wrapping up the end of the term

Spring term is now over, and we've wrapped up using the iPads in Patricia's technical writing course, Stuart's graduate level course, and the teacher training course for new technical writing instructors. Seems like the term just flew by, and we barely posted here this term.

Last week and this week, Stuart, Patricia, Erin, Brian, and I met to go through students' iPads to check to see what sort of settings they changes, what apps they downloaded, and get a general sense of how students used their iPads (data which we'll use in conjunction to interviews and written responses). Here are some pictures from today:

Stuart, Erin, and Brian collecting data from iPads.

Brian reporting data to Patricia, who is recording it on a spreadsheet.

Brian showing off the Harmonica app on the iPad.

From here, what's the plan? We're currently transcribing interviews from the fall and spring, and should get the ball rolling on writing up an article this summer. In the fall, Stuart and I will be re-imagining the technical writing course to integrate some of the features of the iPad better, and to imagine a technical writing course that takes into account the ways technical writing is and may be changing because of the logic of apps, mobile devices, and tablet devices.

TLT Symposium Presentation on Saturday

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Here's the powerpoint presentation we used during our presentation at the Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State on Saturday. I'm not sure how useful it is without our actual presentation (i.e., talking), but I thought I'd share it anyway.

Some background on our students and instructors this spring

Last fall we surveyed and posted some information about the students and instructors in our study, including their experiences with certain communication technologies and mobile devices. This term we conducted a similar survey, and I thought I'd share again some information to give a picture of our students' and instructors' experiences.

This term we are conducting the pilot project in three courses: Patricia Gael's undergraduates technical writing class, Stuart Selber's graduate seminar in rhetoric, and Stuart's class for new teachers of technical writing. We received responses from 17 undergraduates, 8 in the graduate course, and 7 instructors in the teaching course. For aggregation purposes (and since the classes are smaller), I'm going to combine the data from Stuart's two classes (15 people):

Undergraduates (17)

  • All 17 own computers.
  • Of them, 12 use Windows and 5 use Mac OS X.
  • 13 students already had iTunes accounts.
  • 15 of them access their PSU email through webmail, and 2 forward their PSU email to another service and check it online.
  • 11 own iPods, 3 own iPod touches, 1 owns an iPhone, 1 owns a Kindle, and 1 owns a Netbook. 3 reported not owning any mobile devices.
  • 9 use instant messenger clients like AOL IM; 3 have blogged before; 3 have Twitter accounts; and 1 has made an electronic portfolio before.
  • 16 have wireless at home.

Graduate students and instructors (15)

  • All 15 own computers.
  • 10 use Windows, 4 use Mac OS X, and 1 uses Linux.
  • All 15 have iTunes accounts
  • 11 access their PSU email through Webmail; 2 use PSU email and download it to a desktop client on their computer; and 2 forward their PSU email to another service and access it online.
  • 8 own iPods; 1 owns an iPod Touch; 1 owns an iPhone; 3 own Netbooks; 1 owns a Kindle; 2 reported owning other mobile devices. 1 student already owns an iPad. 4 reported owning none of the above.
  • 9 have blogged before; 5 have made electronic portfolios before; 7 use instant messaging like AOL IM; and 2 have Twitter accounts.
  • 12 have wireless at home.
This data gives a sense of prior technological and literacy activities for our students and instructors in the study. Of interest to me, as someone who taught the undergraduate course last term with the iPad, is the amount of undergraduates who reported having wireless at home. Last term, few students did, so this might affect iPad usage. Many of my students last term reported that they found the iPad less than functional because they couldn't use many of its features at home.

WTAJ cover's Selber's grad seminar

WTAJ covered Selber's graduate seminar and their iPad use last night. You can watch the coverage or read the transcript on their website.

In the Rhetorics and Technology course at Penn State, eight graduate students are using the iPad in their studies. For some teachers and professors the sight of students having computers may be disturbing, but for these students they constantly use their iPads.
I love the use of the term "disturbing."

our project in the Collegian

More press at Penn State:
Patricia Gael, an instructor in the English department, is teaching the course taking part in the study this semester. Gael said she's had her iPad for seven months and the English department is providing a lot of support for her along the way.

"These are great because students are able to access a lot of material really easily such as textbooks and online materials," Gael said.

Selber said the researchers are still going through the results from last semester to determine how effective the devices were in the classroom, but he thinks it was a good experience for the students.

"I am positive the students had a valuable experience in investigating the integration of iPads into educational activities," Selber said. "They got to do a first-hand experiment for themselves."

