This fall, all 518 medical students at Yale received Apple iPad tablets to download course curricula, take notes in class, and assist them in their clinical training. “It’s hard to think of anything else that has had such a profound and rapid impact,” says Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., assistant dean for curriculum.

The initiative grew out of a remarkably successful pilot program in which a handful of students at the School of Medicine were given iPads during the spring 2011 semester. Though originally a move to make the School of Medicine a greener campus, the response from both professors and students suggested that in addition to being an efficient and environmentally smart way to deliver learning materials, tablet computers have the potential to transform medical education at Yale.

Robert Camp, M.D., Ph.D., who teaches pathology to first- and second-year students, says the iPad is ideal for small-group teaching. “Computer screens, which we used to use, create a barrier between you and the person you are talking to. It’s not interactive. But the iPad is more like a piece of paper. You hold it more like a book and you can pass it around. It tends to engender more group thinking and group discussion.”

A self-described “paper person,” Vicki Bing of the Class of 2014 says she had “huge reservations” before joining the pilot program. “I absolutely have to have everything printed out, so I didn’t know how an iPad could replace that.” But after a semester of using the tablet, she says, “I really, really loved it.” Bing says she appreciates having access to all the course material while listening to a lecture, and also welcomes the iPad’s portability. “I travel a lot, and I used to bring paper copies of everything with me to study on the road,” she says. “With the iPad it’s so much easier. It’s all right there with the touch of a finger.”

The School of Medicine’s iPad initiative is part of a growing trend at medical schools across the country, including those at Brown; the University of California, Irvine; Stanford; and the University of Minnesota. But Yale’s program is different in that all students, not just those in their first and second years, have received the tablets. Yale has securely encrypted its iPads, a feature that will allow third- and fourth-year students to protect patients’ privacy when they use the tablets in their clinical work. It takes students about 30 minutes to download the entire curriculum for one year on the iPad, although they are advised to download the fall, winter, and spring courses separately because faculty continue to update documents until the start of the course.

Nicholas Bergfeld, a member of the pilot group who is now in his second year at the medical school, says he can foresee the iPad enhancing his interaction with patients during his clinical studies. “You and the patient can look at their lab test results, X-rays, or whatever else together. It enables a greater level of personal connection.”

Schwartz, says it had cost roughly $1,000 per student to provide paper copies of all course materials, about the same price as an iPad and supporting applications. “We pretty much break even,” he says, “but the iPad is better for the environment–and as an information delivery system, it’s much more versatile.”