While much of the research on iPads in education to date has focused on how students and faculty use the device, Abilene Christian University is shifting toward examining how the tablets affect student learning.

Through the ACU Connected initiative, the university has studied mobile devices in the classroom for the past three years. And now that the iPad has been out for more than a year, the university is studying how mobility can integrate with pedagogy, said Scott Hamm, instructional designer and director of mobile learning research for the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at the university.

"Right now a lot of what I'm seeing out there as far as what's available data-wise for the iPad is kind of usage statistics, but fortunately because we've been doing this for three years with the mobile learning piece, we've been able to dive into the deeper end of the pool with our iPad research."

The research results

In the university's first paperless classroom, associate professors Ian Shepherd and Brent Reeves compared how their section of a microeconomics class used iPads with a section that had laptops. Through their devices, the students accessed an online textbook from McGraw-Hill and Inkling, as well as their Blackboard learning management system.

With the tablets, students accessed content more frequently over a broader period of time and moved around more to collaborate on projects. The laptop section tended to use their devices around class time and on the days they had class.

This year, the associate professors are continuing their research by collecting and analyzing actual mobile device usage by user, device type, campus location, application use, content accessed and demographic information from the student information system.

In an Introductory psychology class last year, graduate student Ryan Gertner studied how eTexts on the iPad affected reading comprehension and transfer learning. Transfer learning involves understanding a general concept and applying it in different contexts.

He randomly split the 69 students who wanted to participate into two groups. One group read and annotated a section of Laura King's "Experience Psychology" textbook in hardback form. The other group did so in digital form.

In a 10-minute period, the students answered 16 multiple choice questions that tested their reading comprehension. The students who read the eText didn't score significantly higher than the students in the other group.

But they did score 25 percent higher on the transfer learning test. And that's a big deal because higher order thinking, the ability to work together and the ability to construct knowledge in different contexts, are important skills that transfer to the workplace, Hamm said.

The students answered four essay questions in 10 minutes. Based on the study, the report says the students reasoned deeper after reading an eText on the iPad but did not strengthen their general knowledge.

This year, researchers are trying to understand why students transfer knowledge better when they use eTexts and tablets instead of a physical textbook, said George Saltsman, executive director of the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning.

The digital movement

Overall, many people are interested in moving textbooks digital. California, Texas and Florida have passed legislation that incentivizes that process.

In the university's initial experimentation, it's seeing positive steps forward when instructors combine the tool with an appropriate pedagogical approach. That approach engages higher order thinking and the upper levels of the Bloom's taxonomy.

"When the tools allow for the social connections and the ability to do annotations, then we're seeing it as a step forward, we're definitely not taking a step backwards," Saltsman said.

At the Abilene Christian campus, it took a while for faculty members to really begin using the devices. But three years into the initiative, faculty members are more comfortable with using the mobile devices for learning. Eighty-six percent of faculty at the university say they regularly use their device, and half of them use it every day, according to an annual survey.

Faculty members will adopt new technology at the university when it's part of a focused initiative to drive the use of the tools. And they need someone to encourage them to try something new and help them succeed with the technology.

"It's cheerleading and a safety net," Saltsman said. "I'll encourage you to take the jump, and then I'll make sure that you don't crash on the way."

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.