College Study Habits and the iPad: Will it Help or Hurt?

Published: Aug 11, 2010

 Education       Grad School       

A few months ago, I wrote an article about how the Kindle fared on college campuses. The Kindle's introduction into the classroom was met with complaints from its users, and I wondered at the time if the iPad might have been a better choice. Turns out, I wasn't the only one.

Will iPads help or hurt studying?Both Seton Hall University and George Fox University "plan to give or phase in iPads for most students starting this fall," says USA TODAY. "At a ceremony Friday, each member of the UC Irvine School of Medicine's incoming class of 2014 received not only the traditional white coat, but also a shiny new iPad, pre-loaded with everything necessary for the first year of course work." The article also mentions other schools, like Reed College and North Carolina State University, who intend to try out the iPad in one way or another.

But are iPads in the classroom a good thing?

Obviously, few students are complaining about the new plan. Regardless of whether or not students will actually use the devices to study, iPads are definitely fun to play with. That said, given that the point--at least for the colleges and universities supplying the e-readers--is to facilitate school work, many are wondering if the iPad is the way to go. And for good reason. As I mentioned in my earlier post, there are many downsides to using the iPad as a study tool:

The iPad doesn't have e-paper technology, meaning it can't be read easily outdoors; it only has 10 hours of battery life, as compared to a full week for the Kindle; and it has zero annotation tools built in. There might soon be an application to address the third concern, but that doesn't erase the first two.

The iPad, in other words, is already less than perfect in that it lacks certain capabilities. But that's not the end of potential complaints. Add to that the point made by Mary Beth Marklein of USA TODAY, and the picture becomes a bit more interesting. Some of the iPad's positive capabilities--the ability to check Facebook, surf the internet, all that--have a negative effect on student's study skills. It comes as little surprise that comprehension decreases as distractions increase; yet the fact that this hasn't really entered the discussion (I am obviously also guilty of the omission) makes it worth talking about now. From Marklein's piece:

A host of research over the past decade has shown that even the option to click hyperlinks to related material can create confusion and weaken understanding. One study found reading comprehension declined as the number of clickable links increased. A 2005 review by researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, of 38 studies found "very little support" for the idea that all those links to additional information enrich the reader's experience. A 2007 study published in Media Psychology raised similar concerns about add-ons such as sound and animation.

The online environment "promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning," argues Nicholas Carr, who raises concerns about the long-term implications in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain, which was published in June. "The danger is you don't encourage people to think critically and, ultimately, you don't encourage them to think creatively."

Basically, e-readers can do scads of things: they can minimize waste from printing and using regular textbooks; they can cut student costs by a significant margin; and they can take a load off, literally, by making it so that each student only has to carry around one thing for every course. But the problem with them isn't just that the study tools you're used to--like highlighting and annotating--won't be as good; it's also that you can actually end up, much like laptops and, really, anything else that connects to the internet, hurting both your productivity and the quality of your work.

At the risk of sounding reactionary and horribly backwards, it may be time to revert to the pen-and-paper learning that characterized those romping days of our youths. It wastes trees, yes, but mixing tools of procrastination with honest-to-goodness work is an increasingly difficult balance to strike. Individual preference will always be king when it comes to studying, but maybe it's best to just suck it up, stuff your backpack to the gills and lug it around campus.

--Written by Madison Priest