According to a story in Palo Alto Online, the Stanford Medical school will be rolling out iPads to its incoming class. Apparently, the devices will be used to hold electronic versions of medical textbooks. The article quotes Dr. Prober, an associate dean with the Stanford medical school. It’s interesting to note that this program doesn’t appear to be based on any real insight into how medical students learn; instead, the standard enumeration of putative advantages of multimedia are trotted out, including “virtual cadavers for dissection labs.” Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear from the article whether the iPads will do anything but display textbooks (no specific app for doing that is mentioned, however).
It seems odd to me that another associate dean is quoted as saying
“We really don’t know yet how the incoming medical students will use them,” said Dr. Henry Lowe, the school’s senior associate dean for information resources and technology.
While it’s undoubtedly true that all uses of these devices cannot be anticipated, and that un-anticipated uses of the device often offer considerable insight into what actually works and what doesn’t, it seems naive to launch such an experiment without having some understanding of the students’ work practices.
As the number of such experiments and their coverage in the press increases, it would be good to see more thorough discussion of the applications the students are expected to be using for the coursework, rather than just mentioning the devices and the fact that textbooks are somehow involved. It would be more informative to report on whether students would be using an integrated application, or a suite of applications, whether these are commercial (and if so, which ones) or custom software developed for or by the university.
Journalists interested in this topic should also try to report on the outcomes of such experiments which often seem to have much less fanfare than the distribution of the devices. As documented on this blog (e.g., here and here), these kinds of deployments have often failed to meet students’ needs, but it is not clear that cumulative learning is actually taking place among university administrators enamored with shiny new devices.