A move to make the School of Medicine a greener campus has demonstrated the potential of new technology to change the ways in which faculty teach and students learn.

“It’s hard to think of anything else that has had such a profound and rapid impact,” said Michael L. Schwartz, Ph.D., assistant dean for curriculum, referring to a pilot program in which a handful of students were given iPads to download course curricula, take notes in class, and update course material. Based on the success of the pilot program conducted during the 2011 spring semester, all 518 medical students received iPads this fall.

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

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 update documents until the start of the course. But what administrators are realizing is that the iPad is more than just an efficient and environmentally smart curriculum delivery system; it enhances the way courses are taught.

Robert L. Camp, Ph.D. ’92, M.D. ’97, who teaches pathology to first- and second-year students, said 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.”

Nine students participated in the pilot iPad program—six were tech-savvy and three weren’t. They met with Schwartz, IT specialist Gary Leydon, and curriculum coordinator Leigh Cromey once a week during the spring semester to discuss the iPad and how it was working.

“Originally they wanted to see how much we could depend on it,” said Nicholas Bergfeld, a member of the pilot group who is now in his second year. “Using it to take notes in class was their baseline goal, but we quickly exceeded that.” The iPads altered the learning process in a positive way, he said. In a pathology lab, for example, they allowed for a much greater level of collaboration by synching with the instructor’s presentation, enabling students to answer survey questions and draw on the slides in real time. “It made the class a lot more interactive, a lot more fun,” he said. During his clinical studies, Bergfeld can foresee the iPad enhancing his interaction with patients. “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.”

A self-described “paper person,” Vicki Bing said 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 said, “I really, really loved it.” Bing said she appreciates having access to all the course material while listening to a lecture. She 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 said. “With the iPad it’s so much easier. It’s all right there with the touch of a finger.”

In giving its students iPads, Yale 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.

Yale’s program is different in that the school is giving iPads to all its students, not just first- and second-years. Yale has also encrypted its iPads so that they are security/privacy-compliant. This feature will allow third- and fourth-year students to use them during their clinical electives. The original plan was to give iPads only to first- and second-year students, but third- and fourth-years, who use their personal laptops for their clinical electives, balked at a recent requirement that their laptops be encrypted—they considered it an invasion of privacy and an inconvenience because the encryption program shut down their computers every few minutes. The solution? School officials decided to provide encrypted iPads to third- and fourth-year students for their clinical work.

Bergfeld said that the overall message he’s hearing from fellow students is that they are looking forward to incorporating the iPad into their study habits. “The administration spent a lot of time making sure it was feasible,” he said. “So far it’s everything we could have hoped for.”