Dante’s iPad

A guest post by Kenneth Rogerson, Lecturer in Public Policy and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Sanford School of Public Policy .  In Spring 2011, Rogerson worked in collaboration with Denise Comer, Thompson Writing Program, and  Rebecca Vidra, Lecturer, Nicholas School of the Environment on the eReading Pilot Project.  You can also read a post from Denise Comer and another by Rebecca Vidra on the project.

I don’t think anyone predicted that tablet computers would change the world (well, outside of the manufacturers). But every technological tool should be explored for its pedagogical potential. After a semester of “playing with” the iPad in my class “News Writing and Reporting” (Public Policy 120S, Spring 2011), I would say that this particular technology is caught in a version of Dante’s Purgatory: somewhere between Hell (useless) and Paradise (useful).

The nature of the class was such that students were told they could use the iPad in three ways: 1) to complete assignments for class, 2) to do activities in class and 3) for fun. Interestingly, feedback on each was mixed.

For the assignments, students were expected to regularly interview people and integrate the information gleaned in their written work. We used an iPad app called “SoundNote.”  The app worked extremely well, allowing the student to record interviews and type notes at the same time.  But some said that this could have as easily been accomplished with an iPod recording attachment or a voice memo app on a phone with their laptops. Some chose to use technology with which they were already familiar. Students said similar things about recording lectures, speakers and panel discussions, also a part of some assignments: it was possible (nice) to use the iPad, but other technology worked just as well.

In class, results were also mixed.  While some faithfully brought the iPad, a good 50 percent of students stopped bringing the tablet after a few weeks, preferring to rely on their laptops for the Internet connectivity needed for class discussion.  Finally, the “fun” element seemed to wear off quickly.  One student even said hers was “gathering dust” after two weeks.

Tablet computers are more portable than laptops and should have been appealing to journalists-in-training since part of what students were required to do was go out into the “field” to look for story ideas, people and situations.  The news gathering industry is in transition mode as exemplified by concepts such as “backpack journalism,”  in which one person takes everything s/he needs to cover a story in a variety of media formats.  Tablets should help this process, but it may be that the technology is not quite ready.

The issue for the journalism field is this: these computers still lack a fully integrated package that can help a journalist do a complete job in story coverage.  The 2nd generation iPad (with 3G connectivity) will permit access to cyberspace from almost anywhere and will help some.  But, the lack of Flash capabilities hinders the information seeking that students wanted and needed to do. There is a need for better video/audio recording and editing capacity.

Personally, I found the following: 1) typing was quite awkward at first, but I improved with time; 2) the ability to take notes and browse the web (when wireless networks were available) was EXTREMELY more convenient than a laptop or a smartphone; 3) I loved the access to news feeds from global media organizations and found it quite useful; and 4) the light weight was a relief.

On the other hand, I was frustrated by my inability to compose and edit documents with any ease.  It was difficult to find apps that facilitated the feedback process between student and teacher.  I learned to do personal annotations on documents that were of interest to my research, but the exchange of information for classroom purposes was not as straightforward as I would have wished.

None of these is specifically relevant to journalism education. These pros and cons could come from almost any course in almost any discipline.  Maybe this is the problem: the tablet doesn’t really address any specific pedagogical needs.  It does what other technologies already do in the classroom with the added benefit of being a bit more portable. Is that a reason for wholesale classroom adoption?  Well, not for me.  But, I would welcome it in the classroom as part of a menu of technological resources for students.