Me and My iPad

When I thought about writing an essay discussing the iPad and its feasibility as an academic tool, my first thought after using one for the past few months is that the iPad is, for me, a very personal tool, thus the image of Oblio and his dog, Arrow, from the animated film, The Point. If you haven’t seen the film, it tells the story of Oblio, a round-headed boy in a triangle-headed world, and the dog is the pointy-nosed partner that helps him fit in. I’ve had a lot of history with tablet computing in academia ever since I was in charge of the tablet computing focus group several years ago. Back in the days when IT had funding for such things, I met once or twice a month with a group of about a dozen faculty members who were each given a tablet pc as part of the grant. Some of these faculty members used the tablet pc to grade and mark up student papers or take notes at meetings, a few of them brought the tablets into their classes, using them as either glorified whiteboards or to mark up or annotate PowerPoint slides in class. Whatever the use, the real problems we would inevitably run into involved the weight of the tablet or the size, or its inability to be truly wireless when projecting in front of a classroom.

Enter the iPad: So, when Apple finally decided to come up with a tablet computer of its own, many of the faculty members in our group were eager to try it out. I wasn’t convinced that the Apple iPad was going to really be an academic tool, though. In order for the iPad to be a really effective tool for academic use, I had enough experience with faculty members using tablets prior to this to know that Apple’s solution would need to get a few things right before I would feel comfortable endorsing its use on campus:

  • First, the iPad would have to be light enough and comfortable enough to carry around for an hour at a time.
  • Second, there would need to be some way of creating and marking up documents of all types: PDFs, Word, PowerPoint, etc. Along with this point, there would have to be good handwriting recognition software to allow for both handwritten notes and for translation from handwriting to type.
  • Third, there would have to be a way to project from the iPad wirelessly to classroom projectors.

Point #1: Weight and Portability

At 1.34 pounds, the latest iteration of the iPad (the iPad 2) is light enough and small enough to cradle in one hand while using the other hand for writing or using the touch-screen. That said, the iPad itself is probably a little too thin and slippery to hold without the risk of dropping it, so if you’re going to be using it while walking around in class, you’re going to need some sort of cover or grippy backing. The iPad smart cover is an ingenious piece of technology that magnetically adheres to the front of the iPad when not in use, and then folds back over the top of the unit to create a triangular handle. It also doubles as a stand. While I use the Smart Cover on my iPad, I have to say that the magnetic connector occasionally disconnects while I’m holding the iPad. The iPad hasn’t crashed to the floor yet, but my heart does skip a beat when this happens. I’ve tried a few other tablets running the Android OS, and none of them are as light or as comfortable to hold for extended periods as the iPad is.

Point #2: Inking and Document Creation

Inking refers to the ability to write or draw on the tablet with a finger or a stylus, and although the iPad is pretty good at this, I have to say that the ability to ink is more dependent on the App you’re using than on the inherent technology of the iPad. There are a few really good Apps I’ve found for taking notes and inking, as well as for document creation, but it takes some trial and error to find the App that works for you. And with some of these Apps costing as much as $25, it can be a pretty daunting task to go by the trial and error route to find an App you like. Here’s a list of the Apps I like, and what they’re good for:

Pages: This is Apple’s basic word processing app, and it works very well. You can use complex formatting and fonts, add images, and just about anything that you’d expect to be able to do with a regular word processor on a conventional computer. It opens documents created in other word processor programs, like Microsoft Word, and can even save as a Word document. There are no inking capabilities in Pages, so if you want to download a student paper and then use the iPad to mark it up, this isn’t the tool for that.

iAnnotate PDF: This is probably my favorite tool for document mark-up. Open a Word document or a PDF in iAnnotate PDF and you have a whole array of options for marking up the document. Write in the margins using a stylus (fine detail is retained very well, so even the scribbliest of my notes are still readable–to me, anyway!), create sticky notes, stamps, and more. I especially like this App to import documents I need to sign. I can open a form that I receive in an email, sign it, and email it back, all from within the App.

NotesPlus: I love this App for note-taking with my rubber-tipped stylus. The touch recognition is great, and I can organize my notes in notebooks pretty easily. There’s also an audio capture feature that I like when I can’t take notes fast enough or if I need to be accurate.

2Screens: I really like this app, because it lets you mark up PDFs or JPGs, gives you access to a whiteboard, includes a web browser that you can then interact with and draw on, and lots more. In fact, I haven’t purchased Keynote (Apple’s PowerPoint-style app) because 2Screens is such a nice presentation tool. AND, you can use AirPlay and AirPresenter to send the images to your Apple TV. This brings me to point #3, projecting what you see on your iPad to an external device.

Point #3: Projection: So projecting what you see and hear on the iPad to an external device can be fairly challenging. There are two basic ways to do this: first, there’s tethering your iPad to the external device via the iPad connector, and second, there’s projecting content wirelessly. The first option requires a cable and can be a good option if you don’t mind standing in one place while using your iPad. You can purchase an iPad to VGA cable and connect your iPad easily to any projector in any classroom at the College. While this option is definitely convenient, it does mean that you’re stuck pretty close to the cable input while you’re using the iPad. The other option, going wireless, is a great possibility, but necessitates a wireless connection to an Apple TV device, which unfortunately is currently not available in our classrooms at the College. So if you’re dreaming of wandering around the classroom untethered, that’s going to have to wait for a while. I do have an Apple TV at home and the iPad does a fair job projecting to it and out to my TV, but that’s beside the point of this article.


As good as the iPad is at what it does, I’d have to say that it still is more of a cool toy (a really cool toy) than a game-changing tool in academia. It takes some effort to get it to do some things, like inking and projecting, even though it does ultimately do all those things. If you’re not a technophile, you may be frustrated with it, especially if you’re expecting to use it in a very specific way that may not be the way it’s best used. Also, having to buy new Apps in the hopes that they will do what you need them to do can get a little annoying, and can be expensive. My recommendation: buy an iPad if you plan on using it for your life, not for your work, and if it happens to fit in with the way you work, then that’s just a bonus.


About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College