Teaching an Online Class with an iPad 3G

When the iPad was introduced on January 27, 2010, I wondered if the platform would work in an educational environment. I started tracking online comments and documenting how different people were using the iPad, focusing on problems that were encountered and how success was achieved. 

From its introduction in January, through October of 2010, there were numerous reports of partial and excellent successes using the iPad in a business environment. With that in mind, and with the failure of the laptop computer I used for classroom and online instruction, I took the leap and purchased an iPad with 32GB of memory to replace my laptop. I chose the 3G version because it would allow me to access the Internet when I was outside the range of a Wi-Fi access point. The internal storage memory, coupled with the device's ability to access a cloud repository, provided the rapid document and media retrieval I needed for class support and reference. 

I had an online class scheduled, starting in December 2010, to teach a course on Technology and Innovation Management. It seemed well suited as a pilot to test out my ideas for teaching an online class using the iPad as the instructional platform.

Preparing for the class

Early on, I decided that I would use my primary workstation for instructional design, development, and building the class shell. Once developed, I would deploy the class shell to the iPad and use it for actual instruction. To improve the iPad's functionality in the educational environment, I selected and installed the following third-party apps: 

Dropbox (free, app2.me/127) is a cloud repository for documents and media content. The app requires that you sign up for a free Dropbox account. Based on my experience with my laptop and workstation, I have found this application to be essential to how I work.

LogMeIn Ignition
LogMeIn Ignition ($29.99, app2.me/2425) lets you remotely connect to and control your PC or Mac from your iPad or iPhone. You must install the free version on your desktop and sign up for a free LogMeIn account. This application is critical as it allows me full access to my network and brings the functionality of my workstation to my iPad.

I used LogMeIn Ignition to access my workstation from the iPad.

Blackboard Mobile LearnBlackboard Mobile Learn (free, iPad: app2.me/3711; iPhone: app2.me/3710) works with Blackboard's Web-based teaching and learning software. The app lets you access grades, announcements, discussion boards, course blogs, and other Blackboard content. I tested its functionality from a faculty, not a student, viewpoint. I found that the app is adequate for student use. However, there are still a number of problems in accessing the faculty side of Blackboard.

Blackboard Mobile Learn allowed students to access assignment and other class-related information and materials.

Evernote (free, app2.me/130) allows for cross-platform access of files for all types of media. I used Evernote to build class content and share optional material. I have used this application for over a year and found it essential for managing class and instructional design notes as well as reference material.

Pocket Informant HD ($14.99, app2.me/2575; $12.99, iPhone: app2.me/291) is a task and assignment scheduler synced with Google Calendar. The ability to sync with multiple Google Calendars was the primary selling point for me.

Print n Share ($8.99, app2.me/2479) lets you print to an available networked printer. This capability is highly useful when you're away from the workplace.

GoodReader for iPad ($4.99, app2.me/2924; iPhone: app2.me/2925) is a PDF reader with advanced reading, annotating, markup, and highlighting features. It includes a file manager, text file reader and editor, an audio/video player, and a Safari-like viewer for MS Office and MS Works files. Students send me documents in a variety of formats, and this app facilitates my response.

DocumentsToGo Office Suite ($9.99, app2.me/128) is an all-in-one app that views and edits Microsoft Word and Excel documents and views PDF files and Apple iWork documents. It includes a desktop application for PCs and Macs that provides two-way file synchronization. The Premium version ($16.99, app2.me/286) supports PowerPoint viewing and editing, and supports Google Docs, Box.net, Dropbox, and iDisk.

Pages ($9.99, app2.me/2412) is the iOS version of the popular Mac word processor. It lets you create documents or import Pages and MS Word docs via Mail, MobileMe iDisk, or a WebDAV server.

Numbers ($9.99, app2.me/2480) is the iOS version of the Mac spreadsheet program, allowing you to create or import Numbers '09, MS Excel, or CSV files.

Keynote ($9.99, app2.me/2481) lets you create presentations or import Keynote '09 or PowerPoint presentations. With some planning, it lets you use the iPad for slide presentations.

Noterize ($3.99, iPad only: app2.me/3228) allows you to take digital and freehand notes. In addition, you can view and annotate PDF or PowerPoint documents. Any note can be distributed via Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs, BoxNet, Dropbox, and e-mail. VGA out and mirroring capability lets you connect to a projector or monitor to display supported document types.

Google Docs (docs.google.com/m) can be accessed online by iOS devices. The university I'm associated with uses Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar as the preferred collaboration tools.

