Mobile Computing | Feature

iPads Invade the Computer Lab

A private school on the Big Island of Hawaii not only adopted Apple's iPad for student learning; the school designed a whole facility around it.

When Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) began designing its new "energy lab" where students would collaborate and develop sustainable living solutions, the school's leaders knew that portable computers of some type would be written into the plans. Right around the same time, Apple announced that its new tablet computer would be released some time within the months that followed.

"We knew that the iPads were coming out, but we had no idea in what size, shape or format," recalled Bill Wiecking, director of HPA's energy lab. "When the iPad was released four days after the energy lab opened [in April 2010], we'd already ordered 10 of them from Apple," said Wiecking. "After testing them out, we knew exactly how we wanted to integrate the iPads into the new facility."

Designing the Flexible Learning Space
Part of that quick integration can be credited to some forward thinking on HPA's part. For example, to accommodate the "future" technology, Wiecking said, the school designed the new building's automation system and classroom space around the pending tablet-computing platform. That meant there would be no fixed desktop computers, but rather a "stack" of iPads that students "grab as they're walking into the building," said Wiecking.

"The tablets resonate with the way we designed the building as a flexible learning space," said Wiecking. The same philosophy carries over to the traditional classroom setting, where iPads can be "freeing because using them is the exact opposite of sitting at a desk," said Wiecking.

"If you look at the old paradigm of computer education and how we use technology in general, it's all about air-conditioned computer labs with fixed desks, unmovable keyboards, and mice," said Wiecking. "Teachers who wanted to use technology resources had to visit those labs in a 'Mohammed to the mountain' fashion."

The emergence of tablet computers on campus has flipped that arrangement upside down, Wiecking said, particularly when it comes to their ability to blend in with the settings where the iPads are in use. Unlike hulking desktops or relatively bulky laptops, the slim devices take up little room and don't really even look like computers.

Collaboration and Learning
Wiecking, who scanned all of his classroom textbooks into PDFs and document files that can be read or annotated on the tablets, said iPads have also expanded student horizons in ways that desktops cannot. He compared the traditional computing method to being strapped to a chair below deck in a cruise ship, watching the world go by through a porthole. Using the astronomy application Star Walk as an example, he said students can break out of that mold to examine the sky, check out the floor, hold the device up over their heads, and pinch-to-zoom in and out.

"It's basically the opposite of me fixing a student to a desk and telling him or her to look through a window," said Wiecking. "It opens up a whole new world for them, and allows them to visualize different layers of virtual reality."

With its one-year iPad milestone just around the corner, Wiecking said, the school plans to invest in more devices, although he already has his eye on the next generation of the devices. At the time of this interview, the iPad 2 had not yet been formally unveiled; yet Wiecking said he was looking forward to some of its new features, like videoconferencing capabilities. "We all know that the next iPad is going to have a camera; that is a done deal," he said. "That means we'll be able to do videoconferencing, which we're already accomplishing with the iPod touch and its two cameras."

Take the existing collaboration between HPA students and a group located in Malaysia (currently being handled with the use of the iPod touch), for example. Wiecking said the program will be enhanced further by the camera-equipped tablets, which will allow students to use a larger screen and a device with more capabilities.

"There's no way to talk to the kids in Malaysia because they don't have phones," said Wiecking, "but they do have wireless, which makes the long-distance communications possible through these devices."

Managing the Devices
Other than an iPad that disappeared one day and resurfaced the next morning after being tracked down via the device's Find My iPad app--come to find out, a student hid the device to ensure that he would have one in class the next day--Wiecking said he's faced no challenges integrating the devices into the energy lab. With an 11-hour battery life (on average) and a wireless connection, he said, the iPads are easy for him and the school's IT team to manage.

"When a class comes in, the students don't even have to worry about finding chargers and wall plugs," said Wiecking, who added he enjoys teaching in an environment where students are no longer tied to desks and chairs but are free to roam the energy lab equipped with their tablets. "It has really changed our approach to teaching," said Wiecking, "and gives students (who are often told to go explore, and 'report back' on their findings in 20 minutes) a lot of freedom."

With freedom comes responsibility, and, Wiecking said, HPA's students have adapted well. Teachers have also embraced it, with some taking steps to make sure students are using their self-study time on the tablets wisely.

By establishing assessments, Wiecking said, teachers virtually ensure that pupils aren't wasting their 20 minutes of study time playing Angry Birds.

"Ask students to take a quiz, and they can take it, fake it, or just guess, regardless of how that 20 minutes was spent," said Wiecking. "But ask students to report back and tell you what they've been doing and it won't take long for them to realize that they can't play [Angry Birds] and that they have to be more productive with their time."

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