Photograph by Scott Roberson, AP

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Center Grove High School sophomore Sterlin McCormick, 16, uses her school-supplied iPad to write a journal entry in Kelly Scholl's science class in Greenwood, IN.

Photograph by Scott Roberson, AP

iPads Improve Classroom Learning, Study Finds

Tablets can help students with tough concepts like space and time.

Just how big is the universe, how small is an atom, and how long have we humans lived on Earth, compared with dinosaurs? Such answers are better learned with an iPad, according to a new study that shows just how tablets tap neurocognitive abilities that help students understand enormous scale and other difficult concepts.

Students saw learning gains after as little as 20 minutes of study on the iPad, the research found, and if supported with guidance from an instructor their improvement may have been even more pronounced, the scientists suggest. "The bottom line is that these iPads and similar tools actually do make a difference," said physicist Matthew Schneps, a founding member of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.

Schneps explained that his virtual solar system study examined iPad use that is a bit different from most classroom applications. "Many educators are looking at the iPad as an inexpensive way to deliver content [and] to save money on textbooks, and a lot of apps are available that try to make learning into a kind of game," he said.

"These uses are good. But what we were testing is, does the iPad actually allow you to simulate things that students couldn't otherwise experience?"

Schneps pointed to a realistic demonstration of the solar system on the tablet as one such example of something that can be difficult to explain in a classroom. Tapping the unique powers of these devices unleashed neurocognitive learning capabilities in the brain that aren't often used during traditional instruction, he added. (Related: "Hand Gestures May Boost Students' Math Learning.")

Let Your Fingers Do the (Star) Walking

In the study, high school students in Bedford, Massachusetts, used the Solar Walk simulation from Vito Technology to explore a 3-D, pinch-to-zoom display in two different ways, Schneps explained.

First, the display was set so that the solar system appeared in the unrealistic "orrery display" scale that's commonly depicted in textbooks. "It's kind of the way we're used to seeing it, which is done to make things look more interesting," he said. It features greatly exaggerated planets, including an Earth with a diameter that is a staggering 38 percent of the sun's, and an Earth orbit shrunk to just five times the size of the planet's own diameter.

The second experience used a true-to-scale mode, showing how tiny planets actually are, compared with the size of their orbits, appearing as mere dots on the screen to show viewers just how vast the solar system really is.

Users showed improved learning when using both modes, the authors reported, but the true-scale experience was particularly effective in promoting learning and clearing up scale misconceptions about our cosmic neighborhood.

Educators have struggled to represent these concepts. Think of blackboard time lines stretching for millions of years, or students scattered across a classroom with basketballs, tennis balls, and golf balls meant to represent the planets. "These are all big-scale events, and we're showing that you can learn a lot more with a realistic simulation that couldn't possibly fit in the space of a classroom," said Schneps.

Proof of the iPad's value was found by comparing the results of tests given to thousands of students across the United States. Schneps and colleagues knew exactly how students performed on those tests, and also how different levels of traditional instruction improved student scores on them. "So we were really able to see just how the iPad changed their results," he said.

Next Steps

The research suggests that tablets could aid the study of many scientific concepts that are difficult to grasp, such as distance, time, and other large-scale subjects, said Schneps. "These occur in the study of geologic time; the size and age of the universe; the timeframe of biological mutation and evolution; the mass, size, and speed of subatomic, atomic, and molecular particles; and so on," the study noted.

While this type of learning remains in its infancy, tapping the technology may one day become critical career training for young and future generations. "They're not going to be doing things in their jobs the same way that previous generations did," Schneps said. "So if kids can learn in schools today using the same tools that they will use in their careers later on, that's a good thing." (Related: "Wireless Learning: How Mobile Technology Is Transforming Classrooms and Empowering Young Women in Jordan.")

The research will be published in the January 2014 issue of Computers and Education.