Increasing iPad Usability for Digital Literacy in Under-Represented Communities

Key Takeaways

  • After receiving 10 iPads, the library staff at Winston-Salem State University wanted to increase the devices' usability as a supplemental instructional tool, specifically for digital literacy, and let the campus community know about the new technology available in the Information Commons.
  • A project that involved students in the Deaf Studies Program learning to use and navigate the iPad with the Sign4Me application aimed to accelerate and facilitate their learning of American Sign Language.
  • The Sign4Me application and the iPad helped students learn and adapt to under-represented communities, in this case the hearing impaired/deaf community.

In the spring of 2012, the C. G. O'Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University purchased 10 second-generation iPads. We immediately began investigating how to incorporate and implement educational applications in the iPads for student use. In the Information Commons section of the library, we usually have educational activities occurring throughout the semester, and we wanted to expose faculty, students, and the entire university community to the potential uses of the IPads available through the library. We also wanted to become more proactive in sharing what our library could do for the entire campus. But how?

A Project for Digital Literacy Using iPads

The Information Commons Department, for which we work, promotes digital literacy. We noticed that Tamara Rhyne, an instructor in the Deaf Studies Program, had started using the library frequently with her class of students learning American Sign Language (ASL). We had ideas to accelerate and facilitate her students' learning, so we approached Rhyne with a proposal for collaborating.

First, we wanted to provide Rhyne with a stable, supportive environment in which to conduct her ASL lab exercises in the Information Commons, to ensure adequate seating, comfortable spacing between students, and effective learning. Additionally (and specifically), we wanted to introduce her to the idea of using the iPad with the commercial Sign4Me application to supplement her teaching and students' learning of ASL in the library.

Author Forrest Foster explains the iPad initiative from the library's perspective (2:15 minutes).

ASL instructor Tamara Rhyne talks about using iPads with Sign4Me in her class (3:35 minutes).

Use of iPads with Sign4Me in the Information Commons had both benefits and challenges for the instructor:

  • There was the typical learning curve for using a mobile touch device and new application, but it was straightforward. We gave the instructor and students a brief overview of how to use the technology, and then were available for technical and tutorial support during class sessions. The app did not require instruction for use.
  • The iPads prevented idle time when the instructor was working with individuals by allowing the other students to practice their signing using the Sign4Me app and understanding of words using the ASL Dictionary. Students could refresh their knowledge of vocabulary words or study new words and phrases on their own.
  • Sign4Me is more intuitive and advanced than the ASL Dictionary, which only spells words, but students had to be careful not to enter a word too close to English because the app spells out words rather than signing them in ASL. This provided an opportunity for the instructor to show students how to use the app appropriately to learn ASL, which is a visual language, and study both vocabulary words and phrases without becoming side-tracked or frustrated.
  • Use of iPads plus the Sign4Me app facilitated and accelerated both learning and teaching as students become more familiar with using the device and app. They could also use it for studying. The instructor guided students having trouble with a concept while the rest of the class continued to study independently.
  • The Information Commons provides a space conducive to the ASL lab activities, with appropriate seating for students to work together, with the instructor, or alone. Although it is not a classroom, the library commons adds the bonus of iPad use onsite.

Use of the iPads with Sign4Me had the following impact on the ASL students:

  • The students had to take personal initiative by practicing with the iPad and app while their instructor was teaching one-on-one, making them responsible for their own study habits and increasing their knowledge of and speed when signing.
  • Students told the instructor that they felt engaged, even elated, when using the iPAD and Sign4Me app, which made class more enjoyable than when the technology was not available. This excitement fostered their self-study in the class and willingness to spend time on task.
  • When a student inserted words and phrases properly into the Signe4Me app, the avatar in the app signed them back, which facilitated and accelerated learning within the class. Students also learned how to enter words in a way that called forth the ASL signs rather than the spelled out word because the entry was too close to written English. This lowered the barrier to using the app to learning ASL vocabulary words and phrases.
  • The iPad with Sign4Me app can also be a study tool, as the searches are saved and stored within the application. Students can then revisit problem words or concepts on their own schedule without having to conduct a new search.


Our experience with this project shows the value of using a mobile device, the iPad in our case, with appropriate apps to facilitate teaching digital literacy to an under-served community such as the hearing-impaired community. Both instructor and students found teaching and learning ASL faster and easier as they became more familiar with the technology, and both perceived increased engagement — even excitement — with the class as a result. Students also took more responsibility for self-study.

As a result of this successful pilot using iPads in the Information Commons, we plan to continue this collaboration to further study and identify the specific effects of technology on student performance and outcomes. Each successful initiative supports the library's (and university's) goal of fostering digital literacy and providing effective technology for our campus community.