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Essay on use of iPad by academics

iPad for Academics, 2 Years Later
April 9, 2012

If there is anything that I have learned in the course of using an iPad, it is how much I love my computer.

Two years ago I wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The iPad for Academics.” Now, two years and two new models of iPad later, it seems time to revisit some of that original column: How well does it stand up, how did my predictions turn out, and what have I learned since then? The answers are, roughly, "good" "O.K." and "a lot."

When I wrote my column, no one was sure what the future held for the iPad, and there was serious skepticism about the more apocalyptic predictions. In fact, somewhat boringly, Apple's release of the iPad did what most Apple products do -- change the world, sell millions of units, and alter our information ecosystem irrevocably -- but it didn’t end the world.

In the two years that I’ve had the device, it has indeed become indispensable to me. It’s become my alarm clock, my radio, my television, my crossword puzzle, and above all (as I said in my original column) my reading device. I use it to read and read and read. It creates opportunities for reading I didn’t have before. In fact, I use it to read my own work -- the dreaded rush to print up conference papers finished moments before my panel has been replaced with a casual saunter to the podium, glowing digital copy of my paper in hand.

My iPad has excelled in forums where paper used to hold sway, and having it (or my iPod Touch) with me at all times means that I’ve discovered new times and places to do work. It’s great.

But it’s not a laptop, and it never will be.

As I and many other people have noted, the thing is for consumption, not production. I’ve tried using it to write and take notes -- using a Bluetooth keyboard with it, even using one of those cases with a keyboard built in, ridiculous little styluses, etc. There’s no way to get around the fact that the human body is not evolved to interact with a pane of glass. I can type faster than the keyboard can buffer, creating strings of illegible characters. At other times Apple’s pathetic spell checker stops me in my tracks.

And then there’s the interface. I suppose for some people the iPad’s interface works just fine. But once you’ve tasted the power of a multi-windowed environment with fully customizable keybindings, the iPad feels like a small, padded room. You can’t have two windows open at once in an iPad. Who can do serious academic work one window at a time? Not me, not any more -- and I’m not going back.

Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.

In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it -- I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.

I don’t have a problem with students bringing their iPads to class, and there are times in some of my smaller seminars when we are all reading the text from our iPads. But even this consumption is starting to worry me. Does anyone really believe that digital textbooks are going to improve life for anyone except the textbook manufacturers? Like some mid-nineties wet dream of the content industry, digital textbooks have all of the DRM and none of the shareability of paper textbooks. And despite the potential of multimedia presentation, it’s not clear to me that they will prove to be anything more than a regular textbook with a few YouTube clips thrown in.

And the low prices? Remember when ATMs were first introduced and there was no fee for using them? Yeah, I don’t either -- it was so long ago the idea that improved service for free seems like a distant memory. The future the digital textbook market has planned for students is not, in my mind, a very bright one.

Two years down the road I’m glad that iPads exist, and I’m happy that most of the hype about them has been more or less borne out. It has a valuable place in our information ecosystem. The danger comes when the iPad becomes a replacement for other technologies that preceded our ubiquitous flat friend -- and still do their job better than it can.

 

Bio

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

 

 

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