Laptop, Smartphone and iPad – do learners need all three?

People have been blogging about the ipad and its potential for education ever since the thing was announced.  I got my hands on one last night and here are my first impressions.

I have a laptop and I have an iPhone.  I’ve not had a desktop computer for many years – nor do most students.  For me, the laptop is a workhorse used heavily for email, calendaring, note taking, browsing websites, and reading and creating documents.   The iPhone is primarily for social and leisure purposes, used for texting, phone calls, weather forecasts, maps (with the GPS) and listening to music.  There’s crossover in my usage of the two devices of course – I’ll often check my email or calendar on the iPhone, and I use Twitter and Facebook on both, depending on which machine I’m using at the time.  So is there space in my life for another device which is basically just a giant version of the iPhone (but without being able to use it as a phone)?

Portability
The iPad is a lot more portable than my laptop which already looks like a dinosaur in comparison.  There are probably many occasions when I would consider taking the iPad but would think twice about carting my laptop along.  It is less portable though than the iPhone which is always in my pocket.  As a learner on a university campus or a whole range of other situations I’d be happy to carry around an iPad all day – it weighs less than a textbook and is much thinner.

Typing
The iPad gets the thumbs up on portability, but how usable is it for note taking or writing essays?  I’ve become adept at typing with one finger on the pop-up keyboard of the iPhone.  I also touch type on my laptop.  I’ve found touch typing on the iPad’s pop-up keyboard difficult but I might perhaps get used to it.  With the keyboard dock, however, the thing is transformed into a mini laptop which I could imagine using for writing lengthy reports as well as emails.  Typing is therefore much faster than with an iPhone and the same as with a laptop.  If you use a couple of fingers to type, the keyboard dock, which seems to weigh as much as the iPad itself, may not help you much.

Screen
The quality of the images and videos is superb, though you’d find it difficult to use outdoors on a sunny day (as you would with all three devices).  It’s a better tool for face to face discussions than a laptop because the thing can be placed flat on a table and you could have more than one person touching the screen.  I might also feel more comfortable using this in meetings as flipping the screen of a laptop up puts a barrier between you and everyone else (who may suspect you are checking your email rather than fully participating in the meeting).

The touch screen of course is one of the killer design aspects of the device – as it is for the iPhone.  It’s faster, more intuitive and simply more pleasurable to touch icons and move things with your finger than it is to use a keyboard, mouse or touchpad to navigate around a screen.  The downside is the constant smears left from greasy fingers which need to be wiped off on a regular basis.

Connectability
There are good reasons why an iPad doesn’t have a USB port but it would be so nice to be able to plug it into a laptop or hard drive and simply drag music files, photos and other documents between devices.  Instead you have this ridiculous situation of having to use a third party application such as Dropbox to transfer files onto your iPad which doesn’t even have a file system you can access properly.  Plus of course you can’t actually junk your laptop because the iPad is designed to be synched on a regular basis with another computer.

The iPad connects beautifully to wifi at work but I have become so used to near ubiquitous internet access on my iPhone (via the phone networks) that not having similar network access on the iPad would make it seem crippled in comparison.

Applications
One reason I’m not yet ready to junk my laptop running Windows is the lack of applications I’ve become dependent on.  I take notes with OneNote and can do things like selecting a sentence and turning it instantly into an item in my MS Office todo list.  The standard Notes app on the iPad is totally basic in comparison.  Of course there are thousands of apps for the iPad under development and many already available but the sophistication of standard Mac and PC apps is not yet there.  I’m sure that’s only a question of time.

A colleague last week showed me a fantastic application where you point the iPad at a particular section of the sky and it shows you what the stars and constellations are in that spot.  The educational potential of this device which combines raw computing power, great graphics, adequate screen size, portability, touch screen, internet access and GPS is extraordinary.

The killer educational app I think for this device and our students will be for reading texts.  While I attempted to convince myself that I could read a book on my iPhone, it wasn’t exactly pleasurable and I never finished it.  However I think we might have finally got somewhere with this device and that people will be prepared to read large amounts of text from its screen in a way many have not been prepared to on laptops or desktop machines.  The printer is therefore set to become increasingly unnecessary and this confirms my view that the rows of books on my shelves will soon be as moribund as my LP collection.

I’ve downloaded some classic books for free and I think these are probably as easy to read as on paper and certainly a lot easier to get hold of.  I also downloaded the Financial Times app which makes the paper very readable and incorporates video clips.  The broadsheet and tabloid newspaper on paper is surely not long for this world.

