The iPad for Academics

The iPad for Academics
July 12, 2010

Teachers and students have always been an important market for Apple — a fact made clear by the tremendous amount of spit and polish that went into the new education website the company recently unveiled. But honestly: What do Apple’s slickly produced promo videos of adorable multicultural elementary schoolers have to do with us? And just how relevant is their newly-released iPad for what we do? Do academics really need to shell out five hundred bucks for what is essentially a big iPod touch?

After having used an iPad shortly since its release I can safely say that the device — or another one like it — deserves to become an important part of the academic’s arsenal of gadgets. Choosing to plop down the money for an iPad is like Ingrid Bergman’s regret over leaving Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart. You will do it: not today, not tomorrow, but soon — and for the rest of your life.

At base the iPad is an anything box that replaces a seemingly endless plethora of other things you already own: It's a TV, a radio, an MP3 player, a compass, a flashlight, a level, a deck of cards, a calculator, a photo album, an alarm clock, a Bible, the Talmud (yes, the Talmud has been ported to the iPad)... the list goes on and on. The crucial question for academics is: What in our current arsenal will the iPad replace? After using the device, the answer surprised me: the iPad makes a lousy computer replacement, but it does a great job of replacing paper.

Let me begin by getting one thing straight: When it comes to weaning professors off of traditional computers, the iPad fails. It is simply not a good device for people who do serious productive work, whether that be reading, writing, or working with multimedia. The iPad’s on-screen keyboard simply cannot hold a candle to an actual keyboard, even for academics who are veteran texters well-versed in the use of autocomplete functions. You could get a keyboard for the iPad… but then you’d be using a netbook.

Apple deserves credit for making the thing as usable as it is, but it is still not quite there. You can browse on it, but you can’t quickly and effectively search databases. You can read e-mail messages, but it takes a tad too long to write them. The screen is much more generously sized than a cell phone… but such a comparison simply damns the iPad with faint praise. Over time the iPad may get more usable as the software improves, but its size will not. And so until the human visual field shrinks and our fingers no longer require tactile feedback, we academics will be sticking to our keyboards and screens.

Where the iPad does shine is as a paper replacement. The iPad is the long, long awaited portable PDF reader that we have hoped for. Finally, we have a device that preserves formatting and displays images, charts, and diagrams. After decades of squinting at minuscule columns of photocopied type we can now zoom in on the articles we are reading and perfectly adjust the text to the width of the screen. You can even highlight and annotate documents and then send the annotations back as notes to your computer.

True, some people do not prefer a backlit screen, but it’s great for reading at night, and despite some early evidence to the contrary, LED screens don’t cause eyestrain any more than eInk. The device is slightly heavier than the Kindle and Nook, but it is still ultra, ultra portable and ultra usable. It makes you read more and saves paper — which is clearly a good thing. Because of the iPad I’m finally untethering myself from paper files. In fact these days I’d rather buy an eBook and export the annotations to my notebook program than add another underlined book to my library — an amazing turnaround for someone who once ranted on this very website about his passion for paper.

The reason the iPad is such a great paper replacement is Apple’s app store. Devices like the Kindle sell you content from a single source and allow you to read it in a single way. The iPad, on the other hand, allows third-party developers to create (and sell) different "apps," or programs, that live on your iPad. This means developers can build better and better apps for reading PDFs, and we can use them without having to buy a new device.

Now, it is currently early days for the iPad and the software is still developing: I have to get my PDFs onto my iPad with one program, and open and read them with another. But clearly things will improve. The makers of the überbibliography program Sente are already working on an iPad app, and soon they and others will make the device even more useful. The only thing you’ll need that can’t be downloaded to the iPad to help you read documents is a stylus — that you’ll have to buy yourself, and trust me, it is actually quite useful, even on a "magically" touchable device like an iPad.

That said, the revolutionary thing about the iPad is not software for reading content, but for finding (and buying) it. The iPad represents the genuine retailization of academic content. Let me explain:

Currently folks like Elsevier act as content wholesalers, selling greats bucketfuls of the stuff to libraries, who then make it available to students and professors. As journals have slowly transitioned away from paper, they have pursued business models of the "purchase this enormous bundle of journals you don’t want or else our Death Star will destroy another planet of your Rebel Alliance" variety. Individual articles are prohibitively expensive, and academics must fight through a tangled, messy mass of proxy sign-ins and authentication web pages while their IT guys make embarrassing, eye-averting administrative decisions to not think too much about the copyright of what is being posted on class Web sites.

