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iPads and the Embarrassment Factor

[This is a guest post by Doug Ward, who teaches courses in editing, reporting, history and innovation at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas. You can find him online at www.kuediting.com and www.journalismtech.com, and follow him on Twitter @kuediting.--@jbj]

News that all the graduate students in my Future of Media seminar would receive iPads for the semester generated a flurry of excitement.

Some students replied with exclamation points in their email messages. Some stopped and asked when the iPads would be available. Others passed on word to classmates and seemed to enjoy the envious responses.

Then something odd happened: The students, all in their mid- to late 20s, became self-conscious about carrying iPads. They refused to use them in public. They felt elitist. In their eyes, the iPad represented snobbery, a technological tool that no one needed and whose utility was far from apparent. Used to a graduate student frugality, they didn’t want to be seen as profligate.

I was surprised about the students’ embarrassment. Part of the experiment of having the iPads was to consider how tablets might fit into the future of media. Were they a fad or a potential institution? Would they displace laptops? Become a favored companion to smartphones? How might journalists use them? Educators? Students?

Not all students are tech-savvy, of course, but I was expecting these students to take to the iPad quickly and show me new ways of using it as we explored tablets’ place in the future of media.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Last year, a psychological profile of iPad owners described them as “selfish elites.” And earlier this year, a study found that those most likely to buy iPads had incomes of $100,000 or more.

Those characteristics described none of the nine students in my seminar, or me for that matter. Nonetheless, I understood the feeling of standing out while using an iPad. I had read about iPads making people targets for thieves, and was hesitant to use my own tablet too openly. On a recent train trip, I tried to use it covertly, though without much luck. The iPad immediately drew attention to itself and to me.

“I’ve got to have one of those!” a tween girl said as she stopped next to my seat. “Are they cheap?”

I told her no.

She groaned. “But I’ve got to have one! Everybody has one.”

Not true, of course, but in the cars of the Amtrak train, I saw a handful of tablets and at least a dozen e-readers. After the tween girl bounded back to her seat, a 60-something man across the aisle talked about his conversion to a Barnes & Noble reader for reading The New York Times. He had resisted the idea of an e-reader for a long time, he said, but finally gave in. Now, he said, he has no interest in going back to paper. He’s cut down on clutter and reads more than ever. That drew a comment from the man’s seat mate, who said he was still content with paper.

The comments I received on the train fell right in line with the experiences of my students. When they did use their iPads in public, the tablets became conversation starters, social instigators of sorts. People were curious, not derisive, even if the students themselves felt self-conscious.

We talked about this self-consciousness in class. Was this a case of Midwestern humility? Of anxiety about being at the head of the technological pack? Of being thrust into a social role they were uncomfortable with?

Perhaps all of those, they said. They seemed relieved that others were having similar feelings. The one student who hadn’t been self-conscious said she had become so after hearing the other students’ stories. They all wanted to push on, though, and had no interest in giving up their iPads despite the social discomfort. Three weeks into the semester, I’ve been seeing more of the students carry the iPads openly.

In the coming weeks, we will keep examining the feelings and perceptions the iPad raises. From the start, I had many questions I wanted the students to consider about tablets and the future of media. I hadn’t anticipated how personal this project would become, though. As we explore the future of tablets and the future media, we are also exploring ourselves.

Have you used iPads or other tablets in a class? How did your students react?

Photo by Flickr user Karen Horton / Creative Commons licensed

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