Penn State Live article on our project

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We got some press at PSU Live:

In summer 2010 Penn State's Education Technology Services (ETS) bought 40 iPad tablet computers for faculty and student projects. Michael Faris, an instructor in the Department of English, planned a technical writing course for fall 2010 featuring the iPad in its curriculum. 
"Students in my class were juniors and seniors who had already developed their reading, writing and research habits," Faris said. "The iPad forced them to adapt to different strategies and change the way they think about their work." 
Each student in the class received the touch-screen-only iPad and an accessory keyboard for the semester. Apple donated iTunes gift cards to cover the cost of applications students may have needed to download for the class -- like a word processing program -- as well as a gift card from publishing company Bedford/St. Martin's, to cover the expense of the digital textbook they needed to download. 
Faris said that his students found the iPad's light weight convenient and told him it's a great tool for reading and doing simple writing tasks. However, they also reported having trouble writing more extensive papers and creating multimedia projects with it. 
"I think right now it's best to view tablet devices as supplements: they don't replace anything, but they fill needs and gaps in work activities," Faris said. "For instance, a tablet can't replace the writing and heavy research capabilities of a laptop, but it can provide for a second screen, supporting some research that might have been open in a browser or printed off or in a book."
read the rest

"Making Time" for the ipad

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I'm pretty busy . . . as we all are. I'm working on my dissertation, teaching, RAing, applying for fellowships, and planning a wedding. There is more that keeps me busy, but those are the highlights.

I've found it a struggle to use the ipad in all the ways that I feel I should be as a pilot user. I know that I'm not one for tinkering around with new gadgets--I never feel like I have the time to do so and I just don't enjoy it, really. I usually just chalk this up to
some Luddite quality in me, not any lack of user-friendly design in said gadgets.

But it does occur to me that I first shifted from using a PC to using a mac in an on-the-job situation--one that required me to learn well and learn fast. And I don't remember much about that learning curve, which is to say that there isn't much to remember. What I did have to learn came fairly intuitively and without much frustration.

This has not been the case with the ipad. I've had several issues along the way, and although I've had great colleagues who are willing to help me problem solve, I've found trying to make headway with the ipad more of a pain than a pleasure. One problem happened fairly early on when I tried to synch my ipad and my laptop. I lost the books in my library, including the textbook from which I teach. Of course, this happened on a weekend when I was away from Penn State and had no access to the hard copy of the text book. But even so, why have an ebook if it so easily disappears? And why have to worry about synching? (Another colleague warns that she never synchs her ipad
because strange things can happen.) To me, the point of portable devices is their ability to interface with other, less portable devices on which we work.

I've also had lots of issues simply maintaining connectivity while on campus. This makes doing simple tasks, such as sending emails, frustrating and difficult. I once brought my laptop to campus everyday, but the wireless was so spotty at times that I had a hard
time just sending an email. I'm finding, again, that trying to do simple things on the ipad is sometimes made difficult by these connectivity issues.

At this point, I have reverted to lugging my heavy laptop to campus in order to have the type of robust and dependable workstation I need (away from my office PC).

I don't like to be a complainer--no technology is perfect and these are just some challenges that are part of testing something new. But I do think that the ipad represents something that should make our lives easier--something that doesn't take lots of extra time to goof around with before it makes itself largely indispensable. I've found myself
less and less inclined to try to integrate the ipad into my work habits because it generally represents more steps, more "issues," and more time, overall. I assumed that this was not the case with most others using the ipad, but between hearing from some colleagues and
listening to some student feedback from undergrads who participated in the ipad pilot program, I realized that I wasn't alone in this opinion.

It has been fun, at times, to tinker with the ipad, but overall I'm just too busy to have to take extra time out of my day to learn something that doesn't integrate particularly well. And I haven't found things about the ipad that I feel like I can't live without. Even if I had the resources to purchase my own ipad now, I wouldn't have the motivation to do so because it doesn't sufficiently replace other technologies that I depend upon, nor does it represent something so new or needed that it is worth the investment.

Grading on the iPad: When the Files Get Big

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I'm about half-way through grading the fourth set of assignments for the technical writing course: instruction sets. It's going well, but I've had a couple hiccups I want to share briefly.

So far, I've used the following process for student submission and grading:
1. Students use SugarSync to submit their final work into their own "Turned in" folders.
2. I use my laptop to copy individual files from their individual folders and put the copies into a single folder on my private SugarSync account.
3. I open SugarSync on my iPad and opened the files into iAnnotate PDF.
4. I use iAnnotate to grade them, and then email the files with comments back to the students.

This has worked fairly well so far. With one assignment, which was 12-24 pages each, I felt like it would be burdensome to read and respond to such a long document on the iPad, but once I got the hang of it, it was quite easy. For their job application packages, I added the step of me combining their resumes, cover letters, ads, and memos to me into one PDF file using Preview on my laptop, and that worked quite well.

