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My three weeks with an iPad

January 9, 2012, 12:53 pm

Over the break, I had the opportunity to experiment with an iPad 2 that my department has purchased. The department is loaning the iPad out to faculty for two weeks at a time to see if there is a compelling educational use for the device with our students — in which case, I’m assuming we will try to buy more. As tech-obsessed as I am, this is the first time I’ve had to spend time with an iPad, and here are my impressions.

As a piece of high technology, the iPad is pretty marvelous. I’ve been an iPhone 4 user for some time now, so the beauty of the iOS user interface ought to be commonplace for me, but it isn’t. I can see why Apple marketed it as a “magical” device when it first came out. It certainly has the look and feel of magic. I enjoyed using it (and so did my kids, even though they were not technically supposed to be handling it).

But I always approach technology, especially educational technology, with the question: What problem does this solve? Frankly, I struggled to find an educational problem that the iPad solves that would not be solved better, and for less money, with a traditional laptop computer.

The professor who had the iPad before me had downloaded a number of apps that were sort of reference works — apps that list (and allow one to search) through mathematical formulas, for instance. I don’t see the value in these apps when a simple Google search will accomplish the same thing. That faculty member also downloaded a number of iPad-based educational math games for kids. My 8-year old tried some of these out, and while the touch interface of the iPad makes gaming pretty fun, she felt that the games themselves just weren’t that interesting.

I downloaded the Wolfram|Alpha app for the iPad. I already had the iPhone version of this app, and the iPad app is a big improvement due to the vastly increased screen real estate. The special keyboards that the W|A app provides are actually useful! But again, the W|A app is really just a fancy front-end to the W|A web page, so why not just use the web page?

I tried out two apps for screencasting — Screenchomp (developed by Techsmith, also known for Camtasia) and EduCreations. Both apps are free and allow the user to draw and write free-form on the iPad screen as you might do with a Tablet PC. The ease of use of these two apps makes screencasting a pretty compelling possibility for the iPad. It would be very easy to turn out a quick screencast for a class, whereas with the desktop versions of most screencasting software there is a good bit of video production that has to take place. But I was baffled by the lack of functionality on those apps, particularly the lack of options for exporting video. Screenchomp only exports to Facebook, and EduCreations only connects with Facebook or its own third-party video hosting service. Why not upload directly to YouTube instead? (Does that have something to do with the dogged insistence of not allowing Flash on iOS?) Or, at least, how about an export-Quicktime-to-Dropbox feature that would allow me to go retrieve the raw video and work with it in whatever way I want?

The one app I tried that really came close to “killer” status was iAnnotate, which allows annotation of PDF files. Since I’m interested in going paperless, this app was a high priority for me to check out, and I wasn’t disappointed. The interface is a bit fussy (I think they changed this in the most recent version) but the functionality is great and works perfectly. This was the only instance where I tried an iOS app and thought, “Why can’t we have something like this for the desktop?”

I will also say that many of the non-educational apps I tried out just for personal use were very good. Evernote’s iPad app is great (although the lack of ability to drag notes into folders is mysterious) and, strangely enough, the Trulia real estate app really shines. (It’s a situation where being able to have a big map on the screen helps.) The Kindle app is very good. The iPad is also good for watching Netflix, playing games, and doing other similar entertainment kinds of things.

And I suppose this is where I get my impression that the iPad as an educational device doesn’t quite cut it — the device still suffers from the impression you get that it’s great for consuming content but not so great for creating it. I don’t think my students get much educational value by me having a cool tech device in my hands; they have to be able to use it in order for it to be of real use to them. Unless the device allows them to compose, write code, or do something else similarly creative, the educational value of the device is going to be limited. For the $700 one might spend on an iPad, you could get a cheap but serviceable laptop and outfit it with some truly powerful software and use it as an effective educational tool.

How about you? Have you or your students been using iPads in an educational setting? Are you seeing any real value from the results?

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sucello/

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