Building and Assessing Arguments with iPads

Because learning objectives were similar across my three courses in Fall ’14, I tested aspects of my ITEL project on all of my courses before choosing my writing course (WRIT 015-12 Writing and Culture Seminar: The Im/Personal Essay) to host the project. WRIT 015-12 had an enrollment of 15 students. I initially envisioned a continuation of my collaborative close reading project from Spring ’14, but realized after trials with my 17-18C Women’s Writing and Satire classes that collaborative close reading and annotation would work better with a networked classroom (Apple TV, for example) that would enable different groups to mirror their iPad screens on a larger display. I then decided to take similar principles and learning objectives from the collaborative close reading project and apply them in a slightly different way in my writing course.

One of the main objectives of the initial close reading project was to model for students (through student collaborative work on the iPads) how literary interpretation relies heavily on the process of argumentation. In my writing class, one of the central objectives was to help students develop facility with structuring arguments and identifying logical flaws in the arguments of others. Learning to do this—to reverse-engineer arguments—helps them make their own arguments with sound evidence and strong logical connections. My ITEL project put students in the position to use iPads to construct arguments about a given topic in a Keynote presentation, then to swap iPads with other groups to construct counterarguments.

The details of this exercise were as follows: I asked students, in groups of 4, to come up with a baseline thesis they wanted to argue, and to develop that argument in the space of 4 Keynote slides. I expected them to develop a compelling thesis that could be demonstrated convincingly in the space of 4 slides, to use internet browsing features of the iPads to find evidence to support their arguments, and to use design features of Keynote to present their arguments in organized and compelling ways. Students were able to support their arguments using a range of approaches, from bullet-point lists to embedded screenshots of quotes and embedded charts. Topics students chose to argue included quality of campus food options, advantages of Mac vs. PC computing, enforcing versus lowering the legal drinking age, and the contributions of food labels to obesity issues in the US. Once each group developed their argument, I asked them to swap iPads with another group and create a 4-slide counterargument to the argument that appeared on the iPad, following the same argumentative and design principles as their original arguments.

In my prior writing courses, we typically talked through principles of sound argumentation and rhetoric in a series of lectures, during which students could ask questions and gain clarification when needed. Clarification often took the form of off-the-cuff examples of what kind of evidence one would need for one kind of claim versus another, or why a particular sequence of information made more sense than another. Introducing the iPads to teach the same kinds of lessons provided students with more concrete experiences with making and taking apart arguments, such that hypothetical examples were unnecessary. Not only, then, did the ITEL exercise enable students to work with concrete examples of their own choosing and according to their own immediate interests; students were also able to carry out the exercise in class and with feedback from each other and from me, and thus to practice their argumentative techniques more robustly in the classroom before putting them to use in their essay assignments.

The main technology questions we explored with this project were to do with whether carrying out arguments in a multimedia situation would carry over to making those arguments in a written essay, and whether the portability of the iPad (swapping them between groups) facilitated a “smoother” experience in student peer-review of each other’s arguments. My beginning conjecture was that forming arguments with visual aids, screenshots, charts, and text would make the experience of learning rhetoric and argumentation more tangible and more lasting for the students, and that this would carry over in their written work. I also anticipated that the iPad would be a wieldy medium for the exercise; I realized that instead of collaborating between groups by having each group annotate a common document, groups could pass the entire iPad along to others very easily, and thus collaboration could occur on the same device. From a pedagogical standpoint, this also made me free to circulate among the groups and answer questions, guide students through the process of argumentation, and help them use the technology if they weren’t as familiar with it, as opposed to managing classroom-wide display of collaboratively produced content (as in my ITEL project from last year).

All data for this project comes from the ITEL survey given by all members of the cohort, but personalized for each project. Quantitative data suggest that this ITEL project was as effective as a technological intervention into teaching and learning as is the average technology usage at a Georgetown class (and that average is rated just below 4/5 on the scale). On questions about the easy and productivity of use of the iPad in the exercise, students responded with high marks (between 4 and 5 out of 5 for both categories), though student responses were closer to 4/5 in the categories pertaining to whether they would use this technology if it were up to them. My sense of this data is partly informed by the fact that I teach classes in literature and writing, subjects for which students often expect a break from technology. But the data also suggest that once students get into the iPad exercise, they are finding the technology easy to use for the purposes of the assignment, and productive toward the learning objectives (which I state at the beginning of the classes in which we work on the ITEL project).

Qualitative data from students suggests that the major flaw of my implementation of this project was the time I allotted for the task. I asked students (in groups) to come up with and develop arguments on the spot, and gave them the majority of a class period to do so; but students’ reflected desire for more time to complete the project, suggesting that my expectations were too high. Students may well have internalized the lessons better were they less rushed and stressed about doing the difficult work of forming and supporting their arguments on the spot and without prior knowledge or prior preparation.

Finally, as to two questions which were for me most important—whether students benefitted from seeing and breaking down arguments from other students, and whether they benefitted from countering the arguments of other students—quantitative data reflect a positive outcome in both categories (4/5 in both cases). I think this is one of the most important findings, because the iPad’s specific functionality as a portable device is what enables students to see and respond to each other’s arguments with ease; that is, it makes the exercise possible in ways that laptops might not. Students did mention preference for laptops because of larger screen size; so perhaps larger iPads (I work with minis) would be better for this kind of exercise, offering both portability and larger screens.

Clearly, one of the biggest pedagogical lessons the data bears out is that students need more time and preparation to complete a project like this, which involves both working with technology that not everyone may be familiar with, and using that technology to do something challenging and involved. But lukewarm responses about whether students themselves would choose this kind of activity also alerts me to a bigger-picture challenge. Students of economics may expect lots of charts and visual displays, but students of literature and writing may not. Students may work with iPads in their private lives, or in “applied” fields, but may expect a break from technology when they enter a classroom in which literature takes center stage.

In the future, I would certainly use this exercise, albeit with more preparatory time allotted for the project, because we seemed to have achieved real gains in engagement (close attention, hands-on work that traditional lessons do not provide) with structuring and supporting arguments. But I also intend to use this kind of lesson plan sparingly, because I encounter resistance in all of my classes to screen-learning.

In more immediate terms, I do think the university might consider (if it hasn’t already) the costs and benefits of sharing screens simply by passing them versus networking entire classrooms to share screens through mirroring. As I wrote above, I initially wanted to mirror screens to do collaborative work; but found that the option of passing mobile devices in a small seminar was quite effective for sharing material and collaborating on common documents. There may well be plenty of other uses and applications for networked classrooms with multiple displays; but iPads can be wieldy in small seminars, particularly in certain text-based humanities courses that may not have as much use for more robustly equipped classrooms.

I am considering giving a paper at a Public Humanities conference in Virginia this Spring, and may include a section on how technology can help make humanities study more collaborative, and thus more engaging for groups (as opposed to the stereotype of isolated or cloistered study).