But I've run into a few snags with the instruction sets. These have not been major, but do point to some of the limitations of the current software on the iPad. Because of liberal use of images in instruction sets, students' files are much larger this time, ranging in size from 200kb to 5.5mb. This has led to a few problems:

1. SugarSync sometimes won't open such a large file, or opens it incredibly slowly. This is especially true if the wireless connection isn't that strong. For instance, sometimes I get a screen like this for minutes, where SugarSync just struggles to download a file:

Not helpful. After waiting forever for a few files to open, or having SugarSync crash multiple times, I decided to email the documents to myself and open them into iAnnotate that way. This worked much more quickly. Clearly some apps are not going to play nice with large files, in part because they are designed for working on and storing smaller files.

2. The iPad seems to not like some forms of PDFs for some reason. While most of my students files are rendering fine, one file does not load most of its images in any application on the iPad: SugarSync, Mail, Papers, or iAnnotate PDF. However, the images load fine on my computer. I'll probably grade this one with either a discursive comment alone, or see if I can use Preview on the Mac to make comments.

3. iAnnotate PDF gets a little glitchy with bigger files. It's more likely to crash when files get large, but this hasn't been a huge problem for me. I've mainly started only having one file open at a time, instead of the maximum six, which seems to limit the crashing. A recent update has also allowed it to work with bigger files than before, I think.

4. iAnnotate PDF also doesn't treat all text in PDFs the same. Early in the term, most documents were written on the iPad and made into PDFs on there, so I could highlight text in iAnnotate quite easily. Now, since students are using a variety of platforms to write and export as PDF (Pages on iPad, Pages on Mac, MS Word (2003, 2007, 2008, 2010) on Mac or PC), text is recognized differently and sometimes iAnnotate PDF won't highlight properly. This has not been a huge problem either, but is somewhat of a nuisance visually: sometimes it will only highlight a few letters in a row, or refuses to highlight only a few words and instead highlights an entire row.

These frustrations, however, have been pretty minor. Since I'm only teaching one course, it's probably only added an hour or two of work to this grading cycle. But if I were teaching multiple courses, this could become a bit of a nightmare — at least until I got used to it more.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Posts from Instructors

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Readers of this blog may have noticed that the last six posts, and I wanted to just briefly give them some context. Teachers of technical writing who are in the pilot project have written some blog posts about their thoughts and experiences with the iPad so far. There will probably be a few more posts coming from other teachers. 

Stuart Selber runs a teacher training course for new teachers of technical writing, and we have 11 instructors (grad students and full-time instructors) in the course who have been using the iPad throughout the term. Stuart has asked the teachers to use the iPad to read the textbook (Markel's Technical Communication, 9th edition) on iBooks, to work on their Teaching with Technology portfolios, and to explore other tasks related to teaching. 

So these last six posts come from instructors about their experiences with the iPad after about twelve weeks with the device.

iPad Experience

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Portability and convenience.

I like the portability of the iPad. It fits comfortably in my backpack or laptop case, and I can easily take it with me to campus or to a cafe to do work, answer student e-mails, search the internet, or read articles and books. The iPad reduces the items I have to carry around with me each day. If I want to prepare for teaching away from home or my office, I can take my iPad and leave behind my laptop and my heavy textbook. I have also found that the iPad's battery lasts much longer than the battery on my laptop, which is another factor that makes using the iPad convenient.


More frequently, I read documents, books, and articles on the iPad. I enjoy the zoom functions and the flippable screen, and I particularly like using iAnnotate to read pdf files. I appreciate the functions that allow one to highlight and underline sentences and to write comments in the margins of pdf files.


At times, I have been reluctant to type anything other than e-mails on the iPad, but lately I have been trying to use the iPad to write longer documents. For instance, I have been writing my teaching-with-technology-statement and some lesson plans in Pages, and I am writing this blog post on the iPad as well. All-in-all (with the addition of the attachable keyboard) the iPad functions rather well as a writing tool, though several aspects frustrate me. Occasionally, I find myself trying to use certain shortcuts like "shift + F7" for the dictionary and thesaurus, and "control + B" to bold text, and of course, these features don't work in Pages. And I just find that writing on the iPad takes more time than writing on my laptop. I also wish there was a more nuanced way to name, save, and organize files on Pages--rather than just relying on the automatic-save feature. If one has hundreds of saved documents, as I do on my home and office computers, it seems like without a more advanced organizational system these files would quickly become disorganized and hard to locate.

Conclusion: Ultimately, I've found using the iPad to be an interesting and rewarding experience. That said, I do tend to view the iPad as more of a supplemental tool than a necessary investment. With some adjustment, the iPad seems able to complete many of the same tasks as my laptop, though I would not say that it completes them better or more efficiently, which means I can probably live without one.

The iPad is stylish, technologically advanced, and convenient in many ways. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to use one this semester.

from my iPad

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