Amazon and others have led the way in producing apps that allow you to read content across different devices: once you purchase an ebook or from Amazon you can read it on a Kindle, an iPad, a Mac, or a PC. This in turn raises the question: What would happen if journals went straight to consumers and sold articles like they were mp3s? What if you could log on to your ScienceDirect or JSTOR app and get a complete browsable list of your favorite journal articles, available for purchase for, say, 25 cents each?

Academics are ready for this development. We’ve spent years suffering from Amazon’s fiendish "get drunk and use our one-click purchase feature" to buy books online, and we often download tons of PDFs to make us feel productive. Apps with alerting and micropayment systems could provide for massive distribution that would push new issues of journal to your digital reading device. As such they offer a world where everyone can read exactly the articles they want. Individuals, not institutions, could purchase content — exactly the content they’re like, regardless of whether their library subscribes to it or not. In such a system publishers might object that piracy would be a concern, but honestly: If you’re selling content to universities that license it to tens of thousands of students living in highly-networked dorm rooms, is an app store really going to make the problem worse?

There are plenty of outlandish scenarios to imagine: professors who create specialized current content lists or anthologies of classic or cutting-edge articles, essentially filtering wholesale content and retailing it to increase their academic prestige (or even a chance to dip their beaks). Classrooms where student readers are easy to assemble and cheap — something textbook companies have tried unsuccessfully to do for some time. Librarians free to give up their increasingly restrictive role as purchasing agents and get back to old (and new!) roles of developing collections and enriching their institutions.

A key feature of the retailization of scholarly content is that it be reasonably free of digital rights management -- and here academic publishing should learn from the music industry’s failed attempts to sell copy-protected music. The more open and reusable academic content is, the more reasons people will have to buy it. The great thing about PDFs is that, like MP3s, they are not copy-protected. While some, like the Google book settlement, have sought to meter content down to the word in the name of "choice," such a move will ultimately prove equally stifling. Neither locking down our ability to move texts around nor micrometering them to death are good outcomes for the future of scholarly communication.

As an anything box, the iPad has the potential to replace a whole variety of devices that we use in our research, from voice recorders to GPS units to tuning forks. To be honest, however, I am not sure just how many niches there are here for Apple to fill. The iPad is an expensive device to take to the field, and a lot of times it just cheaper and easier to buy a tuning fork. And in addition, the app store lacks the super-deep selection of specialized programs that are currently available for normal computers.

I'm sure there are certain cases where an iPad might make a great mobile device: photographers who want to view, edit, and upload their photos on the fly, for instance. Overall, however, by splitting the difference between dedicated devices and genuine computers, the iPad doesn’t show a lot of promise as a mobile platform for research and teaching. Of course if everyone is always carrying around an iPad already then they might start replacing voice recorders. It's hard to tell. My bet is that tuning forks and compasses are not going away.

Finally, I’ve been talking about how the iPad helps academics do academe better — but does it offer the ability to do academics differently? Is this device truly "magical" in a way that will radically innovate academe?

While I can imagine some innovative pedagogic uses of the device, what academics do is still narrowly defined — and tied to institutional, political, and economic imperatives. Some imagined the Internet would cause us to rethink what it meant for a text to be coherent — and it has, to a certain extent. But really it has just reinforced our chunky, discrete notions of texts by making it easier to share PDFs and .docs. The academy might be too obdurate to be easily transformable.

At heart, an anything box like the iPad might not be such a dramatic agent for change anyway. The iPad is a chameleon, able to assume the form of other things but lacking (so far) its own unique identity. You can introduce Twitter into the classroom, but Twitter is the innovative factor here, not the iPad. It may be that someone will write the killer app for the iPad that will mutate our activities in unimaginable ways. But for now those ways remain…. unimaginable.

Indeed, it may be that the iPad is just the harbinger of some future tablet device that is yet to come. That future device might not be from Apple, but it will owe a lot to the iPad. Ultimately, academics need a world full of devices they can pour information in and out of. The more open and interoperable our new ecology of applications, devices, and content providers are, the more our learning will enrich human life — whether the people selling us our readers, software, and content are Apple, Amazon, or someone else entirely.


Alex Golub is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.



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