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Early iPad thoughts

So I’m writing this on Thursday, after receiving my iPad (no, I didn’t stand on line, I had it delivered!) on Saturday.  That’s only about five days of use so far–but I do have some early indicators and ideas and reactions, and I thought I’d share them–especially because I just returned from a three-day trip to California (to Google–about which more in a later post), and I brought the iPad on the trip as my only computer.  I left the laptop at home.

First–the simple bottom line.  It’s a great device.  It was just fine as my only device on the trip, and while I wouldn’t want it to be (nor is it meant to be) my only computer at all, it’s good for even an extended time away from home.  So if you want only to know a simple thumbs up or down, read no further.  Thumbs up all the way.

But the longer response is that there are several ways in which the device is great, and those are worth exploring.  And of course there are ways in which it is not so great.  I’ll get to those, too.  So read on.

Why?

A student in my Alternate Worlds class asked “Professor Ugoretz, I was just wondering what inclined you to buy an IPad. I find the IPad to be another fad that symbolizes that one is keeping up in style.”  I think that was a good question–and for me there are answers on several levels.

First, personally, I like new gadgets, I like to try them out and test them and see what they can do.  I like to push them to their limits and beyond (I’m sure an iPad jailbreak will be available soon, and I’ll probably try that as I did with the iPhone).  So maybe that is the “fad” aspect that my student was asking about.  (But I certainly don’t much care what other people think of me having it, and I’m certainly not stylish in other ways.)

But it goes beyond the personal.  Professionally, it’s part of my job to think about how new technologies can be or will be used in educational settings, and to take the opportunity to test that.

So there was never really any doubt in my mind that I would be trying the iPad right from the first.

What I love

The list is actually pretty long, but it all fits together under the category of the interface.  I’ve seen lots of criticisms of the iPad saying that “it’s just a big iPod Touch” or “it’s just an underpowered tablet.”  I think both of those miss a critical element of what this device is.  It’s all about the interface.  The iPad is designed around this fact, and that makes all the difference.  Interacting with content without a mouse, with a direct touch of your own finger, makes everything more immediate and intimate.  When you add the mobility of the iPhone, but with a truly usable screen-size and resolution, it’s a major advantage.  I have had trouble letting go of the thing since I got it.  You always want it in your hand.

It’s true that it’s a device more for consumption than for creation, which was a criticism I heard and shared before I held it, but it’s also true that consuming media through this interface is a radically different kind of consumption, closer to creation.  More about that in the context of ebooks in a minute.

But it’s not just about consumption.  It’s only been five days, and already (from the start, in fact) we have the iWork suite which really is all about creation.  I’m not too experienced with and haven’t thought much about Numbers yet.  But Keynote and Pages on the iPad are completely different experiences than they were on a computer.  Keynote was always already far superior to MS PowerPoint, and on the iPad it becomes a whole new thing entirely.  Moving images on a slide with your finger, twisting and rotating them with two fingers, aligning them and rearranging them and having text flow around them automatically all with your own body as the only real tool you notice–that makes the process of creating a slideshow presentation into something like building or sculpting.  And a “word processing” “document” that can so easily include images which are really integrated with the words permits the easy (for everyone, not just the adept) creation of documents that do things that paper-based (“dead-tree”? “old-fashioned”?) documents can’t.  Creating documents (and of course presentations) can be more than just text–with ease and elegance in the process, too.

When you remove obstacles like a mouse (even if it didn’t seem like such a big obstacle before) from the process of making, building, presentations or documents, those presentations or documents can be a more direct and more informal and more frequently created and creative experience.  I see that as an unqualified good.

Back to consumption–something similar happens there.  I’ve been reading ebooks on the small screen (beginning with a Palm V, then a Treo, then an iPhone) for a long time.  I have never really minded the small screen, and I have always very much liked, loved, the backlight (I am a person who absolutely can not sleep without reading first, and the ebook with backlit screen is the perfect reading-in-bed solution).  But the iPad takes this to another level.  The big bright screen (and never let anyone tell you that color isn’t important) is great.  The page-turn interface is good (although not terribly important to me).  But making the text searchable (Ann Kirschner, my colleague at Macaulay, calls this an “instant concordance” and that’s a perfect term) and linkable to the web or wikipedia and integrated with a dictionary, at the touch of a finger, really takes advantage of what electronic books can do that paper books can not.  I don’t think ebooks should replace paper books.  I don’t think they ever will.  Paper books can do things that ebooks can not.  But the opposite is also true.  The iPad is the first device I’ve seen that really elegantly and completely lets ebooks be what they can be at best, instead of just seeing them as some kind of partly adequate substitute for a paper book.

