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David Hinderaker is no stranger to time management. He is studying for an EMBA in Philadelphia while working full-time for a distribution company in New York. So it is not surprising that he was enthusiastic about taking part in the iPad pilot launched by the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania for participants on their MBA for Executives programme.

The main benefit of the iPad is
portability and convenience, he says. “This is something I can easily pack, which doesn’t apply to textbooks.” It also helps with organisation. “I have stacks of material that fill up my entire small desk . . . I’m not even halfway through [the programme] and I’m drowning in text books.”

Wharton launched the pilot scheme last month with a group of 15 to 20 first and second-year students on its two campuses, Philadelphia and San Francisco. But by May, when the next EMBA programme begins, all 400 first and second-year students will be given iPads alongside the more traditional textbooks, says Anjani Jain, vice-dean for the EMBA.

By then, Prof Jain hopes the next version of the iPad will be available, and he is talking to Apple about pre-loading applications for the class. “We want to be the first in line as the new product rolls off,” he says.

EMBA programmes, MBAs for senior working managers, are proving an ideal testing ground for tablet devices, even though participants are usually in their thirties or forties – a good 10 or 15 years older than full-time MBA students. From Wharton’s perspective the size of the class – around 200 a year, compared with 900 on the full-time programme – meant they could control the size of the pilot. Another bonus was that the EMBA course fees include all textbooks and case studies, so in future the iPad can be easily included as part of the package.

At Iese Business School in Barcelona, which is running an iPad pilot with 60 EMBA participants from April, assistant professor Evgeny Kaganer says the device will enable participants to remain in touch when they are back at work between modules. “For the full-time MBA students this is less important because they are on campus and they see each other all the time.”

Prof Kaganer points out that the pilot has to be more than just a means of distributing course texts.

“We want to run a research study, observing how people interact. How does this [tablet device] affect team-based learning, social culture, collaboration. The critical thing is that it should go beyond delivering course materials.”

Bettina Buechel, programme director of IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance executive programme, comes to the same conclusion. Although iPads were originally used on the OWP course last June for environmental reasons, to run a paperless course, Prof Buechel says that now IMD is looking at other classroom implications. “Now we are looking at how we can enhance learning.”

Arguably the first business school to use iPads on a large scale, IMD gave all 400 participants on its OWP an iPad in June 2010, just months after the tablets were launched in the US. The device was a huge success, says Prof Buechel. “We were quite surprised how immediately the participants adopted it,” she says.

Research on just how tablet devices change behaviour is already under way through trials at Wharton, where professors on the undergraduate programme and the MBA are using iPads in the classroom. One of the more interesting issues, says Deirdre Woods, associate dean and chief information officer at Wharton, is that when students use an iPad it is a “lean back” device, rather than a PC which is a “lean forward” one. “It makes a real difference to how you work.”

This behavioural distinction could make a real difference to protocol in the classroom, muses Prof Jain. Today Wharton students are not allowed laptops in the classroom. But will the different way of using an iPad make it acceptable?

In spite of all the hype surrounding tablet devices in general and the iPad in particular, both Prof Kaganer and Prof Jain are keen to put the technology in context, insisting that these devices are just the next stage in the evolution of teaching.

“It’s not just about the coolness of the iPad,” says Prof Kaganer. “It’s about things that we did off-line now moving online.”

Although the iPad can be used for browsing and annotating notes, nobody at this stage, professor or student, believes that tablet devices are a panacea for all ills.

As Mr Hinderaker points out, although he has found some way of taking notes on the iPad, “I can definitely get more done when writing by hand.” And he expresses concerns that he may not be able to take the iPad into exams – something that is allowed with textbooks. Although clearly a great fan of the iPad, he acknowledges that there are still difficulties with set-up and he argues that paper documents are still easier to read than electronic ones.

There are also questions about obtaining electronic copies of text books and the issue of royalties and intellectual property are “non-trivial”, says Prof Jain.

Kate Widland Gallego, a first-year participant on Wharton’s San Francisco-based EMBA programme, is disappointed that the textbooks available online are little more than electronic paper and not interactive. “Being business students we always want to know what is happening now, not what happened years ago,” she says.

She cites the example of one of the finance textbooks that was written in 2008, during the economic crisis. The data used reflects that period of gloom. She says she would like e-textbooks to “offer a bit more value-added”, the facility built into the text to upload contemporary data, or at least a hyperlink to enable students to find this, for example. “It would save us all from being a very depressed class.”

She is also worried about the set-up and management of the technology, relating the story of one flight from her home in Phoenix to San Francisco for her programme. When she switched on her iPad to read her coursework before arrival, she discovered that pre-loaded texts had disappeared.

Because they have both annotation and highlighting functions, tablet devices are clearly one step ahead of their predecessors, the e-readers. But all acknowledge that tablets are still a work in progress.

That said, Prof Jain is cautiously optimistic. “My hunch is that both the hardware and the software will get quite useful.”

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