Revisiting the iPad

In early June, I blogged about how I felt the iPad and similar touchscreen tablet devices would impact upon education. I thought it might be useful to revisit this post and assess its claims, four months on.

It’s also appropriate – as a user – to raise any problems I may have had with the device. And I do have one.

Since June, several new and forthcoming devices have joined the iPad ‘gadget-family’: the Samsung Galaxy, the Dell Streak  and the forthcoming Blackberry Playbook , to name the big hitters. In addition, increasing numbers of other Android-based tablets are available or in development.

Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages, and of course unique selling points. Not being a hardware geek, I’m not going to enter into a debate on the differing technical specifications. Besides, I haven’t even seen the other devices let alone carried out a usability study, so don’t feel in a position to comment.

But one things seems clear. In launching the iPad, Apple seems to have tapped into huge demand from the consumer for this form of always-on, Internet-and-app-enabled, tablet-based personal computing. (I’m assuming this demand is huge because practically all Apple’s competitors seem to be rushing to enter the tablet market.) As an iPad user, I completely understand why this demand exists.

But what about my claim that the iPad is ‘a game changer for education’? Certainly, there is increasing anecdotal evidence on the web of how the iPad is being used in educational settings such as universities and schools. (Read the excellent blog by Frasier Spears about his experiences of the latter). But this isn’t hard evidence.

Related to this, one comment on my previous blog raised the very reasonable  possibility that students will waste time in class/seminars/lectures if they have iPads (presumably watching YouTube videos or chatting to friends on Facebook).

But this is exactly the point I was trying to make in June. If wireless tablets are left at the door in a pile when students enter the classroom, then clearly something is wrong. ‘Crowbarring’ such a device into existing or traditional pedagogies is a waste of time.

However, when the tablet is successfully integrated into learning; when it becomes the only device required  for accessing websites, videos, VLEs and libraries; when it becomes the preferred medium for reading articles and books, and for annotating these; when it can be used for writing essays or preparing reports; when thousands of educational apps that benefit the learner, such as Mendeley  become available; when it enables social networking platforms such as Twitter to be part of the learning experience – then it becomes the educational game changer I was talking about.

At Beyond Distance, we firmly believe that higher education – for many, many reasons – needs to move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ model and offer more to learners. Central to this is utilising the online environment; a tablet device such as the iPad can help with this change far more effectively than any hardware we’ve seen before. Leaving the tablets at the classroom door is not an option.

I did promise one whinge about the iPad. The lack of ‘Flash’ capability – and I don’t really understand why it isn’t included – is detrimental to the overall usability of the device. Yes, it will be great when HTML 5 becomes prevalent, but until then, I – as a consumer – feel shortchanged by this issue.

And one final point about usability. Despite voluble online chatter to the contrary, the lack of a USB port on the iPad makes absolutely no difference at all.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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