For Seton Hill students and professors, iPads open new paths

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Katie Fritsch, 22, of Allison Park, was one of 300 students to graduate earlier this month from Seton Hill University in Greensburg.

Soon, she will begin a career in graphic design. But she is already among an elite group attracting national attention as the first class at Seton Hill and one of the first universities in the country to use iPads in the classroom.

The university gave each of its 1,850 students a 10-inch touch screen iPad and a 13-inch MacBook Pro laptop this school year.

Ms. Fritsch saw how the iPad helped students in her classes.

"In my art history class, we could look up 40,000 images of paintings on our iPads," she said, "and it had a zoom-in feature that even let you see the brush strokes on the painting. Then you could get more online background on the painting or artist, too."

"In my calculus class, we could use a 2-D and 3-D design program on the iPad," she said. "That saved students from buying an additional device, and we got better designs on the iPad, too," she said.

Students usually can choose whether to take their iPad or laptop to class. Ms. Fritsch used the more powerful MacBook in her advanced graphic design classes. But the smaller, lighter iPad was more convenient to carry for many students since it weighs only 1.5 pounds.

Mary Spataro, director of the Center for Innovative Teaching at the university, said the integration went well.

"Students embraced the device, and a majority of the faculty was very receptive, too.

"We did a survey and found that 66 percent of the students said they used their iPad at least daily," she said.

Dennis Jerz, an English professor, said the iPad helped his freshmen students do the kind of research that isn't usually required.

"In my American Literature class, students were reading a poem," Mr. Jerz said. "One of them asked me what a word meant, and I told them, 'Look it up.' That's so easy on the iPad, and that was the last time a student asked me for the definition of a word. The technology empowered them to look it up."

He also remembers a poignant class at sunset, when students were using their iPads to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Nature," where the author discusses how the beauty of nature causes humans to look into their souls.

Mr. Jerz glanced out the window and saw a fiery-red setting sun.

The students were immersed in reading the text on their iPads, but when they finally looked up they gasped at the sunset's beauty. Mr. Jerz turned out the classroom lights, and the students continued to read the essay on their illuminated iPads -- and reflect on the beauty of nature at the same time.

The iPad touch screen can become a keyboard, so students can easily take notes in class or write a 500-word essay on it, Ms. Spataro said. They aren't ideal for writing long documents or having several windows open at the same time, but they are great for accessing the Internet and highlighting portions of an article.

Still, the iPad doesn't replace all college textbooks.

"The publishing world still has to catch up for that," Mr. Jerz said. "Not all the textbooks we use are available online." But many e-books are available, and some publishers also allow students to lease e-books.

"The faculty often give their students the option of using an e-book," Ms. Spataro said.

Mr. Jerz said that during the first week of school, students used their iPad to access Amazon's preview of the opening chapters of a required book, in case they decided not to take the class.

Mr. Jerz said the iPad has also increased communication between faculty and students.

"I can email a student in class and know that they have immediate access to that email," he said.

"Before we got the technology, we had students who told us they rarely checked their campus email."

Of course, the iPad, like a cellphone, can be a classroom distraction, too.

Students can surf the Internet or check their personal email in class, just as they can with smart phones or cell phones at other schools.

"College students have to make a choice," Ms. Fritsch said. "They are paying for their education, so it's their choice to take advantage of the opportunity."

Ms. Fritsch was student government president and used the iPad often to take notes and communicate with other students by email.

"I just cleaned out some big binders of papers after three years in office," she said. "And I was thinking, 'How did I function with all these?' It's so much easier to pull up an agenda on the iPad."

Integrating the iPad into the classroom didn't happen overnight at Seton Hill.

The university upgraded its computer network and used a Title III federal education grant designed to increase student retention rates to help implement the program.

Ms. Spataro said the faculty underwent extensive training before the school year began and faculty will continue to revisit the best uses for the technology.

Most of the 90 teachers and many of the part-time instructors at the university utilized the new equipment.

The university also provided continual tech support throughout the year, whenever a glitch with the new equipment or network occurred.

"The daily support was almost as important as the new equipment," Mr. Jerz said.

But there's no doubt the iPads changed the face of many classrooms this year.

University administrators have received many inquiries this year about their use of the iPads, as well as national media attention.

Ms. Spataro said officials met last week with Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp., parent company to the Art Institute and other educational schools, to explain how they are using the technology.

"A lot of schools are experimenting with it in smaller, pilot programs, too," Ms. Spataro said.


Debra Duncan, freelance writer; suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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