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Students and iPads: ACU study shows positive results


The first time I mentioned Abilene Christian University, it was because it was handing out iPhones to students. The next time was a year later when I followed up with an interview about the school's methods and research findings. Its approach to incorporating technology into education was both unobtrusive and highly effective, and it almost made me want to go back to school again. This year, as Mike Rose mentioned a little while ago, the studies go on and the results continue to impress.

Now that the iPad is available, students are being equipped with a rich set of tools that can be used for learning; they can also be used to spend time on social networks, blogging, chatting with friends... all with ACU's blessing. There are no mandates that either teachers or students have to use the iPads. The fact that the iPad is as much a social tool as anything else is something that ACU has embraced, modifying many of its curriculums to work more effectively with the new technology.

Among the students, the approval rating for the program is in the upper 90%, with the highest numbers coming from the youngest classes (100% for the class of 2015). Test scores have been shown to improve markedly (+25%) when notes are taken and texts annotated using the iPad. The numbers are all great, but that's not what really catches my attention about this story.

What's most interesting to me is how the professors at ACU have voluntarily adapted their teaching styles to work with new technologies. The administration has provided all of the tools for a highly social, highly connected environment, and teachers and students alike have taken impressive advantage of the opportunities. The curriculum, as well, has been shifting to include rich media creation as part of everyday learning.

Obviously, the iPad isn't making the difference alone. It's a conduit, a tool for taking advantage of the Internet, a network of friends and a new way of looking at education. Well, not new, really. Thoreau's classroom is in full effect here. In many classes students are interactively building the syllabus, creating the questions and finding the answers. The professors are taking on a new role as "coaches," focusing more on helping students learn to solve problems and answer questions than on rote learning and testing. Some professors have stopped traditional lecturing entirely, and have seen improved comprehension and test results across the board.

In one class at ACU, students spend their class-time in the surrounding communities, armed with iPads, doing service work and solving real-world problems. They are asked to blog their experiences as they happen. Images, thoughts, discoveries and more are all captured in blog form, and the blog ultimately becomes the test.

As an Apple fan, I'm thrilled that the iPad--and the iPhone before it--were chosen to be the center of this program. The technology (including a media creation studio donated by AT&T) shines brightly in this scenario. Without the active support of students, their teachers and the administration, though, the technology would just be a hindrance while the status quo was maintained. It's inspiring to see education taking what is, in my opinion, a very positive leap forward at ACU.

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