Teaching the class

By the time the class began, the class shell had been developed on the workstation, and the administrative and policy documents and instructional content had been loaded into the pre-approve Blackboard 9 classroom shell (blackboard.com). Blackboard is a suite of tools that lets you engage students in exciting new ways and reach them on their terms and devices—like the iPad.

The content of the class was then made available to students; it included announcements, syllabus, course map, assignments, discussion questions, exams and quizzes, course documents, and ancillary material. Note that adaptive releases were set to make certain content available on specific dates and for defined periods of time. My plan was to use the iPad for class instruction, but to have my dual monitor workstation available as a backup. 

To access the class shell and content stored online in Blackboard 9, I started out using Blackboard Mobile Learn 1.1 on my iPad. Unfortunately, this initial release of the app did not play well with the iPad. Version 2.0 of the app was released on December 18, 2010, and it cleared the most of the obvious problems with access and display. However, Blackboard Mobile Learn still needs development to work better with the variety of server setups found in different universities. As is, it's only marginally usable for the instructor.

Blackboard OnlineThe iPad version of Safari was still having problems dealing with some of the Java Script used in Blackboard 9. I tried a number of third-party browsers for the iPad, all to no avail. Fortunately, the Skyfire Web Browser for iPad ($3.99, app2.me/3712; iPhone version, $1.99: app2.me/3713) cleared most of the display problems the students and instructors were having.

Accessing Blackboard online using Skyfire's Web browser in desktop mode worked better.

Accessing Blackboard's features with a Web browser was a slightly better experience than with the app. The day-to-day interactions with the students improved with the release of Skyfire and some changes made to the university servers. (Tip: Run Skyfire in "Desktop Mode" on the iPad; it clears up a number of small issues relating to page changes, rendering, etc.) 

Other than some problems I had with faculty-specific functionality in Blackboard 9 (i.e., treatment of JavaScripts and frames) the instructional process went well. My work-around for the Blackboard 9 problems was to invoke LogMeIn Ignition to access my workstation from the iPad over the Internet using a Wi-Fi access point, when available. I also connected to my workstation over AT&T's 3G network; response times have been acceptable.

Lessons learned/changes made

The rapid evolution of the iPad grabbed my attention. Updates to the operating system and native apps, improvements to existing third-party apps, and the ongoing release of new apps continue to enhance its functionality. For example, the recent release of iOS 4.3 improved Safari's performance. A side effect of the enhancements was an improvement of the speed and functionality of the third-party Skyfire Web Browser. I was also impressed with the improved stability of LogMeIn Ignition on the iPad during remote access to my server. LogMeIn Ignition, coupled with Dropbox, gave me everything I needed to function in a remote, non-office environment.

I access Google Docs from my iPad through its mobile site (docs.google.com/m), which was designed for iOS and other mobile devices. It's highly functional on the iPad. I use this functionality every day, as the universities I'm associated with use Google Docs, Google mail and Google Calendar as the preferred collaboration tools. Google Calendar has replaced Pocket Informant HD as my task and assignment scheduler. The big plus for using Google Docs is the ability to share with the class. I still use Pocket Informant HD as my central calendar for academic research projects, consulting, and non-professional activities. However, I wirelessly sync and share a number of Google Calendars with my colleagues, task teams, family, and friends, all of which are summarized in Pocket Informant HD.

Expectations exceeded to date

This first test using the iPad for online instruction exceeded my expectations. I was impressed with how easy it was to implement and use third-party apps designed specifically for the iPad. In addition, I appreciated the iPad's instant-on capability. It allowed me to access the resources I needed quickly, and increased the time I am able to spend mentoring each student.

I intend to continue using an iPad as my portable repository of data, textbooks, reference material (in all media formats), class notes, and instructional material in support of my classes, regardless of whether they are taught online or in a classroom. I expect that with existing and updated apps, coupled with future hardware enhancements, the iPad will continue to improve its functionality for teaching, academic research, and ongoing professional activities. 

Best Practices for undergraduate and graduate education 

By the time you read this, I will be teaching a Computer Science "blended" class, which integrates the traditional classroom environment with structured online instructions. The blended class will be running in conjunction with two on-line classes using Blackboard as the instructional platform. 

This will allow me to do side-by-side comparisons, in real-time, of the iPad's functionality across multiple instructional environments and its ability to interface with differing instructional software. My goal is to carefully document all the iPad's positive and negative attributes and functionality across all of the traditional and non-traditional teaching methods. This data will be used to identify the iPad's "Best Fit" across the educational domain. I expect the results of this research to be the start of an evolving "Best Practices Set" for the iPad's use in undergraduate and graduate education.

September-October 2011
TOC Weight: