No Textbooks, Just iPads

Lynn University is putting its two-year common-core curriculum entirely on the iPad mini

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Tablets are changing the world of computing in lots of ways—they’re cutting into the markets for laptops and e-readers both; they’re clearly the direction that newspaper and magazine publishers need to pursue; and they’re already babysitters of our toddlers par excellence pace a Spectrum feature less than a year ago that claimed that smartphones would play that role.

There’s also been a lot of talk of tablets replacing textbooks on college campuses. But despite a lot of talking the talk, there’s been very little walking the walk. One institution taking some firm strides down that path is Lynn University, a private school of about 2000 students in Boca Raton, Florida, where it’s a balmy 77 degrees Fahrenheit on a February afternoon, not that I’m envious.

If Lynn University is known at all to the outside world, it’s probably for having hosted the third U.S. presidential debate last year. But beginning this fall, it should gain some fame for requiring students to get an iPad mini, which the school will load up with everything needed for its common core curriculum. As the site Inside Higher Ed noted in a January article, “Lynn is not the first university to experiment with the iPad,” but “Lynn’s initiative…appears to be unique in that it draws on a custom-designed curriculum. And like the curriculum, iPad use at Lynn will be standardized across classes.”

My guest today is Lynn University’s vice president for academic affairs, Gregg Cox—that’s Gregg with two g’s. His background is fortuitously close to our corner of the academic world; he’s also a 30-year veteran professor of mathematics there. He joins us by phone.

Gregg, welcome to the podcast.

Gregg Cox: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: Gregg, I gather that Lynn came to the iPad solution through a confluence of events and circumstances that include a complete overhaul of the common core curriculum that began in 2006, a providential meeting with Apple, and the aforementioned presidential debate. Let’s take them in turn, starting with the core curriculum.

Gregg Cox: Okay. Yes, in about 2006, we completely redesigned our core curriculum, and what we have now is really a 60-credit core that spans all four years of a student’s undergraduate education. And when we did that, we formulated courses which are common courses. They’re in five basic domains: self and society, belief and reason, justice and civic life, quantitative reasoning, and the scientific literacy. And what we’ve done is we’ve pulled together text pieces, video pieces, and we’ve compiled our own textbook for three of those sets of courses: the self and society, justice and civic life, and the belief and reason.

Also in the fall, we’re launching our quantitative reasoning series, so we’ve already had the content basically we’ve been accumulating over the past four years, and that seemed to make it a reasonable approach to launch the iPad initiative.

Steven Cherry: I should mention that my alma mater, Geneseo College, has a powerful and deep common core curriculum, and it’s made it the jewel in the crown of the State University of New York system, so you have my best wishes for that. All right, so you and some other Lynn officials happened to be at Apple, this was last year? What were you there for, and what happened?

Gregg Cox: Well, what happened was, backing up a little before, our president had been there with another group and was invited back to bring some folks from Lynn University. So back in September of 2011, a group of us went out to Apple and we talked to them, we talked to their educational department, we were very impressed with sort of their thought leaders. We talked to them pretty extensively about challenge-based learning, and we made the decision while we were out there to launch a pilot the following January.

So we actually did some faculty training using iPads in December of that year. We took about 20 faculty, gave them an iPad, then during our January term, we had them using the iPads for the January course that we call the “citizenship project,” which is required of all freshmen. We did some analysis after that, and we found that not only were those students in the iPad courses more engaged, but their learning was actually increased, so we were pretty excited about that.

Again in the spring semester that year, we continued using the iPads. We found the same thing to be true in semester-long courses, so then we sort of made the decision that we were going to do this. We didn’t really have the infrastructure to support it, but coincidentally we hosted the presidential debate, as you mentioned in October of 2012, which caused us to really upgrade our infrastructure, and we said, “Aha, now we have what we need,” so we made the decision to launch the iPads next fall.

And then last week a bunch of us went back to Cupertino to sort of update Apple, to let them know what we were doing. And they, in turn, are helping us along in terms of our faculty development, because since then we’ve given iPads to all our faculty, and we’re spending lots and lots of hours during this spring term helping faculty learn how to use the iPad in the classroom.

