And So It Goes

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IT

iLearn with the iPad

Steve Jobs w/the iPad (Courtesy: Newsroom)

One of the challenges of returning to school, two plus decades after high school, lies in the ability to adapt, evolve, and utilize current technologies designed to assist students in their educational endeavors. The days of brown paper bag book covers and 5 subject mead notebooks are quickly becoming extinct. Today it’s digital books, web portals, electronic documents, and social media. After spending considerable time deciding upon the best way to organize myself for class, I’ve found that I’m most productive using an iPad.

Alright, there are some people out there that sour with the mere mention of an Apple product. Going to a technical school, almost all of the focus is on Windows and Linux based solutions. As a result, we have a few people that will throw out the ‘anti-apple’ banter as soon as they see the device. However, I’ve found the iPad to exceed expectations I had for it as an ‘out of the box’ solution. It is not a desktop or laptop replacement. I think this is the biggest misconception people have. It’s often phrased to me in the form of this question … “I need a new computer and I was debating if I should buy a laptop or an iPad.” If you need a laptop, buy a laptop. The iPad does a lot of things well, but it’s not really designed for high end photo editing (Photoshop), web development (Visual Studio), or complex office documents. Yes, there are some apps that offer a lot of basic functionality, but many advanced features are noticeably absent.

So, you might be wondering, if an iPad can’t do everything that a laptop can do, why not just buy a new laptop for school? Here are the advantages I’ve found of using the iPad in lieu of a laptop.

  • No Strings Attached – It’s not necessary to bring along any cables or power cords. I do have a small wireless Bluetooth keyboard that I’ll throw in the bag if I know there is a lot of typing I need to do. The touch keyboard is adequate for general notes during class, but when keying a major amount of data or when dealing with text that requires special characters, the wireless keyboard eliminates the need to switch between the various touch-screen layouts found on the device. In fact, I like the weight, size and feel of these Bluetooth keyboards so much I’m using Apple keyboards with all of my Windows machines.
  • Size & Weight – The iPad is much smaller and lighter than a notebook. In fact, I think it is even lighter than some of the net books on the market. I can easily fit the iPad, a couple of notebooks, and a couple of textbooks in my messenger bag with plenty of space to spare.
  • Battery Life – I’ve streamed music while typing papers for almost 20 hours over two days with battery life still remaining when it was placed back onto the docking station to be recharged. I was totally impressed. My laptop would require at least two battery replacements (or charges) in the same amount of time.
  • Instant On – Often times, you want to look up something quickly in your notes or confirm if an e-mail has arrived. It takes several minutes to startup a laptop, connect to the Internet, check your mail, and then power back down. I can achieve the same functionality with my iPad in just a minute or two.
  • Orientation – The ability to turn the device from portrait to landscape is an awesome feature. It maximizes the screen space based on your particular need. If you’re reading a single page, keep it in portrait mode. If you’re working with a spread sheet or viewing a wide table, turn the device to landscape mode. After working with this feature for a few days, I noticed how much it enhanced the user experience.
  • Zoom – I was apprehensive about the ‘touch’ interface. After all, I would consider breaking someone’s fingers if they repeatedly touched my monitor in the past. However, the face of the tablet wipes off easily and the ability to ‘pinch & pull’ areas of the screen that you’d like to zoom in upon is deceptively useful. For example, if I’m reading a technical article on a website that uses frames, there are often advertisements, menus or unrelated content in frames surrounding the article you want to read. You simple place one finger in the upper right and one finger in the lower left corners of the article and push them away from each other. This zooms in on the article you’re reading and maximizes your reading space.
  • Apps – Apps are small programs that are downloaded to the device. Apple’s app store is huge and there are alternative ways to run apps directly from 3rd party vendors. Unlike most of the popular Windows applications, these programs are small, cheap and offer additional functions through periodical updates (at no additional charge). Now, I will say that some apps are much better than others and you should exercise due diligence. Look at some of the reviews to get an idea of what may not be worthy of exploring. Still, most people aren’t put off to much by a $3 purchase should it fail to pan out.
  • iTunes – I have to admit, I’m not a fan of the iTunes interface and this is the main application used to sync content between your computer and the iPad. It’s been my personal experience that larger libraries are prone to sluggish performance and a real demand on the resources. For the ability to transfer files back and forth and for the ability to consolidate my iPod, e-book reader, e-mail, and web browser, it’s tolerable.

