Organic Chemistry classes will require students who do not already have one to purchase an iPad (or similar tablet) for the purpose of taking examinations, according to an email sent to students at 11 pm last night.

Update 9/3/2020 at 1:23 pm EST: Professors Phillips and Doubleday have announced that they will be suspending the tablet requirement, citing “concerns” raised by students concerning the cost of the devices. The professors will share more information regarding Organic Chemistry I test administration at a later date. The original article continues below, as does the new email announcing the plan’s suspension.

With less than a week before the first day of class, Professors Karen Phillips and Charles Doubleday emailed students registered for Organic Chemistry I that they would need to have “access to equivalent and reliable technology in the form of an iPad or similar tablet with a stylus that can be used to write directly on the screen.”

The professors cited the return to a letter grading system—as opposed to universal Pass/Fail system implemented for Spring 2020—as necessitating this change. The email states that since university professors “must be prepared to issue letter grades…that are comparable with our regular-in person classes, [they] must be prepared to administer timed exams that can be completed within the class period.” As such, they have opted for a system in which students open an uploaded PDF on a tablet (preferably with a 10-inch screen), which students will then write on with a stylus, save, and turn in. While they highlighted that this device could be useful for note-taking, organization and collaborative problem-solving, it does not seem to be required outside of exams.

Phillips and Doubleday cited a class survey in which nearly half of currently registered students said they already had a tablet that met their specifications, but that implies that over half the nearly 400 students enrolled (as is reflected in the Columbia Bulletin) will have to try to obtain one in the coming week.

Following this announcement, incoming Orgo students have cited a number of concerns over this new policy on social media. One of the most significant concerns raised was that of the expense this imposes upon students. The least expensive iPad Apple advertises on their website is $329, and the Apple Pencil is an additional $89. The email outlined several low-cost alternatives to Apple products. The cheapest linked was $150 (stylus not included), which could be a significant burden to low-income students as well those whose summer employment and/or family have been impacted by COVID-19’s economic devastation. Doubleday and Phillips suggested that students for whom this would be a financial barrier reach out to their academic advisors about whether financial aid can be applied to a purchase such as this or if they faced other hardships.

However, unlike peer institutions such as MIT, Columbia has not offered to provide tablets or other devices to those who do not currently have one or find themselves in need of an upgrade to their current systems. CC and SEAS have announced a $4,000 per semester allowance for those living off-campus “to help with living and technology expenses related to remote learning.” However, this has been assessed as part of a student’s financial aid package and is not a direct payment to the student for technology-related expenses. The Dean’s Assistance Fund (DSAF) is only available to students with a family contribution of $5,000 or less and most semesters and typically cannot be used to cover textbooks or technology that Columbia includes as part of its cost of attendance. In Spring 2020, DSAF was expanded to include expenses brought on by the transition to online learning but it is not currently clear whether this will continue to apply for the Fall 2020 semester. 

Another notable concern students raised was their ability to acquire a tablet on such short notice. Class begins in less than a week and due to a surge in remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, tech supplies are currently in high-demand; schools are already facing shortages and long delays in receiving laptops. This is an issue that Orgo students will likely face as well in getting their tablets. Also, shipping time and affordability will differ depending on where remote students are currently located. For example, international students who have not returned to campus may face additional hurdles in getting a product in a timely fashion that others may not.

Finally, a few students have noted that the process of editing a PDF for an exam can be unreliable. One Reddit user commented that “PDF is really a final product, it’s not intended to be edited” in the way that would be required to take an exam via this system. As such, many students could potentially lose their work during a timed exam and be forced to start from scratch. The email notes that there will be a practice test students must complete to familiarize themselves with the PDF system, though that may not catch one-time errors that could come up during a timed test.

Bwog has reached out to Columbia College and Professors Phillips and Doubleday for comment on the issues raised and we will update this post with any additional information we receive.

The email sent to students has been included in full below.

Dear Students,

One of the biggest challenges that we faced when transitioning to online instruction during the spring semester was how to administer exams equitably while also ensuring necessary standards of academic integrity. Because all courses in the spring were graded on a Pass/Fail basis, that allowed for much greater flexibility in the way that we administered our exams. However, since we must be prepared to issue letter grades for the upcoming academic year that are comparable with our regular, in-person classes, we must be able to administer timed exams that can be completed within the class period (or in whatever time students with Disability Services accommodations are allotted).

In order to do this, all students will need to have access to equivalent and reliable technology in the form of an iPad or similar tablet with a stylus that can be used to write directly on the screen. PDF files of exams will be posted on Canvas through the Assignments window and all students will be able open the PDF on their tablet, complete the exam by writing directly on the PDF with their stylus, and then save and submit the completed PDF. As you will quickly realize once we get into the course, with its unique symbolism, this is something that would be impossible to do with just a computer and a keyboard.

