The usability and universal appeal of Apple’s iPad has prompted many organisations to apply the device in a work context. However, putting iPads to good use is not just a question of thrusting them in employees’ hands.
Kingston University is a case in point. The London university bought eight iPads in September last year, and had a number of ideas how they might be used. But a project to use them to help library staff got off to a rocky start, and it took a mid-project rethink before the deployment proved successful.
“iPads were seen as an opportunity that we should be investigating,” explains Rowan Williamson, who manages the Learning Resource Centre at the university’s art, design and architecture campus. “Certainly as students were bringing them in, there were various ideas of how we might use them.”
“But there was no clear plan,” recalls Williamson. "We found ourselves in the luxurious position of having bit of kit which needed to find a useful function.”
Williams was chosen to find a use for the iPads, “as I’m perceived as being interested in techy things”. She decided that they could be used to support a pilot project called the ‘roving enquiry service’, in which library staff would wander the aisles offering students assistance where they sat.
With an iPad in hand, the thinking went, they would be able to demonstrate the university’s iOS app, which supported a number of student services.
It did not start off as well as it might have. "We were in the interesting position of piloting a technology on a pilot project, which is never a good idea," says Williamson. “Without sufficient planning and training, we initially didn’t have a huge amount of success."
The main problem was that the most common request from students was to have their passwords for library and university IT systems reset, but this could not be done from an iPad. Also, the mobile version of the library search website had limited functionality.
Other issues included the battery life of the devices, and the fact that the university’s WiFi connection would often time if the iPad was not in use. Also, some students were not aware why the staff were carrying the iPads. Williamson says many asked why library staff were wandering around “doing nothing”.
Soon, the library staff simply stopped using them. “Most had a crisis of confidence," Williamson says. "The majority of the staff hadn’t used iPads and didn’t have experience with Apple products."
The project was in dire need of resuscitation. Williamson’s first step was to improve engagement by appointing ‘iPad champions’, staff who were more knowledgeable or enthusiastic about the devices. These champions were responsible for find new ways that they could be put to good use, and training their colleague on how to use them.
To address the WiFi coverage, Williamson deployed Eduroam, a pan-university wireless network from the UK’s higher education network service provider JANET.
With connectivity sorted, she then addressed the software issue. She installed RDP Lite and Pocket Cloud, two applications that allow staff to access desktop PCs via the iPads. This means they can renew books, change passwords, reserve rooms and provide other services to students while on the move.
With technical difficulties removed, Williamson then focused on changing staff and student perceptions, PCs on the upper floors have been removed and staff have been provided with shoulder bags for the iPads.
So far, the changes seem to have worked, Williamson reports. "Anecdotally, we’re finding that it’s a vastly improved service and people are using it more than we’d expected second time around," she says.
"We now have a roving enquiry service that is mobile, and can provide all the functions of a helpdesk but at the point of need for the students."