Once I had the iPad up and running, I needed to decide what apps to use for class. I knew I needed Internet access, e-mail, and some sort of note taking ability. Below is a breakdown of the apps I use regularly for school. There was a lot of experimentation, which has eventually led to these staples:

Safari App
Safari

App: Safari Web Browser
Cost: Free
Pre-installed

Safari is the default browser that comes with the iPad. I found it adequate for most of my browsing needs. It doesn’t display Flash, which is bothersome on sites that display exclusively Flash content. However, I haven’t really found this to be too much of a problem. Often times, content providers will have their own iPad apps that provide an equal or better viewing experience than what’s offered through a browser. That being said, there are third party browsers apps out there for those looking for richer media features. I found that it allows me into my school’s virtual library without a problem and all of my bookmarked sites, less a few blogs that contain Flash content.

Email app
Email

App: Email
Cost: Free
Pre-installed

The e-mail client that comes with iPad works great. It automatically sync’s to my Outlook account on a Windows 7 machine and with my Google Calendar accounts. It allows for multiple incoming sources and many apps interface with it directly. The contacts interface could have a better GUI interface, but it’s usable and also syncs with Outlook.

iBooks icon
iBooks

App: iBooks
Cost: Free
Link: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059

This one is a no brainer. It’s free and it’s integrated with iTunes. I convert all of my notebooks into .pdf files and they’re stored on my iBooks bookshelf. Additionally, I have several digital magazines (like IEEE Spectrum) and IT manuals archived through iBooks. Those with Kindles can utilize the Kindle app to allow you to read your Amazon purchases on the iPad.

Note: I did a lot of exploring with various note taking applications, some free and some paid. I think that how a person feels comfortable taking conventional notes will have a large bearing on their preference of iPad app. Although some apps focus on audio notes and some on handwritten notes, I like to type my notes. As a result, my preferences favor interfaces that feature typed notes.

Pages icon
Pages

App: Pages
Cost: $9.99
Link: http://www.apple.com/ipad/features/pages.html

Of all the apps I reviewed, I think Apple’s own ‘Pages’ offers the ability to create some of the richest and most polished documents. If you wanted an app that has a Microsoft Word feel, I would recommend this one. It will read and export to Word format and can sync directly with Outlook Notes, which I utilize from time to time. I think this product could be improved by allowing connection with Microsoft OneNote — maybe down the road.

Chapters icon
Chapters

App: Chapters
Cost: $3.99
Link: http://slidetorock.com/apps/Chapters-iPad-notebooks.html

As I previously mentioned, I prefer to type my notes. However, there are times when I want to duplicate a diagram that the instructor has on the board or record a particular part of a lecture. So, I tried and tested a few notes applications that had more advanced writing features (Notes Plus, smartNote, Evernote, etc.) but when it came right down to, I preferred the ‘Chapters’ app. The interface is easy to use and the app is stripped of most of formatting options I’m not interested in. The application is very stable and I can apply a security key to individual notebooks. Although this application can be used for school subjects, I found myself using this app for free writing projects and notebooks containing various programming language syntax. As with the case with this review, I typed the draft in on the iPad and then export it to Word to apply any styles I may want.

Complete Class Organizer icon
Complete Class Organizer

App: Complete Class Organizer
Cost: $4.99
Link: http://www.completeclassorganizer.com/Complete_Class_Organizer/Home.html

I started looking for apps specifically designed for classes. I came up with three that I used simultaneously to determine which interface I liked most. The two runner ups are CourseNotes and iStudiez Pro. iStudiez Pro has much more functionality to track grades. However, there was a lot of input required for setup and I had more than couple instances where the software would freeze up during extended editing sessions. Often time, data entry was lost and required re-entry. Since I discontinued using the app, I have seen updates released to address ‘stability’ issues. I haven’t run the latest version or I can’t really comment on if the revisions corrected the problem. The CourseNotes interface was much more stable, which turned out to be the determining factor. Along came Complete Class Organizer, which I think offers the best of all worlds. It has a much simpler interface, it’s integrated with the calendar, and the developer appears to be working hard to release new features. Within the Complete Class Organizer itself, I can record audio from the lecture, draw freehand illustrations, track assignments, record grades, and much more. There is even a built in interface for locating text books. This would be my first recommendation for students looking for an integrated organizer.

Flashcard Deluxe icon
Flashcard Deluxe

App: Flashcards Deluxe
Cost: $3.99
Link: http://orangeorapple.com/Flashcards/Default.aspx

I’m a flashcards person when it comes to studying for exams. This app is really pretty slick. It offers several methods of displaying note cards. It stores multiple decks, each with tons of display and tracking options. Yes, it keeps score and can send missed cards to another deck, allowing the student to focus on what they still need to learn. Another really cool feature is the ability to import card sets (or decks) from the free service Quizlet.com. This site offers the ability to create decks, share them with the public or a study group of your choice, and has many options for learning and testing on the deck’s contents. Even if you don’t have and iPad (it also has an iPod/iPhone app as well) you can utilize this service to study individually or in groups.

… And so it goes.

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