Where this fits in

Let me take that ebook theme a little farther–specifically in terms of what this could mean for education.  There has been a lot of attention to Theodore Gray’s simply amazing “The Elements” iPad app.  This is where I think ebook initiatives for higher education should be going.  Not to simply re-create paper textbooks, but to do things that an ebook can do that paper can not.  The use of multimedia, the hyperlinks, the brilliant color and sound and factual information.  This is a learning tool.  A book is, too, but this is a radically different kind of learning tool.  It’s not really fair to call it a textbook.

More than just the multimedia and flashy (which are not trivial) effects, the tone of the factual information is critically important.  I think that web-based (or iPad-based) educational resources have the opportunity–the obligation–to explore different tones that more closely fit their media.  This is one of the huge strengths of the best (in my humble, biased, opinion) open educational resource right now, Smarthistory (for which I eagerly await the iPad app!)

Where the iPad can fit in higher education is in two connected areas– first, in helping to make possible these new ways of consuming content–these kinds of educational resources, learning tools, which are designed for the new medium and its own advantages, rather than trying to replicate the previous medium.  So that “consuming” really isn’t the right word–there’s a kind of direct interaction with the content–almost a type of creation itself.  And second, in helping to make possible these new ways of creating content–again taking advantage of exactly what the medium can do–using the tools (fingers) and the ideas directly, to create what you see and think and mean.  I really want to see where students will go with this–what kinds of presentations and effects and documents they will create and what kinds of responses and interactions they will have.  And third, that ease and intimacy of creating content and interacting with already-created content is really going to encourage and multiply that more informal, conversational, dialogic, provisional, digressive, tone. And all of that is what will be coming soon.

What is to come

2372-presidentpadd-homefront
The 24th-Century iPad?

What will be coming soon?  That’s the real beauty here.  The apps that are there now are only hints of what I’m sure will be coming.  Video editing? No real reason it won’t be possible.  Social annotation of images or texts?  Absolutely needs an app and I’m sure we’ll see one.  There’s room for brilliant developers here.  And rewards.  Sure, Apple controls the app store.  I don’t see that as being such a huge problem as some of my colleagues do.

We just don’t really know how the apps are going to come, when and what they’ll be, and that is really what is going to make this device shine.  For the iPhone, the apps have always been the main advantage–and for the iPad that’s going to be even more the case.

And hardware improvements, too–like a camera for videoconferencing, I guess–are certainly coming down the road.  This is the very first device of its type (no previous tablet has been in this genre.  It’s not the same kind of thing).  So there are naturally going to be competitors and improvements and new versions.  But long before any of that, we’re going to see more and more and better and better new apps.  I’m hoping some of our students will be building them!

What is not so great

No review would be complete without a few complaints! No device is perfect.  The keyboard is going to take some getting used to.  I think for extended writing, I’m going to want to use an external keyboard.  I can’t really touchtype very well on the iPad keyboard using all my fingers–even in landscape mode.

The rich text editor in WordPress is not compatible with the iPad browser in some way.  You can use the html edit window, but can’t type or edit at all in the rich text.  I’m sure there’s going to be a quick and easy solution for that soon (and the iPad WordPress app is OK–but not great for a WPMU install.  All of this may be moot with WordPress 3.0).

And this is not an iPad issue, but a Google Docs issue. You can view, but you can not edit, Google Docs (except spreadsheets) in the iPad browser (same is true for every mobile browser–including the iPhone).  I’ve been told that Google, as well as QuickOffice and other third parties, are working on fixes for this very soon.  Similarly, I’d like to see some close integration (opening, saving, editing) with Dropbox.  That could really make the whole cloud thing work with the iPad in great ways.

There are also some typical 1.0 type glitches.  Some websites don’t load or crash safari.  Some apps aren’t quite stable yet.  But those are really minor, infrequent, and to be expected.  This is a 1.0 version, after all!  I have not experienced the wifi issues that some users have reported.  Wifi has been strong and reliable for me so far.

So that’s where things stand right now!  I’m not the only iPad reviewer on the web by any means–but that’s how it looks from my own perspective.

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