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Keep taking the tablets. iPad: flop or flyer?

This post was written by Gareth Jones and first appeared on the LINE blog on 18th February 2010.

Gareth Jones, Lead Learning Consultant, gives his personal viewpoint on the usefulness or otherwise of Apple’s new iPad as a learning device.

The iPad has been described as the most talked-about tablet since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a couple of stone ones bearing the Ten Commandments. But for the world of technology-supported learning, the January launch of Apple’s device was only the beginning of a fierce debate. Is this the breakthrough device for mobile learning – or is it too limited in its functionality (no multi-tasking, no webcam, etc.) – to be any use for anything, let alone as a learning device? Is its limitation a virtue, increasing its usability and minimising support issues? Or just a complete showstopper?

Stepping back slightly from the discussion of the iPad’s particular feature-set, I’d like to say why, for me, it still represents a significant development for learning.

Apple kicks out the jams in m-learning

M-learning has been a hot topic in learning for some years now, but the devices available to do it on have been a large part of what has held it back. In the first place you had too many different devices and platforms to develop for, none of which seemed to have enough dominance or longevity to achieve the status of a standard platform.

Apple has managed to buck this trend by offering mobile devices which have achieved extended longevity. The iPod (lest we forget) is now ten years old. The iPhone is predicted by many tech analysts to have at least as long a life ahead of it, due largely to its admission of third-party content development in the shape of the App Store.

Ok, so we now have a proliferation of app stores instead of device protocols to contend with (Windows, Getjar, Nokia OVI, Blackberry Appworld, Android Market) but in creating the concept of the ‘app’, Apple cut the cord on mobile content once and for all, moving it an important step closer to device-independence.

But why might the iPad be a so-called ‘game changer.’ Firstly it gets close to replicating the physical experience of reading a book or magazine. When did you last try reading a newspaper on the iphone – the small screen and clunky navigation prevents you from scanning a page for articles of interest. Potentially with the iPad the experience of reading the Guardian will be closer to the real thing. You can scan for stories that catch your eye (the head line writers skill lives on!) and flick through pages – starting at the back and working forward if you prefer!

The size and shape is immensely convenient. Trying to read emails on a Blackberry whilst bouncing along on the 12.10 from Bradford to Manchester is not easy. With the iPad you can rest it on the table or your knee and how much easier to do your emails whilst watching television at the same time.

Tablet computers have been around for some time but the ones I have used have been quite cumbersome. None had the 10 hour battery life promised for the iPad.

At the same time, by physically scaling up the iPhone/iPod touch, and moving it into the space currently occupied by e-readers such as Kindle, Apple has dealt with one of the other major bugbears holding back m-learning: cramped and graphically limited displays.

The iPad offers in the future satisfying multimedia presentation of content, linked with increased bandwidth and growing geographical connectivity. These move us ever further towards a ‘holy grail’ of technology-supported learning, namely the embedding of information and knowledge within workflow.

Embedding learning within workflow

To put it in simpler language, imagine a salesperson en route to an important client meeting, with an iPad or a similar touch-screen device on the front seat of her car. In a motorway service station she calls up a nugget of learning on the latest features of her product, reads case studies and accesses real time test results and news relevant to her client’s organisation. She might also brush up on her negotiation skills.

Sure this is possible using a laptop, but have you tried reading (whilst stationary!) something on a laptop, even as compact as Toshiba’s Portege, balanced on the steering wheel.

The other benefit is the integration of the multitude of apps that are now available through the iStore. In the example above the salesperson would also be able to complete her timesheets and expenses within the same screen.

The power of iPad is potentially not so much the device itself but the opportunity to integrate word processing, excel spreadsheets, googledocs, work-based applications into a single interface that could dramatically improve the efficiency of the individual.

In terms of a more immersive experience, our increasing use of scenario-based and experiential learning where the learning takes place within the work context makes us keenly aware of the possibilities offered by devices like the iPad.

A perfect example of this would be the application a BBC team developed some years ago to support the task of recceing suitable locations for film shoots.

The process required a fair amount of form filling and the individual had to gather the data and then complete a report and all the necessary forms once they got back to the office. They were also required to have an encyclopedic knowledge of electrical regulations, health and safety, technical configurations of cameras and sound etc.

The application that was developed used the forms that had to be completed as the navigation interface and then added hotspots that linked the user to learning materials that addressed subjects they were not familiar with. Learning and work were integrated and the task was completed whilst on location.

Sadly the hand held device had a tiny screen and for this, and other reasons, didn’t take off. How different could the outcome have been if the iPad had been around?

Portability plus convergence

We’re getting a long way from the traditional e-learning scenario of an employee in a learning centre, divorced from the workplace, pursuing learning as a solitary – even isolated – activity.

Portability, plus convergence, equals a much wider range of possibilities for workplace learning. If the iPad, and the new generation of mobile devices it may well spawn, can help towards this goal then it can only be a move in the right direction.

The burning question

The iPad has great potential to improve personal efficiency. However the device as demonstrated doesn’t appear at the moment to allow the interactivity users now expect from high quality online learning applications. It doesn’t support Flash and the wonderful animations and transitions this technology allows.  This would limit the degree to which the iPad could be built into a learning strategy. The question now is; will Apple resolve this short-coming and if so when?