Posted by: Ellie Kutz | January 15, 2013

Teaching with iPads: The Case of Freshman Writing

The Fall 2012 iPads in the Classroom project put iPads in the hands of 10 faculty, across departments, who have been using them as a teaching tool in various ways. At the same time, a cart of 14 computers was made available for student use in the classroom.  (You can learn more about the project by visiting the iPads in the Classroom blog, which includes discussion by faculty users and a video of students using classroom iPads in David Patterson’s music theory class.)

ipads in the classroom banner

Since the teaching of composition is one of my own areas of expertise, I was particularly interested to see how iPads were being used in the freshman writing classroom.  Two of our long-term freshman writing instructors, Victoria Kingsley and Rebecca Romanow, made use of both their individual iPads and the iPad cart for students in their classrooms, and I talked to them and visited their classes to learn more about their experience.  I had two larger questions.

1. How did the use of iPads facilitate core practices and contribute to meeting the larger goals of freshman writing?  

The role of freshman writing in the US higher education curriculum is to help students become proficient in the academic literacies that will underlie all of their work as college learners.  As described to students on the English department website, freshman writing“teaches you to make academic arguments that use source materials, to write thoughtful analyses of complex readings, and to understand or articulate your experience in relation to the sources with which you are learning to work.”  It includes not only critical reading and the drafting of essays but the revision of those essays based on feedback from peers and instructors.  At the same time, because writing in the 21st century increasingly takes place in a digital environment, instructors have been encouraged to introduce students to such an environment through the use of Wikispaces or Blackboard.  Working with iPads potentially complements such work.

Victoria and Rebecca have been engaging students in critical reading, writing, and research and supporting that work with the use of wikis, and the iPads project allowed them to bring new resources into the classroom more easily and  to engage students in new ways.  Their own iPads allow them to bring in external resources, demonstrate research processes, and connect to other web-accessible materials and project them to the class.  They can conduct a quick classroom survey; look at and mark up a passage of text with the class, identifying possible main arguments; bring their introduction to how to use library databases right into the classroom, or go to clips from Youtube or to Twitter feeds, and much more.

Victoria says:

“I use the iPad to project class activities including writing prompts, outline of class schedule for the day, write/record ideas from class discussion to be posted to the class wiki, accessing course readings which have been linked to the wiki, look up things connected to class discussion, show images, etc. I also use the iPad in and outside of class to grade all papers and to manage roster and gradebook.” [iPads blog]

On iPad days (one class a week, because the 15 iPads are used across a number of different courses), students typically use their iPads to access course readings, take notes, work in teams on research for papers in progress or class presentations or for peer review and revision of papers that have already been drafted.

A peer review session in one Rebecca’s classes, for example, began with a collaborative review of some main points that could be helpfully addressed in peer review:  whether a piece of writing has a clear main point and appropriate support, whether a writer has used quotations effectively and cited correctly, and more generally—what works and what doesn’t from a reader’s perspective.  Students, who had already uploaded their drafts to iCloud, next downloaded them onto the iPads, passed the iPad along to a peer reviewer, and used the app Notability to comment on the draft being read. (The app allows for easy mark-up and Notability appannotation either by hand, which students seem to prefer as more personal, or with typed text. A more detailed discussion about using this app to respond to student writing appears on the iPad blog.) The process was repeated until students’ texts had received comments from several readers or pairs of readers, with later readers responding not only to the original draft but also to the comments of earlier readers. The last reader uploaded the marked up draft back to Dropbox.

The students I talked to, for the most part, felt that the use of iPads contributed to their own engagement and learning in their classes.

2. What can we learn from this pilot effort?

First, I’d say that the use of the iPad, while not necessary to most of these activities, eases them significantly.  Accessing resources for classroom teaching simplifies what might have been done with a laptop and projector. The peer review process in Rebecca’s classroom is very similar to the earlier “bunny hop”  peer review for which she would have to schedule a computer lab and move her class there to have students hop from computer to computer to comment on each others’ drafts, a process that can now be easily integrated into regular classroom activities.

Second, what our own faculty are discovering about the possibilities of this mobile tool echoes what has been found in pilot projects at other universities:  that the iPad facilitates their current practices, while generating further ideas for its pedagogical uses.

A pilot project at Reed College suggested that the iPad offered “an ideal tool for students to access lab materials, view videos, run simulations, and perform calculations” while making it “extremely easy for instructors to project images and documents, mark them up in real time, and play music.”  At Reed, it seemed that the more active the classroom environment, the more useful iPads proved to be, and that iPads provided less of a physical barrier for classroom collaboration than did computers or even open laptops.

In a Penn State pilot, students found iPads especially useful for annotation and collaboration, for getting responses from peer review, preferring markups on the text to comments at bottom of page (perhaps because such annotation allowed them to interact more informally with the text).

After using  iPads for one semester, UPenn pilot faculty and students saw more possible uses of their multimedia capabilities and suggested using the sound recording feature for oral exams for language classes, recording lectures, taking notes and recording journal entries;  and using the video camera for recording discussions, filming, video blogs, making videos and video-conferencing.

Putting iPads in the hands of faculty and students seems to generate a range of new ideas for their use.

Third, however, there are some limitations on how fully iPads can be integrated into the teaching and learning for our classes when we lack the resources to provide individual iPads for all of the students.  Those students who do own iPads are bringing  them to class and using them for more of their work outside of the classroom.  Universities like UPenn that have been able to make iPads available to all students in a course for a full semester have found that the use of e-textbooks and the ease of annotating books and pdf’s with iPad apps has proved particularly valuable.  (Some iPads are available to students in our pilot courses for use in Healey library, but that is still very limited.) The distribution and collection of iPads in the classroom also uses up class time.

But even with these limitations, the pilot faculty seem committed to continuing their teaching with iPads. In a blog post in mid-November, Victoria wrote:

“Thumbs up on my use of the iPad in class. I use it everyday and will not go back to lugging around my laptop. The iPad enables faster and easier sharing and I really like the shortcuts it offers that a laptop does not.”

And by the end of the semester, what Victoria was most excited about was not only her own ease of use but “the iPad’s potential to open up the classroom. . .to offer new experiences and possibilities to students, such as multimodal composing.”

It will be exciting to see how those new possibilities might be realized in the coming semester.


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