April 25, 2010

An academic's brief iPad review comment

I'm going to skip all the technical stuff you can read in other reviews of the device, so here's the bottom line: the iPad is useful for anyone who needs to read a lot of PDFs without significant effort, comment on some of them, and otherwise carry around significant electronic documents. For a faculty member, this is the immediate point of the iPad (at least to justify the credit charges to one's family). Please forgive me my technoskeptic sins, but I don't give a hoot what undergraduates might do with it for now, nor do I think any university should distribute iPads in some reverie for the coming Technirvana. It's good enough for me, now.

In the three weeks I've had the iPad, I've used it to review dissertation proposals, read several technical documents on impulse, catch up with some recently published reports and articles, keep up with e-mail, triage my online reading effectively, finish light writing (such as this blog entry), read enough book samples on the Kindle app to decide I don't have intention of buying the books, etc., all without the several-minute boot-up every time I use my year-old university laptop. The iPad is not a laptop/desktop replacement for intensive tasks such as editing, writing a paper that requires considerable formatting, or number-crunching, but it doesn't have to be.

For those who are curious: it took a few hours for me to figure out how to get PDFs and other documents onto my iPad in different ways. I can use an inexpensive program ("app") called GoodReader to read documents in a variety of formats, but editing them is different. iAnnotate lets me mark up PDFs. Right now, iAnnotate can pull PDF files from a mail-account inbox, and there's a way to setup a local network to transfer files in a slightly more awkward way. (You can't do it through the USB cable.) I suspect iAnnotate will eventually allow me to pull files from the iPad's browser (Safari). Word documents will go from almost any program into the (simplified) Pages word-processor. Pages will let me e-mail edited documents from the iPad, and iAnnotate's developers promise that's coming in the next major update. Pages has some frustrating limits--it strips incoming documents of all footnotes, for example, and I can't figure out how to change the fonts (the default is an ugly san-serif). But it's workable.

Since I have accounts with Dropbox (a cloud file service) and Evernote, I can use their apps to access what I have there. Memeo Connect Reader can grab my Google Docs and store them on the device when I'm not connected to the internet (and then serve them to other programs such as iAnnotate). These six programs cost me less than $20 altogether (the three mentioned in this paragraph are free). There are all sorts of other fun/convenient apps that I suppose you could justify for academic purposes (Instapaper, yes; NPR and BBC, questionable; NBA playoff app, definitely not), but these grab, read, and comment on file uses are what I bought the iPad for.

That "I don't give a hoot" comment above does not mean the iPad won't be useful for students, but like all other technologies touted as The One to Make All Learning Effortless, the iPad is a tool whose use will be shaped by all sorts of existing habits, student ingenuity, etc. Let's just say that while I expect there to be specific iPad programs that may be of some use for students, the more likely impact will be in how it might make interacting with websites different, and how websites might subtly change for everyone as a result (less Flash, for example). In a few fields, such as medicine, the iPad and other tablets will quickly become an obvious study device for students. And for students with low vision, the ability to zoom into a page as far as one wants may be very useful.

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Posted in Higher education on April 25, 2010 9:08 PM |