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Apple America

Why Canada’s learning technology experts say tech handouts are lackluster

When they enter university, freshman are often told that with all the social and educational opportunities before them, the world is at their fingertips. But, while online educational resources have given new understanding to that phrase, just within the past year it takes on an even more literal meaning.

At Seton Hill, a Catholic liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, the new catchphrase is “An iPad for everyone.” On March 30, the school made headlines as the first in North America to announce it would put the latest Apple touch technology in the hands of its new recruits—at no cost to them. “The iPad will lighten the backpacks of Seton Hill University students,” said president JoAnne Boyle in a release from the school. The school hopes Apple’s iBook application will allow students to ditch the heavy textbooks they lug around, and even make carrying a pen and paper unnecessary.

The initiative is part of the Griffin (the school’s mascot) Technology Advantage the school promotes to entice students. Not only will freshman receive an iPad for the first time this fall, but the school is also handing out brand new 13” Macbooks as part of the all-encompassing technology program, which upper-year students can opt in to for $500 a semester.

And while Seton Hill is the first American institution to announce it would gift iPads this fall, it isn’t the first American institution to offer Apple handouts to new students. In 2008, Abilene Christian University, in Abilene Texas, began offering iPhones or iPod Touch devices to its incoming freshman, citing at the time students’ ability to use them for “homework alerts, answer in-class surveys and quizzes, get directions to their professors’ offices, and check their meal and account balances.”

George Fox University in Oregon also announced it will give first-year students the choice of scoring a new iPad instead of the MacBook the school normally gives out. The price is offset in tuition, but students get to keep their new device when they graduate.

Though it may just be the latest incentive to drive recruitment at some U.S. schools, Canadian students may be feeling left in the digital dark age. With the buzz created over the possibilities of the iPad in academia, the question is whether it will prove to be a valuable education tool. And is the attention the new device is getting south of the border a sign Canadian schools are falling behind in learning technology innovation?

The answer, simply, is ‘No,’ said Ken Coates, dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Waterloo. Coates recently chaired the learning stream of the Canada 3.0 conference on digital media, held in Stratford, Ont.—the birthing grounds of Waterloo’s newest satellite campus designed to house niche programs in digital media and global business. He said even though the traditional approach to education is still a recent memory in the minds of most Canadians, the country isn’t lagging in a race towards digital academic innovation.

“I think we’re pretty much on the curb with other countries,” Coates said. “It’s a hundred yard race, and now we have one foot out of the starting block.” Coates said while there is no doubt students would be happy with the latest Apple technology, the nature of the Canadian university system functions much differently than the for-profit attitudes of some American schools. In fact, he said, the idea of handing out the latest in technology is not a new concept, even to Canadians.

At Acadia University in Nova Scotia, the technology advantage program saw the incorporated use of notebook computers loaned out by the school as part a blended learning approach more than a decade ago.

But, Coates said, the focus for Canada and the 3.0 conference was to take the thousands of projects happening in the country today and collaborate on how to move forward to meet student demands for digital, accessible and virtual learning. “Our country needs to make a huge move into this space if we’re going to be competitive in the 21st century,” he said. But, he said in the process of giving students the learning opportunities they want, the real concern becomes: “Can we ensure that the learning occurs with the level and with the intensity that we expect?”

While university is supposed to encompass a certain aspect of experimentation, the real purpose of higher learning is to be intellectually challenging, Coates said. “Technology lets you do that, but the idea of post-secondary education is that you don’t just turn students over, but you guide them.” And while the iPad is nice piece of hardware, Coates said what’s important to remember when moving learning-specific technology forward is that every program and course can’t be fulfilled by one blanket solution. What might work for teaching an English class won’t suffice for a chemistry lab, Coates said.

The SketchBook Pro app on the iPad may be an advantage for design and arts students, but for chemistry students, beyond displaying the periodic table and other reference matierials, it isn’t an asset for lab work.

Program-specific tech may be the way forward for Canada’s innovators, but Blackboard Inc. mobile developer Aaron Wasserman said offering students the flexibility of having learning materials wherever they are is a growing expectation of today’s student, American or Canadian. “It’s very natural that they would expect to be able to get academic information . . . on-the-go,” Wasserman said. “That is a commonality.”

Still a student at Stanford University, Wasserman developed an iPhone application called iStanford, which provided his peers with at-hand course material, as well as content on school life, such as transit schedules and the latest in campus news. When Blackboard, who specializes in learning management systems in North America acquired Wasserman’s design and expertise, they turned the iStanford model into Mobile Central, so the technology could be retrofitted to schools who sought the system for their students.

But Brian Lamb, manager of emerging technologies and digital content at the University of British Columbia, said while handout technology and mobile apps are impressive, most don’t serve to improve student learning. “They seemed to be geared towards recruitment and student life as opposed to enhancing learning and education,” Lamb said. “They’re shiny and they’re fun to use . . . but I do worry a little bit that we might be reinforcing a new kind of Internet,” Lamb said.

He said in a way, incorporating and investing closed-content devices like the iPad into higher education would not only be a waste of public resources, but would take a step back from open education and nationwide collaboration the federal government promoted and funded in the early 2000s. “When I entered this field in 2002, there really was something like national strategy happening in online learning,” Lamb said. “It would be nice to see something like that again.”

Lamb said these collaborations lost momentum with the Paul Martin administration. After his term in office, in 2006 and 2007, Industry Canada released two strategiesAdvantage Canada and Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage—to enhance science and technology infrastructure and innovation and included a focus on advancing learning in universities.

Industry Minister Tony Clement was a keynote speaker at the Canada 3.0 conference. In his address he announced the country’s newest Digitial Economy strategy, which puts an emphasis on digital technologies. “I don’t need to remind this audience how important these new tools can be—to propelling our economic growth and enhancing our quality of life,” Clement said during his speech at the conference. “Already, these technologies are transforming the way we communicate, run our businesses, conduct commerce. They’re revolutionizing how medical professionals keep us healthy, how research is done and how students learn.”

As far as the gap in technology between Canada and the U.S., Lamb said from his experience at conferences in emerging technology, Canadian institutions usually have a strong innovative presence. “I think Canada stacks up reasonably well,” he said. In some ways, thanks to the smaller number of institutions, Lamb said Canada has greater possibilities to collaborate on best practices in learning technology and learn from one another, an advantage the U.S. doesn’t have. “We can actually know who all each other are,” Lamb said. “And that’s impossible in the United States.”

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