Tablets and Apps: A World of Possibility

Betha Gutsche /
Ms. Hamilton Holding the New iPad
Ms. Hamilton shows off the school library's new iPad.
Photo by theunquietlibrary on Flickr.

Mobilizing Learning

The ubiquity of mobile technologies is increasing. On my bus ride to work, I took an impromptu survey of my fellow riders. Looking up from my e-reader, I noticed that, of the 20 people I could see around me, 17 were interacting with a tablet or smartphone. My non-scientific sample is bolstered by studies from the PEW Research Center, an organization that keeps its finger on the pulse of such trends. A recent summary reports:

  • 26% of American adults own an e-reader
  • 31% of American adults own a tablet computer
  • 45% of American adults have a smartphone

Libraries, schools and museums are experimenting with the potential for expanding their engagement with users through these highly portable devices and their sophisticated apps. For libraries, much of the current conversation is naturally focused on e-books and e-readers as new ports of access for library materials. Thinking beyond e-books, the digital landscape abounds with possibility for empowering the quest for knowledge.

[How is your library using mobile devices? Take the poll.]

“At their best, these applications [apps] that live in the spaces where education and entertainment overlap can capture the imagination, enticing students to learn on their own.” ( Educause)

As educators focus on 21st century learning strategies, tablets and apps seem like the perfect companions for problem-based, discovery and collaborative learning approaches. The size of a tablet is intimate like a book; indeed many people take them to bed. At the same time, they invite collaboration, being easy to pass around and demonstrate to a small group. Whether enticing students to take charge of their own learning or engaging patrons to enrich their own information-seeking paths, tablets appear to be a primary key to unlocking interaction. The innovative uses described below are just scratching the surface of possibility.

Free-range Reference

The portability of the tablet allows reference librarians to become untethered from the desk. Emerging cadres of embedded librarians are taking their expertise on location. Roaming the stacks or immersed in a classroom or project site, reference librarians can provide resource help and information literacy instruction in context. Any library, public or academic, can send skilled staff out into the community to embed in schools, councils, metro districts, economic development councils, and nonprofits—wherever they can provide information and even leadership. Douglas County (CO) Library is trying this new way of making libraries indispensable.

Literature Alive

Many libraries extend services to mobile users, enabling them to access the library website, browse resources, manage holds, and renew items. But a few are opening up new worlds for their users through imaginative apps.

The New York Public Library’s Biblion, the Boundless Library breathes life into digital content, connecting users with historic and rare items from the library’s collections. Beginning with a classic literature title (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) or a popular topic (the 1939–40 New York World's Fair), the NYPL apps make reading interactive, exploratory, serendipitous and fun.

At the DC Public Library, Librarians Kim Zablud and Tony Ross want to make vivid connections between the abundant fiction written about their city and the geography and historic places referenced in the literature. They developed DC by the book, which has 200 titles mapped to physical locations, along with an open invitation to crowd-source more passages. It’s not an app yet, but will be when funding is found.

Teens, Tablets, and Content Creators

Using iPads in the HiTech STEM LabEver since Blogger burst on the scene in the mid-90s, users have been creating and contributing their own content to the Internet pool on a massive scale. Creating content is a powerful pedagogical strategy to engage learners, especially young adults.

Howard County (MD) Library System’s HiTech Lab is a cutting-edge digital media lab for teens that intends to be a “launching point for the STEM career pipeline.” They offer a variety of programs designed to prepare youth for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The particular challenge for program organizers is to fully engage reluctant and hard-to-teach youth. Tablets are often the vehicle of choice for creation. Students have created their own e-books and a video game Escape From Detention, which they proudly make available for anyone to download and play.

[Photo: Using iPads in the HiTech STEM Lab by Howard County Library System on Flickr.]

At the Soule Branch of the Syracuse (NY) Library, teen librarian Gary Jones has a novel solution for the low-literacy and low confidence he sees in the middle-school kids he works with. He is working with these teens to publish an e-book. The library loans them tablets and they are encouraged to write personal stories, poems, recipes, photographs or other modes of expression. The teens build their technology skills while gaining a feeling of accomplishment. Jones believes that “renting tablets is in the future of libraries.”

Explore the World from a Tablet

For many years, museums and science centers have used hands-on, interactive exhibits to enhance the user experience. These institutions are a natural fit for adopting tablets as interactive tools. In 21-Tech, a 3-year project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), participating museums are experimenting with free or low-cost mobile apps in combination with hands-on exhibits to take engagement with visitors to another level.

Although tablets and apps may be simple to use, it is necessary for each institution to screen the thousands available for those most applicable. The 21-Tech group reviewed and recommended 25+ apps that work well for their purposes, from Bee-Bots to World Record Paper Airplanes to Groovy Gears. These may not be the best selection for library programs but it cuts through some of the app noise.

As one of the 21-Tech participants pioneering the territory for the rest of us, The Children’s Museum of Houston has learned about the necessity of preparing staff and volunteers to use the new tools effectively. Although tablets and apps may be simple to use, knowing when and how to integrate the tablet interactions into the museum viewers’ experience is not as simple as it might seem. In the Gallery Facilitation and Training section, exhibit facilitators, referred to as Discovery Guides, share their learning curves, training experiences, and tips. (Note that the facilitator posts are mixed in with app reviews.)

Apps + ideas = see what happens

There are hundreds of thousands of apps at loose in the world today. It is still an iPad-centric environment but Android is gaining ground. With so many raw materials available, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with imaginative ways to expand library programs and user engagement.

  • Maps of the World sparks touch-screen exploration of any country based on legislature, currency, GDP, area and population.
  • Star Walk brings the night sky into educational focus, displaying “constellations, stars, planets, satellites, and galaxies currently overhead from anywhere on Earth.”
  • Back in Time takes the user back through the history of the world—all the way to the Big Bang.
  • Google Goggles allows web searches triggered by taking a picture with a smartphone.
  • Popout! The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a whole new way to enchant young readers with the interactive and animated digital text.

What are your favorite apps? How do you imagine using them to interact and learn with your patrons?