Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 2011 Early Indications: The iPad as a Teaching Tool

Last year I was given an iPad by my university with which to
experiment. Here are my impressions at the end of the school year.

As a media consumption device, the iPad excels. I have written about
this previously, but in the interim the Economist has begun
simultaneous publication of iPad and print magazines, and I am
surprised by how little attention I now give the print book even as I
remain a dedicated reader: the iPad presentation of the magazine's
signature content is, on the whole, excellent. (Sometimes print pages
and tablet pages are a weird multiple, so half-sentence "widows" are
not uncommon.) I appreciate the eye candy of Flipboard but seldom
read it. Movies are a treat, and the combination of print and video
makes the iPad a perfect travel companion. As Walt Mossberg noted, it
can also do enough e-mail (given wi-fi access) to serve as a business
tool for lightweight communications on the road.

Similarly, gaming can become addictive given the intimacy of the
device. Much like the Kindle for bedtime reading, the iPad is compact
enough to live on the nightstand. Versus the machine I am 609-7
lifetime in Scrabble, and willingly demo it for word-addicted seat
mates on airplanes. Zynga's Words with Friends is far easier on the
tablet than on the iPhone.

The demands of teaching, however, are of a different sort, and here,
the iPad gets poor reviews. In part, I hasten to add, this grade
reflects the state of the surrounding infrastructure. Even so, there
are three serious hurdles to professorial adoption of the tool.

1) Even though I have the proper expensive dongle, the iPad does not
easily drive an external projector. At the time the control panel
lacked a video out control, so a separate app is necessary. I taught
the Harvard Business School case on the MLB iPad app development and
wanted to demo it for my class. I brought the tablet in the week
before with the cable only to find that no signal left the device.
Plan B was to use the document camera on the podium, so I came in
early to set that up, reduce the glare as much as possible, and get
ready to demo At Bat. This time, my undoing was the wireless network
in my building, a known issue that I had failed to test beforehand.
Fortunately my class included some sports fans whose raves about the
iPhone app carried the discussion.

2) I am typing this on the docking station, my first encounter with
the keyboard, whose action I particularly like as I work at the
kitchen table. In a future/retro juxtaposition, the portrait
orientation recalls decades-old word processors. The problem is the
lack of a mouse: mixing touch-screen and keyboard input is awkward.
To Apple's credit, however, the dock holds the iPad securely enough to
peck at it for corrections, even if the cover had to come off for the
dock to accept the tablet. I did not purchase the slideware app, and
am happy with my usual desktop rig for such purposes. Maybe the iPad
would work better on a plane than a laptop, given the tiny workspace
on most airline tray tables, but I build few enough decks that I never
performed that experiment.

3) My original goal was to replicate some of the benefits of grease
pencil with transparencies: I wanted preprinted slides that could be
marked up with underlining, emendations, updates, dramatic gestures,
and other tools to increase student engagement. My former colleague
Steve Sawyer used a circa-2005 Microsoft tablet to good effect in this
regard, but I have yet to make my finger-dragging look good in an iPad
app. Dan Bricklin's Note Taker is well designed, but my efforts at
freehand input were awkward at best and often illegible. Replicating
such scrawl in front of students was an unappealing prospect, so I
continue to wait for a tool that merges presentation slides, ease of
use, and real-time interaction. For all of the iPad's many strengths,
for handwriting capture, the stylus was the right tool for the job.

Stepping back, it's amazing how a general-purpose platform with great
form factor, battery life, graphical vividness, and wireless access is
transforming the hardware market. Single-function devices, whether
for gaming, automobile diagnostics, bedside patient care, GPS, or even
test instruments, now must be re-envisioned not as appliances but as
applications. The speed of this transformation is truly stunning: I
saw a full-feature oscilloscope the other day that basically makes the
tablet into a peripheral. And what can it mean when test instruments
can be networked, effortlessly, across geography? Just as with
medical diagnostics -- real-time EKG via the iPhone is old news --
being able to collaboratively troubleshoot without being tethered to
AC or Ethernet will bring new ways for teams to work.


Previous iPad reactions:


VGA adapter:

Portrait word processor screen:

Oscilloscope app: