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The iPad and the Abbey

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iPad Tablet (Photo courtesy of Apple.com) iPad Tablet (Photo courtesy of Apple.com)

There is often a sense of alarm, or at least discomfort, associated with the introduction of a new form of technology into the educational sphere. The question is raised as to whether or not it will be a help or a hindrance to the interest of learning. This has been the latest discussion at Belmont Abbey College, where the administration has decided to grant each incoming, traditional Freshman an iPad2 of his or her own.


Dr. Lucas Lamadrid, Dean of Student Affairs, states “As an admissions idea I wondered whether giving the traditional aged freshmen an iPad would make a difference in having prospective students look at the college. My goal was to have the prospect take a second or third look. I inquired among the current students in a rather informal way and they said that it would make a great difference.” The iPads are to be funded by the tuition deposits of prospective students who have decided not to attend the college. Dr. Lamadrid trusts that “if it helps students to come to the Abbey, to learn at the Abbey, to pray and grow at the Abbey, then it is a positive development.”

However, it seems to be the concern of Dr. Travis Cook, Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy, that the iPad2 will prove to be too much of a distraction for students: “I have two worries: Firstly, will they be toys? And secondly, have we thought enough about the job for which the tool is to serve?” For Dr. Cook, “Technology has its purposes built into it,” and the purposes which the iPad2 is built to accomplish may not be completely relevant to the purposes of liberal education: “If we are talking about a different kind of book, that's one thing, but if we are talking about a multi-media tool: email, texting, and, oh! by the way, textbooks – that would be insufficient reasoning for me.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Cook is not entirely opposed to the iPad2 as an educational aid: “Using an Ipad, which I have had the luxury of doing very recently at a conference, helped me read PDF documents more conveniently than printing them out. … For me, it could be a help,” and Dr. Al Benthall, Assistant Professor of English, comparing the use of the iPad as a tool to the use of writing as a tool, says, “Even Socrates says … that there's nothing inherently wrong with writing, as long as the text is discussed and interpreted by the living voice of one who understands how to read it aright. … Can modern technologies eclipse wisdom and lead people astray? Absolutely. Need they do so?  Absolutely not. Much will depend on how we develop and apply the virtues of temperance, prudence, and ultimately wisdom.” Dr. Benthall also quotes Marshall McLuhan, a “media critic and Catholic convert,” who wrote, concerning a similar issue, “To raise a moral complaint about this is like cussing a buzz-saw for lopping off fingers.”
Other questions arise. Need a liberal arts institution such as the Abbey provide its students with this technology, or will it arrive on its own? What are the exact benefits of this move for education in the liberal arts? According to sophomore Darren Balkey, “I think it's neutral. All technology … is contingent on the user. We aren't going to give away iPads and instill great study skills, but I'm not going to say that people won't be able to access information more quickly. With proper discipline, you have a great asset to the classroom.” On the other hand, Frank Spicer, also a sophomore, sees it “as a form of bribery, an extra incentive to come to this school: 'We'll give you this'. I see it as a major distraction because it offers so many other outlets that don't have to do with education.” Other students expressed a half-joking indignation, wondering when they would get their free iPads.
Similar circumstances in the public school system make Mark Webster, Director of Technology and Learning for the Colonial Heights district in Virginia, unsure of the prudence of the Abbey's initiative from a financial standpoint: “I commend the college for doing this, but I think it's still early in the game. This technology is still very immature. Windows 8 will be a tablet OS, and Apple is still developing technology.” Remembering the short lifespan of the palm pilot, Mr. Webster encourages circumspection as regards jumping on the high-tech bandwagon: “it may not be cost effective once the next thing or the next generation comes in.” There is also the issue of the individual teacher's familiarity with the product, if it is to be formally used: “We gave a lot of our administrators and a lot of Special Education teachers iPads, but folks still use their laptops. They can't necessarily be creative with their iPads. As a productivity tool, I question its use.”
The majority of the concern surrounding the arrival of the iPad2 on campus relates to the college's mission of education in “mind, body, and spirit.” The goal of the liberal arts is to teach universal and transcendental truths, and many wonder what real effect this new tool will have on the college environment. For Dr. Lamadrid, “The iPad is a tool. In and of itself it will not make you smarter, more virtuous, or holier. Neither will a book accomplish such feats. But if the student is well-formed and uses the iPad well, it can help one along the journey.” But should this decision rest on such a contingency as a student's prior formation? Currently, professors experience problems in the classroom with the misuse of laptops and cellphones. Dr. Cook says, “I don't believe it will always be used well or wisely. I do fear it will seldom be used well or wisely. The temptation for new distraction is too strong. … I've also had very fine students – good students – I've had to correct for misusing technology in the classroom. I've had poor students, after being corrected a number of times, text under the table.” What kind of hold the iPad2 will take in classrooms at the Abbey will be seen next Fall when students enter the building, iPads in hand.


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