Steven Cherry: So wouldn’t the full-size iPad do better? Why did you go with the mini?

Gregg Cox: Price. The mini is about US $150 less. It has actually the same operating system and the same storage capacity as the full-size iPad. In fact, I guess it’s a matter of taste. At my age you would guess that I would prefer the full-size iPad because it’s a little larger and maybe I could see it better, but I actually think I like the mini a little bit better because it’s very convenient. Believe it or not, if you don’t have a case on it, you can slip it in the inside coat pocket of a jacket or a sport coat.

Steven Cherry: So will all the assignments be done electronically? And will there be any electronic grading?

Gregg Cox: Oh, yes. We use something called LiveText with all of our students. That’s our way of collecting assignments. We’re also on Blackboard, and, you know, you can run assignments through Blackboard, but with LiveText what we do is that we collect assignments, and that’s really how we assess student progress. We can, for instance, you can randomly pull, say, 25 essays out of 500 freshman essays, and we will have a group of maybe three faculty who will independently grade those essays. So we will, number one, make sure our grades are truly reflective of what the students are doing, but number two, we can measure student progress. So, yes, they’ll be sending everything through their iPad mini.

Steven Cherry: Now, for my part, when it comes to actually doing an assignment, I’d rather work on a computer than a tablet. Is that possible here?

Gregg Cox: Well, it certainly is. You can certainly work on it on a computer. You can send it to yourself, to your iPad. You can download it through your email, you know, there are lots of ways to do it. Right now I still think personally that the iPad, that the tablet platform, is really more of a consumption tool than it is a creation tool, and so I would agree with you that I still think students will want and will have their laptops or, well, we don’t see a lot of desktops anymore, but I still think they will use that as their production tool.

Steven Cherry: We had several shows in the past year about online courses and hybrid online courses. We also had one show about open-source textbooks. It sounds like all the material you’re using is generated within Lynn University, but have you looked at open sourcing any of that stuff or using other people’s open-source stuff?

Gregg Cox: Oh, absolutely. And that’s what we’ve got the faculty actually looking at now. The manager of the bookstore doesn’t like to hear me talk about it, but I would like to see the day when our bookstore sells basically coffee and T-shirts and mugs, and the textbook is really a thing of the past. Because I think there is enough material out there, primary source material, that you can link students to.

But certainly the open-source textbooks, the MOOCs if you will, I mean, right now that’s kind of an untapped market that we can send our students to. I mean, you’ve got a world-famous philosopher talking about something, hey, why not send your students there and then you can come back to class and discuss it.

Steven Cherry: Now, you’re also installing Apple TV in all the classrooms. What’s that for?

Gregg Cox: So that the faculty can basically stand there, or the students with their iPad, and they can do all the presentations on the TV. So it’s like PowerPoint. There’s any number of apps that you can download. Some are fancier than others, but with Apple TV, all you need is the wireless and the iPad in the room, and students can do their presentations the same way. So, Apple TV…the first time I heard about Apple TV I thought it was an actual TV. I didn’t realize it was a tiny device that you hook onto your monitor, or in our cases, it will be the screens in the classrooms.

Steven Cherry: So that’s a pretty significant involvement with Apple, and you’ve had various meetings where you’re advising them or they’re advising you. Has Apple been subsidizing any of this or helping out in any other way?

Gregg Cox: No, unfortunately not. Apple gives us the same, I suppose it’s an educational discount, that they give other institutions, and that is, for instance, if you buy 10 at a time, they give you a $20 discount on each iPad or iPad mini. But other than that, there’s really been no subsidy, although they have provided training.

You know, back in December of ’11, they provided the training, and all we really paid for was kind of the room and board for the person that was here. And we’ve also got Apple people coming during the spring term, and basically we’re just paying their costs. We’re not really paying them per se to do it, so in that sense they certainly are being helpful to us.

Steven Cherry: So Android makes for a more open and programmable environment, and there are some nice Android phones. Has there been any pushback from students or faculty who would prefer it to iOS?

