Those who have taken a five minute break from their holiday shopping at an Apple Store to play a piano, gaze at constellations , or simply surf the Web on an iPad have likely walked away impressed with the seamless, tactile glimpse into our computing future. While the iPad can prove to be a welcome distraction thanks to the bevy of games and creative apps available, several top business schools are measuring their effectiveness as teaching tools, not toys. And they're pleased with the early results, though they're now faced with the task of maximizing their effectiveness. "Ultimately, we'll be at a point when everyone is going to walk into a classroom with some type of tablet device," says Janice Dolnick, director of the Executive M.B.A. Program at Boston University's School of Management, which will provide iPads for all of the program's students to use beginning in January after a successful trial of the devices this fall. "So, we think there's a lot to be learned still in terms of how these can be used."
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During the past six months, XanEdu, a publisher of textbooks and other course materials, has tested iPads at 11 business programs. Initially, the devices aren't being used in lieu of textbooks, but are replacing the course packs—supplementary materials that are filled with case studies and data. The schools testing the devices hope one day to go entirely paperless and laud the devices for being convenient, mobile, and effective replacements for mountains of paper and handwritten notes. They also strive to engage a younger, plugged-in generation of M.B.A. students. "They want dynamic, interesting experiences when they come into the classroom," says Tyler Steben, vice president of custom publishing at XanEdu. "But, largely, their studying experience is a 19th century one using paper."
New York University's Stern School of Business was home to the most comprehensive test of the technology, making course materials available via iPad in all but one of its M.B.A.-level classes. Unlike Boston University, and despite only 15 percent of graduate students at Stern owning an iPad when testing began this fall, the school has opted not to provide the devices to students, citing the likelihood that future students will buy them; 42 percent of students starting Stern next year have indicated they'll arrive on campus with the device. "Instead of laptops, most kids now will opt for an iPad. They have pretty much every function that a laptop does and it's mobile and easy to carry," says NYU Stern's Chief Information Officer Anand Padmanabhan. "If they're in a subway they don't have to open a 300-page course pack and thumb through it."
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While the student reaction at the test schools has been overwhelmingly positive—80 percent of the roughly 400 students XanEdu tested claimed they were satisfied with the experience and more than half of the trial students at Boston University said the devices were their sole means of preparing for class—some students have voiced dissatisfaction. At Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, another XanEdu test school, several students still wanted to have printed copies of their course material given the inconvenience of needing an Internet connection to access materials on their iPad , according to Associate Dean Beth Walker. And Vincent Hesener, an M.B.A. student at Desales University, which is not a XanEdu trial school, has struggled to effectively integrate the device into his work. He claims the device can be a distraction in class, among other issues. "During class, I need something quick, and professors talk fast," he says. "[So] unless I whip out a dock with a keyboard, the iPad is difficult to [type] on."
XanEdu hopes to one day add all course materials, including textbooks, to its iPad applications, but has met some resistance from professors. Steben, of XanEdu, claims that pushback from faculty stands to be the biggest roadblock to the widespread distribution of tablet-based materials in business school classrooms. "There's a meaningful proportion of b-school professors who don't allow laptops or iPads into the classroom," he says. "They're afraid students will be playing [games] or using Facebook instead of listening to the case discussion."