Given the amount of money involved in investing and supporting technology for use by students, it makes sense for there the be pilots and evaluations of how students actually use this technology.
What follows is a summary of an incredibly unscientific sample of two studies focused on how students use iPads in class, and what advantages and drawbacks are recognized by those students. One study concerns Reed College (H/T @rogoway and @exprima) in Portland, Oregon and the other concerns Chatham College in Pittsburgh (H/T Chronicle of Higher Education, which also addresses Reed College).
Where reading and using texts is concerned, the advantages over paper that you might expect are certainly there. Much less paper is printed, battery life makes an iPad (or Kindle) more convenient than a laptop, and the nature of a tablet device makes interaction easier. The authors of the Reed study are persuaded that new tablet devices coming out will help push this kind of e-reader into more hands, though they have some concerns about whether or when all students will have access to the devices.
There are two areas of concern. As the Chronicle piece notes, written work on the touch screen is not as smooth or as effective for the students as a traditional keyboard. The Reed study focused on the reading function of the iPad, though it listed the multi-functionality of the device as an advantage. Annotating can be done with the help of certain programs and the availability of readings in PDF format.
Related to this is the issue of available electronic content. While e-books in the non-text arena are more plentiful, they still focus on relatively popular titles, and there’s not a lot of back catalogs available at the moment. This issue is currently more pronounced for texts, which are both more expensive and usually more obscure than books that spent some time on a bestseller list. Arguably that gap will close after tablet devices become more affordable and more usable for students.
If there’s a clear lesson from any of this, it’s that hardware is rarely the only solution to a problem, or the only means of making something ‘easier.’ That and touchscreens have a ways to go to be useful for more than typing text messages and emails. In the meantime, I would not be surprised to see styluses to play a role in some tablet devices (or an honest-to-goodness tablet computer)