Apple’s iPad Officially Passes the Higher Education Test

Note to Reader: I was working on this when I heard that Steve Jobs died. This is not directly about him since I have no words, just an empty space, a sort of hole in the universe … it’s about Steve Jobs and Apple and all the unknowable and uncountable ways in which they changed life on Earth. This is but one more …

iPad in classroom

Reed College finds that the iPad excels under the same conditions in which the Amazon Kindle failed a year earlier.

Apple’s iPad received glowing marks for its performance in college classrooms from the eagerly anticipated Reed College evaluation, according to a new report shared with Fast Company. The iPad’s smooth interface kept up with the lighting-quick pace of college lectures, helping it to overcome the very same gauntlet that killed the Kindle’s hope of education dominance a year earlier. Most importantly, the report predicts an explosion of opportunity for both Apple software developers and tablet competitors.

After extensive student interviews throughout the Fall 2010 semester, “The bottom line feeling was that the Amazon Kindle DX was not adequate for use in a higher education curricular setting,” Chief Technology Officer Martin Ringle tells Fast Company. “The bottom line for the iPad was exactly the opposite.”

The most impressive iPad feature was also the simplest: a smooth scrolling touchscreen. “The quick response time of the touch screen was highly praised and seemed to be extremely beneficial in class discussions because it allowed students to navigate rapidly between texts to reach specific passages,” notes the report. In contrast, the Kindle’s joystick navigation was exceedingly slow , and “the delay broke into the natural rhythm of the discussion and therefore was unacceptable,” says Ringle.

The silver-medal feature, with only a few strikes against its score, was the highlighting and annotation of text. With the exception of scanned PDF files, the students found “highlighting was easier on the iPad than on paper;” annotation was found to be adequate, but not quite as good as paper. This was a pleasant discovery for Ringle, since the Kindle’s highlighting “capabilities were so meager” that students ditched the device and begin to “print out all of the materials on paper.”

In a surprising twist, the iPad’s notoriously cumbersome application switching was too slow for recreational web surfing during class, but still quick enough for Internet research, leaving students more attentive than with a laptop. However, as devices become more sophisticated, this vacation from the distracted classroom will likely be short lived.

Apple’s new favorite child is not without its flaws. The virtual keyboard is a pain for composing anything beyond short notes. The nonexistent file system makes finding important documents difficult and sharing across applications nearly impossible. Finally, managing a large number of readings in PDF format becomes a major time-suck. Syncing PDFs via iTunes was found to be “needlessly complicated,” emailing marked-up versions back to oneself was “prohibitively time-consuming,” and even the cloud-based storage, Dropbox, “failed to work seamlessly with PDF reading/annotating applications.”

Glitches aside, the students enthusiastically developed a symbiotic relationship with the tablet, using it for much, if not all, of their courses and study time. Ultimately, Reed’s stamp of approval simply demonstrates that tablets do not leave students worse off. The more exciting possibilities, such as interactive textbooks, social network integration, and field data collection, will likely become a reality in the very near future.

Unlike the Kindle, some schools did not bother waiting the device to be thoroughly tested; iPad mania overwhelmed higher education’s traditional wait-and-see culture of intellectual restraint. New York City schools recently ordered 2,000 devices (for a cool $1.3 million), Stanford Medical School requires it for first year students, and Pinnacle Peak Elementary in Arizona enshrined Apple with a digital lab of 39 iPads. Now, with Reed’s data to back up the hype, cautious bystanders will have all the more reason to hop on the bandwagon.

Perhaps the most impactful discovery was that none of the iPad’s strengths are unique to Apple. According to the report, “the new wave of Android-based tablets seems likely to provide an appealing alternative that will result in the coexistence of at least two competing tablet operating systems.” Additionally, since none of the available applications completely satisfied classroom needs, the field is wide open for developers to claim prime real estate in this very lucrative new market. And, if the tales of Facebook and Google are any indication, the new champions of education might not be a McGraw-Hill or Blackboard, but a couple of intrepid tinkerers toying around with their new tablet.

Thank you Steve and my heartfelt support for his family during this very very hardest of times

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