This fall, the hit course on some college campuses may very well be iPad 101.
At the University of Maryland, administrators plan to hand out Apple iPads to about 60 students, part of a new two-year program called Digital Culture and Creativity that immerses students in new technologies and focuses on the potential of the iPad to shake up the campus experience.
The iPad has experienced early success in the consumer market, with more than 3 million sold since April, and it's already going back to school.
On college campuses across the country this fall semester, some students are getting iPads upon admission while professors and administrators are trying to determine if this latest digital gadget will have a place in the world of academia, with its dusty libraries and lecture halls.
The College Park program "is really aimed at the student who is a so-called digital native, who grew up doing interesting things online," said Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate English professor and director of the digital cultures program. "The iPad isn't just a tool or instrument for the classroom. It's also going to be an artifact, an object of study."
The iPad isn't even a year old but is expected to popularize tablet computers. Its benefits include a vibrant touchscreen and media presentation, long battery life, and mobile Internet accessibility.
The device, which starts at $499, does not print, which means college students would need to use another computer to produce their college papers. (But why waste the paper, kids? Just email your work to your professor.)
Technology experts and college officials expect the iPad — and other electronic readers and tablet computers yet to debut — to help reshape higher education.
The devices are likely to give an added boost to the growing trend of distance and online learning as people turn to mobile devices to work with other students and teachers outside traditional classrooms, said Gary Brown, who assesses how technology is used in education for Washington State University's Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology.
And educators are curious to learn how well such devices work with online collaborative learning platforms, including Blackboard, and whether they can enable teachers and students to be more closely networked, both inside and outside the classroom. Several colleges and universities have launched experiments with it.
Oklahoma State University is running pilot programs with the iPad. The university is providing about 125 students with the devices, which will be used in a business marketing research class and a communications course.
Tracy Suter, a professor who will be teaching the marketing class, said his students will use the iPad in their field research. They will be able to do conduct surveys and input the information on the iPad while out in the field. A program will automatically tabulate the data. That way students will be able to spend more time interpreting the data rather than doing data entry from paper surveys, he noted.
"It's a really, really great way to expedite the research and take some of the time that's more mundane out of the process," Suter said.
But the tablet computer's biggest impact could be on the market for college textbooks, which typically cost students hundreds of dollars per semester. Increasingly, the pricey, dead-tree editions are being replaced by cheaper electronic versions that students can read and annotate on any electronic device, whether it's a laptop, an e-reader or a mobile phone.
The electronic book market is tiny but growing.
According to a survey this year by the National Association of College Stores, which represents campus bookstores, digital textbooks accounted for only 2.8 percent of $5.8 billion in sales of new, used and electronic textbooks last year, and that's expected to grow to more than 10 percent by 2012. About 15 percent of college courses offered digital textbooks last year, according to NACS.
"This is not the year of the e-textbook," said Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the association. "But we're reaching a tipping point soon."
Other challenges complicate the integration of the iPad and similar devices into university learning. Institutional budgets have been strained during the recession, for instance. And anti-technology attitudes among both older teachers — and even some younger faculty — are a hurdle, Brown said.
"There's still a pretty substantial old guard of faculty, of tenured professors who came up in a system that worked well for them, and there's no incentive to change, and that includes attitudes in use of technology," Brown said. "The tension is still there in academia: Will we use technology effectively?"
In addition to University of Maryland, several other universities are either experimenting with iPads, or are diving headlong into making them a standard for students.
On the Eastern Shore, Washington College in Chestertown is kicking off a small pilot program with the devices for faculty and students this fall.
Nick Smerker, an instructional technologist at the college, said the university has bought several devices and put them in the hands of faculty and staff, and encouraged them to devise ways to use them in the classroom.
"It's much more compelling to get them into the hands of faculty [than students], because one faculty member with a great plan and an iPad can affect 10,15, 20 students enrolled in their class," Smerker said. "It's really just glass or aluminum until a faculty member or staff member has an idea to make it vital to the campus."
In other parts of the country, Duke University is conducting a small experiment with iPads on campus, while George Fox University in Oregon is giving students a choice between iPad or MacBook laptop. Reed College, also in Oregon, will be testing student preferences for either digital textbooks on the iPad or printed textbooks.
The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago is giving all incoming freshmen an iPad. Seton Hill University, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is going even further and providing an iPad, free of charge, to about 1,800 incoming and existing students. Part of the rationale for giving all Seton Hill students an iPad was to encourage students to lighten their backpacks by using e-books, administrators said.
Making use of cutting-edge technology, however, is still uncommon in higher-education learning settings. In fact, Brown said, new technology is often obsolete by the time universities complete studies of its effects in the classroom.
Brown thinks that the iPad and other mobile devices will play an increasing role in education, part of a broader trend in virtual classrooms. As students take more online courses, for instance, that leads to fundamental changes in how teaching is conducted and learning happens.
"More and more people are going to be nontraditional students," said Brown. "That's what's going to change education."