Gregg Cox: Well, we heard that a little bit from some faculty in the very beginning, but the thing that I hear back is, and I have faculty who already had other tablets, and what they said to me was that this tablet is very intuitive, the Apple product is very intuitive. They said, really, within five minutes I was perfectly comfortable maneuvering with going and finding apps, with using apps that are already on there, because we preloaded them with some apps, you know, for our faculty. So I think, to me, that was the most surprising part. So we really haven’t had a lot of pushback about that, and I know with students we may hear the same thing: “Gee, I’ve got my Android. Why do you want me to use this?” And, of course, our answer is that we need everybody on the common platform for what we’re going to do.

Steven Cherry: And I know if my daughter were starting college again tomorrow, I’d be putting a Chrome book in her backpack to take to class. Did you think about them at all?

Gregg Cox: We did. But, again, we didn’t feel like at the time we were doing all this that the…you know, it was so new, particularly back then. It just didn’t exist, and we kind of felt like, well, we need time. We need time with whatever we’re going to adopt. And, I mean, we may use the iPad, and in two years we may switch to some other platform. I mean, we’re certainly not wedded to a device. I think what we’re committed to doing is using a lot of tablet technology to enhance our courses.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I guess all of the other work you’re doing is the important stuff, and the actual device interface is the least of it. It’s easy to imagine, at least for most of us, every student with an iPad open in front of them, that being kind of diverting a student’s attention in class. But I gather you think of it sort of the reverse?

Gregg Cox: I do. I actually think it’s kind of like, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Look, we know that when we’re teaching classes, whether they have their iPhone out or their iPad out or their laptop out, we know there are students there who are really going to Facebook, who are texting, who are doing other things. So my philosophy to faculty is this: Tell them to make sure to bring their iPad with them, because we’re going to use the iPads in class. We’re all going to go to a website. We are all going to search for something, and the first one that finds it is going to help the rest of us, and kind of turn the tables on them and say, “My gosh, I don’t have time to go onto Facebook. The guy’s making me use this for something else.”

[The following section is omitted from the audio]

Steven Cherry: One last question: Lynn University has more than its fair share of students with learning disabilities. In fact, I gather it’s sort of a specialty of yours. Tell us about that, and do you think that the iPad use will be a plus or a minus for that population?

Gregg Cox: Okay, good. About 20 years ago, actually, our previous president recognized that there was a need in higher education to help students who learned differently. So 20 years ago, we really started what has become the Institute for Achievement and Learning. And those are students with diagnosed learning disabilities—certainly academically capable, but as you know, they learn differently.

And what we find is that the iPad, we’ve actually been using it with some of the institute kids—well, I shouldn’t call them kids, but I do—for the last couple of years. In particular, we use an app over there which helps the students to organize, because we really find that the students that, what they call those “executive functioning skills” are sort of a weakness for a lot of students, whether they’re dyslexic, or whatever the case may be, ADHD. And so with this organizing tool held right on their iPad, it really helps them to organize, it helps them to plan their day, it helps them to plan their assignments, to study for tests, and things like that.

So, in fact, we’re going to spend some time with the entire faculty, training them on the use of that app so that we can put that app on all the iPads for the freshmen in the fall and have our faculty go in and actually show them how to use it.

You know, what we’ve found in the last 20 years is that all of those techniques that we do require our faculty to really learn, which are techniques particular to helping students with learning differences, guess what? Those techniques help everybody. They help all students. So it’s kind of a win-win for us and our students.

[End of section omitted from audio.]

Steven Cherry: Well, Gregg, the college experience is near and dear to a lot of us, whether we’re facing it next year or paying for it or just remembering it fondly. So if you’re readying for the fall semester with a bit of trepidation, as well as excitement for the way you’re experimenting with it, I think we all share those feelings with you and wish you the best of luck.

Gregg Cox: Well, thank you, thank you. And thank you for having me on.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Lynn University vice president for academic affairs Gregg Cox about the school’s bold push to put its two years of common core curriculum out of print and onto the iPad.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 7 February 2013.

Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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