Add hyperlinking,  annotation facilities which allow you to store and share your comments on the texts, interactive quizzes, the environmental benefits etc and it becomes ever harder to justify printing and sending out reams of paper to our students.  There are of course a few downsides not to lose sight of such as the necessity for a network connection and dependence on an electricity supply to keep the battery topped up.

Conclusion
I feel I could “love” the iPad in the way that I do my iPhone but have never before felt about any other electronic device.  It’s a thing of beauty.  It is also appallingly proprietary and locked down and will force me to go to the iTunes store continuously, making me part from time to time with relatively small amounts of cash.  The device is designed to work as an adjunct to my computer so I can’t yet get rid of that and I’m certainly not dumping my iPhone because it’s even more portable (and has a phone).  Steve Jobs is a genius because in less than 24 hours he seems to have created a need in me for a third electronic device, which I didn’t need before.  Millions of learners are going to find they enjoy the experience of learning on the iPad more than they do from their laptops or smartphones.  I hope others are going to give Apple some serious competition here but that doesn’t look likely in the short term.

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One Response to Laptop, Smartphone and iPad – do learners need all three?

  1. munkle marland says:

    As Jobs recently admitted, the iPad preceded the iPod but was shelved for commercial reasons, proving what a shrewd operator he is. It would no doubt have been the ‘betamax’ of slates. Instead he knew he could introduce the gesture and touch interface much more easily on a mobile in the smaller format of the iPod – it was begging for that kind of market change and all the other manufacturers had to follow his lead. Already we have seen the same happening with the iPad, as they rush out their ‘slates’ and ‘tablets’ and don’t even know what to call them. This is something different, maybe even ‘magical’, as Jobs defines it.

    Because the concept of no keyboard and no mouse is the ‘confounding’ element – it is the common factor that the iPod and iPad both share, and gesture and multitouch is what both ‘bring to the table’ in what can only be described as the “Post-PC” – ironically, Gates’ whacky idea of replacing the PC with a complete ‘table’ just proves how the guy never did ‘get it’.

    Meanwhile we have had to put up with endless media articles about Apple ‘fanbois’ buying iPads just for their ‘bling factor’ and all the ‘googliefans’ trying to prove their Android and tablet/slate creations are going to be the next iPod/iPad killers – but, like Gates, they too just don’t ‘get it’.

    The point is that iOS and the evolving forms of hardware being designed for it to be projected upon need to be seen as a bold and revolutionary “Touch Transition” that the human-computer interface is undergoing thanks to the vision of Apple. It is of course a big gamble that Jobs has taken, trying to persuade people to relinquich their safely-familiar but wrist-crippling mice, and the miriad reincarnations of their so-called ‘friendly’ keyboards (that require time, carpal surgery and money to be able to really touch type properly with!). The concept of the PC is engraved in their minds and moving from the Stone Age of computing is going to be slow and tedious.

    No, as soon as I saw the iPad and read articles by those who did ‘get it’, I knew instinctively that this was leading to something we had been waiting for as a much more sensible way of interacting with electronic media, especially in the realm of education and learning. Sure it has its awkward physical hitches and glitches at the moment, but so did most evolutionary devices in IT and multimedia – one glitch is still going to be the problem of voice recognition, input and control features needed to abolish typing entirely, but even that has progressed by leaps and bounds over the last decade and will not take too long to crack to an acceptable level.

    The iPad is just the beginning of a longer evolutionary trend of how we should properly be interacting with what have so far been called “computers” – hence the problem people have in fitting it into the right ‘slot’ between mobiles and laptops. The point is being missed yet again: it is just another reincarnation along the way that will lead to the replacement of all your outmoded devices – the iPud perhaps?

    Whatever it is or whatever it is called, it does not matter – for normal people, learners and those who enjoy their technology, the PC and mobile are dead and will only be clung on to by the techies, nerds, geeks, control-freaks and ninjaneers who are desperate to cling on to their overpaid IT jobs.

    Let’s move to a more comfortable, human form of learning/entertainment environment that opens up a much more exciting form of interaction for the younger generation. Why do you have a laptop instead of a desktop, Niall? – simply because it is more comfortable, moves with your person and can be shared more easily. The iPad or its successor is the next natural step.

    As for myself, as one of your oft-lampooned Apple devotees, all I can say is: Bring on the bling! Or, as Leonard Cohen might say: ‘Touchocracy is coming to the USA’.

    Long live the gesture/touch revolution!

    PS: I shall wait for iPad 2.9 and a lower price before I hit the barricades!

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