At the start of 2010, Apple’s iPad had not even been announced, let alone released. But within months of the tablet computer’s April debut it was being adopted in boardrooms around the world as the favourite toy of executives as diverse as WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell and News Corp’s James Murdoch.
So it was little surprise that by the start of the new academic year in the autumn, iPads were showing up in many business school classrooms too.
The speed with which Apple’s touchscreen device has been adopted by MBA students is in marked contrast to the Amazon Kindle, an e-reader that lacks the iPad’s colour, graphics and easy typing.
A Kindle trial at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business found that while students liked the device for reading books, only one in 10 used it for studying.
Michael Koenig, director of MBA operations at Darden, sees much greater potential for touchscreen tablets such as the iPad, RIM’s Playbook or Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.
“I was surprised by how many of my faculty members walked in with an iPad as soon as they were launched,” he says.
Proponents of the technology deny that it gives them a sneaky way to play Angry Birds in classrooms.
Christine Geocaniga, a full-time MBA student at Ashridge Business School in the UK, says: “The good thing about having an iPad is that I don’t have to print out so much and it keeps my backpack quite light. It makes studying more mobile because I don’t need to carry two binders with me.”
But the iPad has not eliminated paper altogether, as some case study libraries are not yet available in digital formats. “It has not really replaced my handwritten notes in class,” Ms Geocaniga adds.
Nonetheless, some argue that tablets have an advantage over laptops for use in class, where a wall of raised screens can create a psychological barrier between student and teacher.
“For a case-study-based platform, in the Socratic method, one of the nice things about the iPad and similar devices is you can lay them down. There is no break between the students and the front of the room,” Mr Koenig says. “We get the sense there is a little more focus [than with laptops].”
Some schools, including Ashridge, Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business and Hult International Business School, are giving students on high-end courses an iPad preloaded with all the case studies and textbooks they will need in their studies.
Handing out $500-plus worth of computer equipment saves the schools money, because e-books are cheaper than hardbacks, as well as being more convenient for students.
The University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business handed out 40 iPads to two sets of students on undergraduate and MBA management courses last autumn, to assess the new technology.
Corey Angst, assistant professor at Mendoza, published the results of the trial in January, in one of the most detailed studies yet of iPad use in business schools.
The results were overwhelmingly positive – although not always for the reasons Prof Angst originally expected.
Where excitement about most new technology typically wanes after a while, “no such lulls in acceptance or value were detected in the iPad study”, Prof Angst wrote. “Expectations were high, but performance appeared to live up to the hype.”
Most students found the iPad easy to operate, with a majority using it to read course materials beyond the scope of the trial.
Asked whether they would want to buy tablets and e-books after the trial had ended, a large majority of the students said they would be keen to borrow an iPad from the school and rent an e-book that would “expire” after six months.
Most also said that they felt the iPad helped make the classes more interesting and projects easier to manage.
Two-thirds said it was “very difficult” to give up the iPad after the trial. Among the top reasons for this were its “instant on” facility, portability, ease of use in any situation and the “social perception” of using a trendy device.
However, the chief complaint was that it still lacked “important functions”, such as highlighting and note taking, although some downloadable “apps” – such as PDF-Notes and iAnnotate PDF – are now emerging to remedy that.
“The ancillary benefits of the iPad outweigh the device’s drawbacks as an academic tool,” Prof Angst wrote in his report. “While not statistically significant, the majority of students said they are learning more by using the iPad.”
Apple would not help Notre Dame fund an iPad programme, but the school is now talking to Sprint, the US telecoms operator, about sponsoring new Android-based tablets for students arriving later this year.
“We are truly device-agnostic,” Prof Angst told the FT. “It’s unlikely that Notre Dame would ever mandate the purchase of a specific device. We are really trying to prove that it doesn’t matter what students decide to use, we can support them.”