As the Australian academic year got under way late last month, a South Australian university became the first in the world to give an Apple iPad to all its first-year science students as part of a curriculum shake-up. Meantime, other universities are also changing their teaching through the use of new technology but perhaps not so generously as Adelaide.
"I believe the iPad will revolutionise the way science is taught at the University of Adelaide," says Professor Robert Hill (pictured), executive dean of science and initiator of the Apple iPad roll-out.
"We will be the first university in Australia to teach science using iPads to an entire cohort of students in this innovative way - and the first in the world to provide such a large number with an iPad."
Apple launched the touch-screen tablet computer less than a year ago yet the 680-gram machine is already having a profound impact on education around the globe. Schools, colleges and universities are using the iPad's audio-visual platform, wi-fi links and array of apps to transform student learning - and not only in Adelaide.
Hill says the teaching material available to students on their iPads for all 22 bachelor degree science courses will be "more accessible, more relevant and more frequently updated, providing the flexible learning environment students are looking for".
He says all 700 first-year students, including 70 from overseas, will use the iPad as one of their core learning tools and believes this will profoundly affect their educational experiences. It will also eliminate the load of books they would otherwise have had to carry: instead of half a dozen weighty science tomes, students will turn to the e-books tucked away in their tablet computers.
"Many students, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, cannot afford to spend $1,000 buying the five or six science textbooks we set each year and that is wrong," he says. "I'm trying to give everyone out there an equal financial chance to come to university and this is a major project to free us from textbooks as we develop our own material and put it online."
Hill estimates the cost to the science faculty for the iPads will be at least AUD600,000. But if this year's trial is a success, he plans to continue providing the Apple mini-computer to future freshers while other deans closely watching the trial may also do the same.
"Like many universities, we believe our research informs our teaching so we have redefined the science curriculum and introduced the iPad. We identified 10 big questions and have now rewritten the first year curriculum so when a new topic comes up, it will be tagged to at least one of those questions to show the relevance to students."
Those 'big questions' range from how the universe began and how reliance on fossil fuels can be reduced to alleviate climate change, feeding the world sustainably and the nano-science revolution.
Hill says all science lectures are recorded and student notes and other material are available on the internet, where students can access them on a computer. But now they can download the material to their iPads instead of spending days arranging pages on a university computer, printing them out - and wasting a lot of paper in the process.
He sees the iPad as having a special role in laboratory and practical classes where its "fantastic applications" will enable students to replay live science experiments and manipulate complex data while interacting with the lecturer and with each other.
"This will change the class from a talking head at the front to a situation where the teacher coordinates what is happening and where the students are interacting with each other. The lecturer can see what is going on via his or her screen, watching students trying to answer each other's questions and intervening if necessary so it becomes much more of a team effort."
Hill suggests the biggest contribution of the iPad will be the way it boosts student exchanges. He sees this as a new form of pedagogy and says lecturers are being inducted into the method.
"Another big issue for our lecturers is that students come to us from far more diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities. That makes it hard to know what their starting points are and that is where the iPad can assist: we are developing material students can access on their iPads in advance of a class so they can then provide feedback and teachers will know beforehand what they can and can't do."
According to Hill, none of his colleagues in other science faculties around Australia are considering following Adelaide's lead. Nonetheless, iPads, clickers, screencasts and tablet PCs are among the array of new technological devices that are being adopted by lecturers and their students at other universities.
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