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iPad initiative at DWU changing teaching, learning styles

Paula Mazzer, an associate professor in the biochemistry department at Dakota Wesleyan University, shows the different genetic sampling sites at Lake Mitchell from a study conducted earlier this year. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)1 / 2
Paula Mazzer, an associate professor in the biochemistry department at Dakota Wesleyan University, shows how university students did genetic testing at Lake Mitchell earlier this year. The class has embraced the use of iPads, which were distributed to all DWU students this fall for the first time. (Marcus Traxler / Republic) 2 / 2

Paula Mazzer admitted she thought it was a gimmick.

When Dakota Wesleyan University announced in February that it was giving an iPad to every student on campus prior to the start of the fall semester, more than 900 in all, Mazzer, an associate professor of biochemistry, was not easily convinced.

But the eighth-year professor at DWU soon found plenty of uses to turn her from skeptic to believer.

"It's little tweaks of how we do things. It does alter the 'how' just enough that it becomes better," Mazzer said, speaking of the teaching style. "I've gone from being on the 'It's a gimmick,' page to thinking, 'This is a really cool gimmick.'"

Across the DWU campus, students and faculty have found ways to adapt to the new technology, both in students' hands and otherwise, which the university believes will prepare graduates for an ever-changing technology world and its workplaces.

"I think I've been very impressed with the faculty and the students and what they've been able to accomplish with the devices," DWU Provost Joe Roidt said. "It really is new territory for us but I've spoken with some other chief academic officers that are engaged in similar projects and our learning curve has tracked pretty well with what has happened there."

Mazzer's junior-level Genetics class is perhaps her best example of how they've used the new technology. In the class, they're doing next-generation sequencing of DNA strands, and used Lake Mitchell for their class projects, collecting samples around Labor Day of the various bacteria and organisms that were in the lake.

Next-generation sequencing, as Mazzer explains, needs high-level supercomputing. But that's accessed through an interface, and the iPad can accomplish that just fine. The data is sent off to a super-computer in New Hampshire after extracting DNA from the lake water.

The class didn't exist last year, but now it's a platform for a course-based undergraduate research project. It was also bolstered by the fact that every student had the same device, rather than having dozens of different models of laptops in the same class which requires the directions to students to be slightly different for each one.

"It's really computer-intensive, but the interface allows some high-powered computing to be done on the iPad," Mazzer said.

The iPad program is part of the school's Digital DWU initiative, which not only equips each student with an iPad but also ups the level of technology in the classrooms, such as televisions with Apple TV, which allows iPads to connect to the TVs and make presentations to an entire room via that platform.

Each DWU student received an iPad and an accompanying keyboard. Students are paying a $600 technology fee this year, covering the costs of the devices, the programs, and technical support. Incoming freshmen get the iPad for three years and then receive a new one entering their senior year, which will be the tablet they keep when they graduate.

Joel Allen, associate professor of religion and the religion and philosophy department's chairman, said he was willing to dive right into the iPad world, even as he admits it's been a challenge.

"I've been genuinely, genuinely surprised about how much fun it is to talk about what we're trying to do with the iPads," Allen said. "We're trying to develop this as much as we can."

The devices have made it easier to administer quizzes and review content in his Religion, Philosophy and Ethics class, which has about 60 students and is geared toward first- and second-year students as part of DWU's general education courses. Allen said it's opened up a world of videos and more creative learning.

"It's a little more personalized and students take a little more ownership of how they're learning it," Allen said.

While every student has an iPad, one might think that each student is burrowed into their device, limiting interaction with their classmates. But Allen said the devices have made collaborating easier, and Roidt said that's one of the emphases of DWU's digital program.

"We've had it where students are able to do their group work together and then that can be projected up on to the screen," Roidt said. "Employers really want to see that ability to do work in a team and I think the iPad does help to facilitate that and we want to enhance that going forward."

Mazzer said the devices have really shown to be useful for note-taking, especially for her science classes, which use what is essentially a shared app that works like a large chalkboard with all of the classes' contributions.

"Science is hard to draw and it's a heavy class to just type everything that's said in class," she said. "So with the iPads, students can draw diagrams or take written notes or add a picture they've taken."

As a religion professor teaching some of the oldest philosophies and history known to man, Allen acknowledged that he might not have been expected to be among the earliest adopters of the 21st century technology.

"To me, it's just a new way to do it," he said. "There is definitely a learning curve, and it's being picked up at a tremendous level."

Roidt said surveys will go out to students later this year to collect some data on what has worked and what hasn't, adding that the information will be critical in determining how to shape the program for future students.

"I didn't really know it, the use to what people will put the iPads and how much that will change each of their disciplines," Roidt said. "We're seeing this having an impact in chemistry and teaching poetry, and digital media and design. Students and faculty are doing a lot of this learning on their own and we're seeing the benefits, for sure."