“They’re Coming…” Innovation and the Diffusion of iPads in Higher Education

Curator's Note

I’m part of a campus iPad pilot. Proposing a good pedagogical use for the technology wasn’t difficult. What has been difficult is being a good steward of my new gadget; pilots are meant for guiding decisions about more widespread adoption, after all.

Today’s traditional-aged college students are “digital natives”— comfortable with languages, behaviors, and aptitudes inherent to social media. They value technological mobility, and consider digital multitasking part of their DNA. We’ve gotten word that we must adapt in order to reach these students—as well as those who follow them (today’s young children). Video footage of babies using iPads seems to suggest what these students will be like—not to mention breed anxiety for college administrators. The iPad has become iconic in these discourses.

With most colleges facing severe budgetary constraints, it’s common to treat students as fickle customers, even while racking our brains trying to maintain quality and integrity. “What if we became an iPad campus?” administrators ask. "Would we appear 'forward-looking' to prospective students?"

My students surprised me by expressing disapproval at the possibility of our institution becoming an iPad campus. Then, instead of citing cost as their main reason for objecting, they cited distractions. A couple even said that they were already wasting time checking social media during class and don’t need another device to encourage this.

Were they fearful of the innovation process itself—even though they’re part of it? McLuhan would have told them to stop looking in the rear-view mirror! I turn not to him on this, though, as much as to Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations— a chapter of which, ironically, had been the assigned reading on the same day that I wound up attending a presentation on iPads in higher education, offered by Apple sales reps. Reflecting on the processes of “re-invention” that follow adoption, I thought: if we could move past the pilot stage, my students might be on the cutting edge in shaping education's future.

Yet I do worry a bit about campus-wide iPad adoption. While building its repertoire of innovative products, Apple has grown as a competition-averse corporate giant, the iPad a cash cow. iPad apps won't run on other platforms. Some promising apps require a Mac computer for content creation. And Microsoft software still isn’t fully compatible with iPad. Clearly, becoming an iPad campus implies more than just putting a high-functioning tablet in every student’s hands.


 I agree that there's an inherent problem with "becoming an iPad campus"--because it puts too much emphasis on the technology over uses or needs.  It's like saying, "we're a computer campus" because we have computer labs.  If you said that to high school seniors, they would just start laughing.  Ultimately, one must find a middle ground: colleges being able to offer enough iPads to meed demand, as necessary (and other tablets may suffice.)  But, branding oneself that way (and thereby enhancing Apple's brand even more as well) places marketing and commercialism over pedagogy.

For one of the class sessions of my "Mobile Media: History, Theory, Practice" course, I substitute the lecture/discussion format with a mobile lesson suitable for mobile phone, iPod, iPad, or laptop.  Students need not come to class, and can select the time, location and environment for interacting with the lesson.  The following class session includes a discussion of the pros and cons of the lesson.  Students report appreciating the flexibility, but a lot of also students report challenges:  distractions of completing lesson on a networked device; environmental distractions (public transit, gym and coffee shops are common venues); and the lack of connection to the instructor-led lessons.

My take-away from this experience is two-fold:  1) the context of the use of technology is critically important for both the instructor and the student to understand.  Why is the iPad in use in a situation?  Simply to be 'forward-thinking' as a branding tool is, well, not so 'forward-thinking'...  2) It is also critcally important for us as educators (particularly as media studies educators) to unpack the relationship between culture, technology, use practices, and contexts.  While today's students are "digital natives", few have spent any significant time asking what that means; few have spent any significant time trying to understand the underlying structure and ideology of Mafia Wars or Farmville on Facebook.  

One the first day of my mobile class, I tell my students to take out their mobile phone and turn them on.  But each time a phone rings or a student chooses to check their Facebook page rather than participate in discussion becomes a teaching moment about our media-penetrated lives and the intersection of media technology, cutlural practices, and social norms.

In the end, the economics of higher education (the emphasis on distance learning, strategies to deal with spiralling textbook costs, etc.) will drive the iPad campus.  We just need to be ready for it.

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