By Katy M. Walker
Technology in the classroom has been written about and researched extensively. We can no longer imagine a classroom in higher education without a Wi-Fi connection any more than we can imagine a CMC classroom without a smart board or computer cart. At least I can’t. But that doesn’t mean that every single new shiny thing that comes along should be used. I confess iPads were sort of a question mark for me. How would students use them? How would faculty use them given CMC’s current IT infrastructure? Are they just glorified netbooks? I frequently stopped and asked students and faculty about their tablet use and connectivity issues, trying to get a sense of it.
So when Suzanne Thompson of the Office of Innovation loaned me an iPad for a couple of months I was excited! Her only request was that I write this blog. I expected I would love the iPad, and after test driving it around, I would rush out and buy one. But, in fact, I was disappointed.
I didn’t see the point of them. I believed laptops were far more useful and versatile to both students and faculty. I worried about the interface between the Smart board and iPad and concluded that until the Smart board could connect easily, using Bluetooth technologies, what was the point? Additionally, I was troubled that cash-strapped students were wasting their money on shiny new gadgets that, in the long run, might not meet all their needs. Finally, I was dismayed that Ebsco Host (CMC’s largest academic database vendor), didn’t have an app for the iPad. Needless to say, I didn’t rush out and buy one.
Then, I read an article written by Texas Tech University librarians who explored the practical uses of the iPad. I should disclose, as a librarian, I take notice of research done by other librarians especially with regards to tech gadgets. So, when the librarians at Texas Tech looked at the practical uses of the iPad, for both students and faculty, and concluded the iPad was useful, I thought maybe I should reconsider my disdain for the iPad. Fortunately, Suzanne Thompson graciously allowed me to reexamine the iPad.
This time, I looked at three specific areas: eBooks, articles and note taking.
At this point, CMC libraries have over 130,000 eBooks. This represents a large portion of our academic collection, so accessing academic eBooks is important. The majority of our eBook collection comes from Ebsco Host. Students and faculty have the option to check out (download) an eBook or read it online. They can also email or print up to 60 pages of the eBook. With the iPad, I was specifically looking at the download options and how they worked on an iPad.
In order to download an eBook, you must have a content manager. A content manager displays the eBook correctly and it manages the embedded digital rights in the eBook. The vast majority of the eBooks in our collection will work just fine in Adobe Digital Editions. (You can download it here) But on an iPad, you must install an app called Bluefire Reader to manage your eBook content. Fortunately, it’s free and can be easily found in the app store by name. Once you get that installed, you can now download an eBook from Ebsco Host eBook collection.
The second biggest part of our eBook collection comes from Overdrive and is part of our collaboration efforts with many other public and academic libraries. (The eBooks from Overdrive are primarily popular fiction and non-fiction.) Thankfully, eBooks from Overdrive will open up in Bluefire Reader, provided you choose the right format. But that is another blog entirely; let’s not go there today.
After I successfully downloaded and installed the Bluefire reader app, I checked out an eBook from Ebsco Host and from Overdrive with no problems and read them for the allotted amount of time. After the check-out period expired, the digital rights in the eBooks made the items inaccessible on the iPad.
So, iPad gets a check plus in the eBook column from me as they download and open easily.
It goes without saying that articles are a big part of a student’s life, and most students use them for academic research. Downloading articles out of our database wasn’t as smooth as I’d hoped, but eventually it worked. First, I tried to save the article using the save feature on Ebsco Host interface. I did not get the full-text PDF I was expecting. Next, I opened up the full-text PDF in the database interface and discovered the floating PDF tool bar would not manifest itself on the iPad. That was very disappointing. Then I realized that I could only see the first page of my article and could not access the subsequent 21 pages of my article using the database interface on the iPad. That was almost a deal breaker for me. I am not sure if this is a database issue or an iPad issue.
The solution to getting an article out of the Ebsco Host database is to email the full-text PDF article to yourself from the database (Ebsco Host allows you to do that), and then retrieve it from your email. Once you’ve done that, the article will open up in a Safari tab or in iBooks. I prefer reading the PDF in iBooks. You can bookmark it in iBooks and do simple keyword searching in the document, using the search feature in iBooks. Additionally, iBooks will store your PDF whereas reading the PDF in the browser will work only as long as the tab is open.
So, iPad gets only a check in the article column from me. You can read them, but it takes some work to get them.
Note taking is a frequent activity of both students and faculty. I wondered how that might work on a device that has no external USB port or external method to deliver documents to another device. Apple designed this to be a cloud computing device; they have no plans to add external ports. The only way you can move your notes from the iPad to another device is to push them up to Apple’s cloud and then pull them down on another device like a computer. Of course, this requires you to have an Apple account, but if you have an iTunes account, chances are you have access to Apple’s cloud.
For note taking, Apple has developed an app version of Pages, so you can create documents using the iPad. The app is fairly robust and has several templates built in; however it’s still an app. It can’t do everything Pages can do on an Apple computer. Plus, there are still significant compatibility issues between Pages and Word that make using Pages almost more trouble than it’s worth. A better solution might be to take notes in Google Docs.
Also, I wondered how functional the captive keyboard would be in a note taking situation. I’m a touch typist and having to look at the keyboard actually slows me down. I quickly realized the captive keyboard wasn’t going to work for me in a note taking setting and connected the Zagg keyboard. The Zagg keyboard is an expensive add-on to the already pricy iPad, and honestly, I’ve never seen student-owned devices that had that add-on. But, without the Zagg keyboard, I would have quickly given up.
So, I’m giving the iPad a check minus in the note taking department. Without an expensive add-on, the captive keyboard is not very practical when you are trying to keep up with a meeting or a lecture. Additionally, with Pages compatibility issues, using it can be troublesome if you want to move your notes to a PC platform.
Some other things I like about the iPad are the ability to start up quickly, the touch screen and some of the non-academic features like Facetime and games. I think the quick start up time appeals to students, as well. In my library, I often see students using their iPads (or a PC tablets), in conjunction with the desktop computers. They refer to the iPad, read something, and then write something using the desktop computers. Most of the students I see in the library pop for the pricy iPad but there are a few who use a PC tablet.
So, after the second look at iPads, I can say that they are useful to students and faculty. I think they are most useful when there is a keyboard attached. Here is my best advice: contact Suzanne Thompson in Office of Innovations and ask to borrow CMC’s iPad. Take a close look at some of the practical functions you need—like reading on an iPad, cloud computing and note taking—and then decide if this is right for you. As for me, I’m going to save my money for a nice new Apple laptop.