the National Federation of the Blind said this week that the iPad’s large screen has gained favor in the blind and low-sighted communities.

“The iPad is considerably closer to an eReading solution that will be effective for blind students than other products that are out there,” said Chris Danielson, a spokesman for the NFB. “I don’t know whether it’s perfect or not, but Apple has clearly thought about accessibility and made and effort to improve it.”

Education technology officials said the iPad also could be more widely accepted because of its vast library of educational applications, such as “The Elements: A Visual Exploration,” which guides students through every part of the periodic table with graphics of each element, presenting an old lesson plan in a captivating platform.

WolframAlpha, an online search engine that caters to researchers, released an iPad app that connects directly to the WolframAlpha supercomputing cloud, a potential boon for campus research teams who could continue their work with a device that is more portable than even a laptop, experts said.

Nick Smerker, an instructional technologist at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., said he lobbied campus decision makers for an iPad pilot program “as soon as it was announced” that the long-awaited gadget would hit stores in the first week of April.

Washington College bought two iPads in April, Smerker said. The college now has four of the Apple eReaders, and Smerker said the 1,400-student campus could have 14 iPads by the start of the fall semester, depending on budget allocations.

“It’s much more than just an eReader that people have seen and used before,” he said. “[Apps] are what will propel the iPad past other [devices].”

Smerker said the iPad has a built-in advantage over other eReaders: familiarity.

“The thing that will make it easy to sell the iPad to students is if you’ve ever used an iPod, you already understand how [the iPad] works,” he said, referring to Apple’s music player that has similar features and controls as the iPad. “It’s not hard to see Apple products are appealing and sexy to students.”

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