In response to the survey that we asked students to complete a few weeks ago, close to half of the students in the class already have a tablet that can be used for this purpose. All other students will need to acquire one as early as possible in the semester. We will provide the opportunity for students to try out the process of opening, completing and submitting an exam with one of the practice tests that we have posted on Canvas. It will be essential for everyone to participate in this practice in order to ensure that you will be confident in completing the process before our first actual exams for the fall semester. We are certain that you will also find a tablet to be quite beneficial for note-taking and reorganization, as well as for collaborative problem solving that you might have to do in Recitations for this class and others.

Please feel free to reach out to us or contact your advisor if you have questions or concerns about this requirement or anything related to it. Your advisor can provide additional guidance if financial aid can be applied to this purchase or if it creates a significant hardship for you.

Best regards,

Professors Phillips and Doubleday 


In order to make the process of finding a tablet easier for you, we are providing links to a few suitable models with a wide range of prices below. In addition to iPads, you will see that we have also listed some models that operate on different platforms that we have been assured you will be able to use effectively for completing our exams. We believe that a model with a 10-inch screen size or larger will be best.  We will also provide links through which you can purchase these items with an educational discount wherever possible. Links to additional models will be provided through the Canvas site for the class.

Apple  – Any iPad, iPad Air or iPad Pro will work, along with an Apple Pencil. Please note that iPad and iPad Air models support the 1st Generation Apple Pencil while iPad Pro supports the 2nd Generation Apple Pencil. This link will allow you to purchase Apple products with an educational Discount:

This link shows some of the special offers available for college students who purchase Apple products:

Samsung – There are a variety of Samsung Galaxy tablet models available with educational discounts and with an S-Pen included:

This link is to a particularly cost-effective model:

Lenovo – This model was recommended by a sales representative from Lenovo. If you include her Rep ID 2900730501 in the Rep ID Field right above the final checkout button, she will actively manage your order and provide you with any updates. If you use the coupon code WELCOME a discount will be applied to the purchase if no other coupons have been added:

Evidently these tablets work with a simple, rubber-tipped stylus that can be purchased separately: +for+touch+ screens&crid=32XW8IGZ4SLSO&sprefix= rubber+tipped+stylus%2Caps%2C149&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_20

I will be providing examples of lower cost tablets soon. I will also open a Discussion Board where you can share information about tablets that will work for this purpose with your classmates.

Update 9/2/2020 at 3:21 pm EST: Professor Doubleday’s response to Bwog questions are in italics as follows:

Have you or other professors reached out to Columbia administration to ensure that there are resources available to help students who cannot afford this technology obtain it? (For example, the Dean’s Assistance Fund does not typically cover technology-related expenses and is only available to a certain number of low-income students.)

We have discussed financial aid at length with the appropriate deans, and they are aware that many students will require financial aid. In addition, a source of extra funding for tablets has been identified and proposed to the deans. We are waiting for their reply.

Technology demand has increased during the pandemic, leaving it difficult to obtain many low-cost laptops and tablets; are there alternatives in place for students who might not receive their order in time due to the delays?

As of 8/30, there were at least 30 10-inch Android tablet models on Amazon selling in the $80-$100 range, all apparently in stock. We will continue to monitor this.

Will students who can not obtain this tablet be able to remain in the course, or will they have to drop the class and hope to take it upon an eventual return to campus?

Everyone will remain in the course, and one way or another every student will get a tablet.

Are there measures in place for those who might have poor Wi-fi or other technical issues that might make it difficult to complete a test in one class period or might otherwise cause PDF edits to be lost before they can save?

Well in advance of the first midterm exam, we will have a practice run in which students download an old exam, work the problems and upload the answer. This will allow us to identify unstable Wi-fi and other technical problems. As long as problems are not widespread, we will be able deal [sic] with them on an individual basis, so that everyone’s exam is received and graded.

Updated email (9/3/2020):

Dear Students:

Since writing to you earlier this week about our plans for Organic Chemistry exams this semester, we have heard from several of you about your concerns about the cost of a tablet and stylus. While we have been working to identify funds to help students who would find this cost outside the scope of financial aid or other financial resources, we understand that, without the confirmation of specific funds at this moment, the possibility of the personal cost to students is causing a good deal of anxiety.

We are therefore suspending the plan to require students to obtain tablets while we continue to research a solution that will allow us to achieve the goals of our exams without placing undue financial burdens on students. We will share new information soon about how our exams will be administered and how we will ensure that all students will have access to this method.

Please know that we are dedicated to teaching a course that is both rigorous and equitable. We appreciate your understanding as we do everything we can to support the academic structure of our course and work effectively with you, our students.

Best regards,

Professors Phillips and Doubleday

iPads via Wikimedia Commons