iPads Boost Learning In The Classroom
December 5, 2013

Harvard-Smithsonian Study Says iPads Can Help Students Learn

[ Watch the Video: iPads Can Be A Useful Classroom Tool ]

Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

There’s not exactly an app for it, but according to researchers, the iPad can actually help some students learn science. The tablet computer apparently helps students better grasp some nuances of science better than traditional classroom instruction.

This is according to a new study by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

One example of how the iPad could be used is in judging the scale of the universe. While traditional classrooms may use a basketball to represent the Earth and a tennis ball for the moon, most students find it hard to believe that the scale would put the balls nearly 30 feet apart! With an iPad’s 3D simulation, students are actually able to grasp the unimaginable emptiness of space much better.

This study was conducted as educators are increasingly faced with the issue of whether tablet computers have a place in the classroom. The findings suggest that the iPad – as well as other tablet computers – could improve the students understanding of challenging scientific concepts such as astronomical scale.

“These devices offer students opportunities to do things that are otherwise impossible in traditional classroom environments,” said the study’s leader Matthew H. Schneps in a statement. “These devices let students manipulate virtual objects using natural hand gestures, and this appears to stimulate experiences that lead to stronger learning.”

The study, which will be published in the January 2014 issue of Computers and Education, had Schneps and his colleagues consider gains in learning amongst 152 high-school students who used iPads to explore simulated space, and compared the findings to 1,184 students who relied on the more traditional classroom approaches. The researchers further focused on questions that were dominated by strong misconceptions including the understanding of scale in space.

The researchers reported that most traditional approaches produced less gain in understanding, whereas the iPad classrooms reported strong gains in understanding. Students also reportedly struggled with concepts of scale when learning ideas in biology, chemistry, physics and geology. This suggested that the iPad-based simulations could be beneficial for teaching concepts in many other scientific fields that go beyond astronomy.

The study further highlighted that student understanding improved with as little as 20 minutes of iPad use, and that combined with guided instruction with the devices it could produce even more dramatic gains in overall student comprehension.

“While it may seem obvious that hands-on use of computer simulations that accurately portray scale would lead to better understanding,” added Philip Sadler, a co-author of the study, “We don’t generally teach that way.”

Instead he said all too often instruction has made use of models and drawings that often distort the scale of the universe.

This he said “leads to misconceptions.”

However, further research might be required before this own study creates any misconceptions.

“The results of the Smithsonian/Harvard research are certainly interesting, but the study also sparks some questions yet unanswered, including how computer simulations that accurately portray scale might be applied to other areas, how much experience with touch enabled tablets and phones the participants had prior to the experiments, and whether the results were particular to the device – tablet - or manufacturer – Apple – involved,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told redOrbit. “Overall, I’d say the project offers hope for new, potentially beneficial avenues to explore in the study of certain sciences. However, I also believe we'll see additional, related studies that deliver more detailed, finely-grained results.”

The students in the iPad study attend Bedford High School, in Bedford, Mass., which is currently just one of a few school systems around the country that now equip all the students with an iPad tablet device. The school has reported that it has also seen improvements with students beyond the Smithsonian-Harvard study.

“Since we began using iPads, we have seen substantial gains in learning, especially in subjects like math and science,” said Henry Turner, principal at Bedford High School.