Incorporating the iPad into Technical Writing

In the fall of 2010, my English 202C: Technical Writing students participated in a pilot project incorporating the iPad into the course. In conjunction with Educational Technology Services, the Composition program at Penn State developed a research study to explore how the iPad could be incorporated into a technical writing course.

my iPad workspace as I worked on English 202C

In particular, we were interested in the following four questions:

  1. 1. How do people write and read technical documents on multipurpose mobile devices like the iPad, which converge and enable a wide spectrum of literacy activities?
  2. 2. What are the infrastructural requirements and constraints for devices that tie to individual systems like iTunes accounts rather than academic institutional systems like Blackboard?
  3. 3. What choices will teachers need to make when designing courses to incorporate the numerous and diverse applications available for multipurpose mobile devices like the iPad?
  4. 4. What do new types of distributed, networked support systems employed on devices like the iPad change about the function of technical communication itself?

In English 202C, we incorporated the iPad into a variety of activities: students read the course textbook (Mike Markel’s Technical Communication) on the iPad, used the iPad for research on the Internet, pre-wrote and brainstormed using Pages (a word-processing application), did some other drafting on the iPad, accessed course documents using SugarSync (a cloud-based document sharing program), wrote blog posts from the iPad, and peer reviewed using iAnnotate PDF (an application that allowed marking up and annotating PDF files).

Here is language I shared with students on the syllabus at the start of the term:

An important (and often under-studied) aspect of technical writing is the work environments we choose to (or sometimes have to) work in. This course is connected to a collaborative research initiative that involves the English Department and Educational Technology Services. The purpose of this project is to explore issues integrating new work environments, technologies, and platforms, such as the Apple iPad, into higher education and student writing processes.

Students in this course will be assigned an iPad (starting week 2) to use for course materials and procedures (including reading, note-taking, researching, and document production and delivery) throughout the term. In the spirit of this study, we ask that you try to perform as much of the coursework on your iPad as possible. Of course, technological and work environment impasses will occur, and we will individually and collaboratively work through these problems; but for the purposes of this course, we ask that the iPad serve as your primary work environment. Throughout the term, we will reflect on our experiences using the iPad for technical writing instruction and processes. You are responsible for bringing your iPad and keyboard, charged and ready to use, to class each day. Four times throughout the course, we will set aside course time for taped interviews about your experiences with the iPad.

Because this is a new work environment, we have arranged with the publisher to have Mike Markel’s e-book available to us from Apple’s iBook store (for no charge). Additionally, we have arranged with Apple to receive gift cards to buy apps through Apple’s App Store at no cost to you. We will be using the following apps for our document creation, management, and delivery throughout the term: Mail, Pages, SugarSync, iBooks, iAnnotate PDF, BlogPress, and Photos. Other apps may be necessary as we experiment throughout the term. An iTunes account will be necessary in order to download apps on your iPad and keep your software updated and backed up.

Students’ uses of and reactions to the iPad were mixed: trepidation and anxiety about a new device, excitement over a tool that could be both a toy and workspace, frustration at learning new work processes, and so forth. Some students incorporated the device fully into their workflow, mostly as a supplement to their desktop and laptop PC use. Others found the new device distracting, and it became largely a reading device for the textbook, with a few other occasional uses.

Students setting up their iPads in class

In order to integrate the iPad into the requirements and expectations of the course, we discussed how the iPad worked as a writing environment; asked students to use their experiences with the iPad as evidence in a report to Cole Camplese, Director of ETS, and Stuart Selber, Director of Composition; and explored how technical communication might be changing with the development of tablet devices. Students also blogged about their experiences throughout the term, and the research team kept a research blog about the progress of the research. Additionally, Stuart Selber, Patricia Gael, and I will be presenting on this research at the 2011 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Conference and Penn State’s 2011 Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology.

For an example of how we incorporated the iPad into the class, here’s a screenshot of a paper I graded on the iPad using iAnnotate PDF:

An example of me grading using iAnnotate PDF

Students used iAnnotate PDF to peer review, offering comments on each other’s files and then emailing them back to the owner. I also used iAnnotate to grade, which was a change from my normal procedure of grading printed papers. This term, my class didn’t use any paper, except for consent forms at the beginning of the term. Everything was done digitally. I would collect student assignments by having them submit them to shared SugarSync folders, and then I would open them on iAnnotate PDF, use comments and highlighting to give feedback and writing an overall comment, and then email them back to students. I found there were many benefits of grading this way: the mediation of the screen on the iPad narrows my focus so I get less distracted as I grade, I am more willing to type suggested rewording than I am to handwrite it, I am more likely to explain mechanical errors than just marking them, and I found I was more forced to be concise in my overall comments because of the limited screen space. I viewed all these as benefits that made grading more streamlined for me (in addition to not carrying so many papers around) and more beneficial for students. (I’ve discussed grading using iAnnotate on our team’s research blog as well.)