What I Did on My Summer Vacation (with my iPad)


Yes, I’ve been playing with my ipad — and have rediscovered the bad artist that lives inside of me by drawing and doodling things like that picture of my cat, Knipsy, up above. But I’ve mostly been thinking about teaching with it, as the ipad was a gift to all faculty and students at my school….

Here at Seton Hill University, our IT department has been working overtime, distributing new ipads to every student during the first week of classes. Our university was the first, I believe, to announce its decision to empower all its students with a free ipad, as well as a macbook which is supported by their technology fee. Our wireless infrastructure was smartly built in anticipation of supporting this massive load of new user logins, and so far (after the first day) so good.

Happily, the faculty, too, were given ipads at the top of the summer and asked to prepare ways of using it in the classroom. I’ve been doing that, but I’ve also just been playing with it, making it a part of my workflow and daily life. I even had some teaching opportunities this past summer where I was able to dip my toes into the ipad teaching waters, so I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what I did and what assumptions I have going into the class now. (The title of this posting is a little deceiving, sorry…it’s more about the classroom than summer vacationing…)

And many have felt the device might not be ready for university classroom use. Right from the get-go, I realized that the device would be something akin to a portable entertainment player since it’s really built on the paradigm of the ipod touch. Immediately, I worried that my classrooms would forever be altered into some kind of beeping, blorping, video game arcade, in which I would have to vie for my students attention while standing in front of the blackboard, patiently crushing the chalk in my hand into powder. But that’s not the case. The trick to using the ipad lies in taking charge of the equipment and transforming the tablet into a device for creating, not just consuming, texts. And while there are plenty of websites, ebooks, and other texts out there to consume, our goal will be to have students use these as tools, in order to foster creative literacy. Not an easy task, but it should be right up my alley as a creative writing instructor with a mild case of technology fetishism.

Here I display my cat drawing during the summer student ipad distribution

I dipped my toes into the ipad teaching waters first in June, at the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction residency (technically, these grad students were the first class to receive free ipads from Seton Hill — pictured above, where you can just barely make out the image of my cat in the photo). First test: used it as a timer. I used a free LED stopwatch app as a countdown timer when the students gave feedback during workshops. I just tapped the screen, and propped the ipad up on its hinged case so all could see, as digits started counting down the two minutes I’d apportioned each critic. It worked well, because the student could look up and see how much time they had left. But when it reached the last ten seconds an alarm would go off in very annoying way (bip, bip, bip, BIP, BEE-BEE-BEE-BEE-BEE-BEEEEEEP!). This cheesy “the bomb is about to explode” sound effect really threw some critics off and they didn’t like the way it changed the tone of their helpful comments. I >could< have turned the sound off, but that defeats the whole intention of using a stopwatch, really. Free programs that don’t allow you to control these elements come with such problems across the board, from poor aesthetic design elements to rude noises, to simply unwanted advertisements in the margins. But they are functional and can be helpful.

I had two guest lectureships this summer where I dipped further into the ipad teaching waters, going up to my ankles. Both were genre fiction writing workshops, and I taught similar material at both. I used the ipad to organize my thoughts (using an app called Taskpaper, which I like quite a bit) and I enjoyed the whole travel experience with a mobile app. But in the classroom, I used it very timidly for activities.
For the first, Odyssey: The Fantasy Writers Workshop, I planned to play a heavy metal song (the somewhat cheesy but effective “Black Sabbath” by none other than Black Sabbath) using itunes to the class and asked them to collectively identify and analyze all the horror tropes it employs, which I captured on the whiteboard. (There were a metric ton of these tropes — corny stuff can be a good teaching text).

As I was being introduced, I set up the ipad, and accidentally pressed play, interrupting the speaker in a very rude way with an unexpected guitar riff. No big deal, but remembering to turn down the volume before doing such preparatory actions was my first lesson learned. I also learned that the built-in speakers on an ipad are pretty decent and can reach across a classroom fairly well. Exercise: success! I repeated this lesson in the Alpha Science Fiction/Fantasy Workshop for Teen Writers in a larger space and to a bigger crowd, which confirmed it. (The students there seemed much more comfortable with my use of an ipad, which I tried to carry with me everywhere in lieu of a notebook to model the digital professional at work…I read from it, and even took notes from what they were saying on it at one point).
So my first lessons with teaching with ipad — which is a glorified ipod mp3 player at its basest level — were lessons in controlling and employing sounds. Much of the attention has been placed on the visual elements of this device, but the sound is still ever present and very important. I can reach more ears than I can eyes with this thing, unless I’m employing the document projector.

I’ve used sound in the past to shape writing activities, so this wasn’t earth-shatteringly new. I had previously used my laptop to play “nature sounds” using itunes while students prewrite their stories, or to help shape poetry, to good effect and I will probably use these tactics again, in a way which will be much more convenient with a lightweight and portable ipad in tow. And having access to the itunes store on the go can allow me to download sounds and songs if inspiration strikes during a class.

What I haven’t done yet is record my lectures or podcast student work with the ipad. And what’s more important is how the STUDENTS use them. During one of my graduate level workshops, I was appalled when a student began playing a shooter game while another student was giving a critique. Others, however, restored my faith in mankind by calling up information on wikipedia when there was a factual question about setting in one story. As with any technology, it’s how students use it that make all the difference.

Final point: summer is now over and I taught my first freshman writing class yesterday morning. Only half had brought their laptops. They remained dark. No one multitasked during class, no one decided to record the opening discussion, and no one used them to take notes. I was glad they were well-behaved, but I actually put in my syllabus a recommendation for them to bring either the ipad or the macbook to class — whatever input they find most easily and naturally allows note-taking — and for the first time ever a few “app” recommendations appear in my syllabus, underneath the required books. I will try to get us to use these like musical instruments in a band class. I will try to post reflections on these here from time to time, and share related resources and apps I discover, using the tag ipad. There is a lot of experimentation and development going on among virtually all the faculty on my campus right now, so I hope to share what we learn here as well.

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

2 thoughts on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation (with my iPad)”

  1. I think your point about considering the role of sound is so astute – it often ends up being the forgotten mode, but some students are definitely auditory learners. Have you seen the app Writer’s Studio? You can make multimodal books, even recording your own voice or simple music using their instruments. I think this would be a great too, for generating responses to readings, for small group presentations (there is a built in share option that connects to Twitter’s twitpics or youtube), or even for multimodal assignments. I may have my el236 students use it to create a remix. It only costs 99 cents, too.

  2. The iPads are very useful in a crowded computer lab, where students are elbow-to-elbow with classmates and there is little room to prop books open. Of course, with more laptops on campus, I’m hoping we can take a few of those computers out of the labs, leaving spaces for students to use laptops.
    I’m interested in Corkulous (virtual corkboard) for kinesthetic-visual learners, Dragon Dictation, podcasts, and the built-in text-to-speech for the auditory learners, and iAnnotate and iBooks for the textual learners. Laura Patterson’s workshop for freshman writing instructors recommended that we demo several apps during class, and invite students to try out one or two that match their learning style. Could be very useful as a prewriting activity, working against the meme that the iPad is for consumption.

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