Last fall, Bobby Brown, a graduate assistant with the University of South Florida's recreation facilities department, started reaching out to other collegiate recreation professionals to ask about their experiences implementing iPads ...

(image Kris Hanke/istockphoto.com)

Last fall, Bobby Brown, a graduate assistant with the University of South Florida's recreation facilities department, started reaching out to other collegiate recreation professionals to ask about their experiences implementing iPads or other tablet devices among their programs. "I asked questions like how long they have had them, how many gigs, how often they need to be recharged, how to monitor apps, deal with damage, whether or not a contract is used."

After hearing back from 15 universities that had used tablets and more than 20 that were considering the investment, Brown developed a proposal for his own department, which resulted in a request for funding in its 2013-14 budget proposal. "Our primary purpose would be for a green initiative, to save on paper costs," says Brown. "We use quite a bit of paper, and if we could just put all of those forms on the iPad, that alone would save us a lot of money."


Saving paper and money is just the beginning. For Iowa State University Recreation Services, which put iPads in its student workers' hands about 16 months ago, it was about keeping up with the times. "I was thinking, our university invented the computer," recalls facility operations assistant coordinator Andy Laughlin. "It was 2011, and we were still taking a clipboard and a pen and writing notes, and then handing them off to be input into a computer. There had to be a way to streamline this."

The solution was only logical. "Everybody has an iPad, iPod, iPhone," says Laughlin. "It would make our job easier to incorporate technology that students already enjoy using and are familiar with."

The problem was that while most student workers would likely know how to use the device, Laughlin himself wasn't familiar enough to know exactly how to make an iPad do all the things he thought it could do. With few program examples to look to at the time, Laughlin did the most sensible thing and went down to his local tech store. He explained what he wanted to do, and employees suggested some apps and offered their guidance. The facility operations department decided to go ahead and purchase just one iPad and tested it for several months before making an investment in seven more.

"It does everything we want," says Laughlin. "We were able to transfer all of our forms to the iPad. You fill it out, you save it and it automatically emails it. That right there was huge. Intramurals also uses them. Supervisors use them for scorecards, as well as rule changes and training for officials."

Seeing how successfully the technology had been able to accomplish everything the department wanted, recreation services started to explore uses previously not considered. "After that, we thought about the injury reports. You're able to take a picture of an injury, as well as fill out the report and send it to the supervisor, and if the participants would like a copy for their insurance records, we can email it directly to them."

Taking pictures is also an advantage for streamlining maintenance issues, Laughlin says, allowing employees to snap a photo of whatever the issue is and send it directly to the person in charge of repairs. And as much as the ability to convey information with pictures is a boon to operations, the ability to produce and access videos has proven to be an even more successful tool.

"The video was not an initial concept of ours," Laughlin says. "We were just trying to eliminate paper and streamline, but to realize what you can do with video..." The program created its own YouTube channel and loaded it with resources for employees, including recordings of staff meetings for students who might have missed them. An even better use has emerged in the form of supplemental employee training in CPR and first aid, among other areas. "We have volleyball nets that drop down from the ceiling, and there are step-by-step instructions we had to make so you don't scratch the floor, break the poles," says Laughlin. "We would always talk about it in training, but inevitably somebody's going to forget. We actually went out and made a video and put it on the iPad."


So what are the cons of investing in tablet devices? "That was the feedback I was looking for but didn't get," says Brown, though he cautions, "I think it's because people haven't had them for very long."

That, in itself, was a concern for Brown. Technological devices tend to decline in performance over time and become obsolete, eventually leading to the need for complete replacement. While this is a foreseeable expense that can be budgeted for, other issues might prove more costly. Investing in protective covers reduces the risk of damage, but can't prevent it completely. "We have one with a cracked screen," says Laughlin, noting that one out of eight isn't bad, given that the devices can see upwards of 18 hours of use each day in active environments.

Facility operators need to take precautions to keep the devices safe when not in use, as well. "Every institution I talked with has a security box or safe in their recreation center," says Brown. "They're heavily guarded."

Another of the major concerns Brown says he came across in his research was how to monitor employees' use of the devices to ensure they are not using them for anything inappropriate. There are ways to limit what programs and applications can be accessed on tablet devices - ISU uses parental controls, but Laughlin also points out that student employees are generally mature enough not to take advantage of something that makes their own job easier. "They don't want to go back to clipboards and paper, so they actually take very good care of them. They put them back where they're supposed to go, and they have the covers on them."

Moreover, Brown cautions that facility operators' preoccupation with monitoring the devices can overshadow their purpose, leading to more work created than saved. "There has to be some kind of trust with your students and these devices," he says. "As professional staff, we're not here the entire day to monitor students. We're trusting our students with multimillion-dollar buildings when we're not here, so we should be able to trust them with these."


Tablet devices can revolutionize a program's operations, but utilizing them takes some planning. Program operators should have a clear understanding of what tasks they want to be able to accomplish with the devices and how, and all employees need to be familiar with those goals. "We didn't want to buy them just to have them," says Laughlin.

While most student employees are already familiar with the technology, they likely aren't familiar with apps specific to the recreation program or know when to use them. "When we hire new employees now, part of our training is iPad training," Laughlin says. "We sit down for a half hour to 45 minutes to train. Anyone who is working in our facility will be using an iPad at some point - except our lifeguards, of course."

Furthermore, the potential of tablet technology can be limited if the rest of a program's technology isn't up to par. While a Wi-Fi signal might be commonplace in the recreation center and other campus buildings, the sports fields are most certainly another story. "Let's say you're with intramurals and out at the fields," says Brown. "Is there a signal out at the field? How strong is the signal? You might be able to go to one area and get a good signal, but be at the other end of the field and not have any signal."

Such failure could be perceived as poor customer service, says Brown, and a reason that some programs opt to pay for a cellular service that allows them to create 3G or 4G wireless hotspots. It's just one of the many practical issues (and expenses) to consider before making the technological leap.

But once the leap is made, says Laughlin, there's no going back. "We're really starting to get a feel for how we can use them," he says, almost a year and a half later. "In the next year or two, something will change and we'll try to stay on top of that. We're really trying to home in and make what we're doing better."

Emily Attwood is Managing Editor of Athletic Business.