A Test for the iPad: Will It Bring the Internet to the Beanbag Chair?

Ryan Anson, AFP, Getty Images

April 07, 2010

Two words best capture why the iPad might fit well on college campuses: beanbag chair.

The comfy chairs embody what campus life is all about: Work gets done, but in a laid-back and collaborative way. Officials of trendy technology companies make sure to have a few of the chairs around to show that their companies share that creative ethos (especially those that call their headquarters "campuses").

But it's hard to use a laptop while sitting in a beanbag chair. And that seems to have bothered Apple developers, who made operating their new tablet computer more like sketching on a notepad than typing at a desk. In other words, it's the first computer that's beanbag-friendly.

And that's what has some college officials excited about the devices: Not that tablet computers might replace laptops (already owned by most students), but that they might become the Internet portal that is just lying around in students' living spaces, ready to be picked up and consulted for a study group and then set aside. The iPad might bring computing to more playful and collaborative areas of student life. Well, that's the vision, anyway.

I'm writing this column on an iPad, sitting on a couch with it propped, very casually, on my lap. After just a few days with it, I still feel as if I'm adjusting to the machine. Either I'm learning how to use it, or I'm unlearning habits picked up from so many years with a mouse. But one thing that is clear is how casual and unobtrusive it is compared with a laptop. It flips on in a second, so there's no big production of opening a lid and going online. You can look up one quick thing and move along without having that feeling of, "Well, since I'm online, maybe I should check my e-mail and Facebook, too."

At least two colleges—George Fox University and Seton Hill University—have announced big plans to hand out iPads to freshmen this fall to see what happens when hundreds of the tablets are scattered across a campus. At Seton Hill, students will get both a laptop and the iPad—which does start to sound like a lot of high-tech school supplies.

Students don't seem to be rushing in to be early adopters of the gadgets. Many college stores said they had a few preorders but had not sold out. Interest among students seems high, though, and many have come to a store to check it out and get a sense of whether the on-screen keyboard is good enough to take notes during class, whether the 9.6-inch screen is big enough to comfortably read textbooks, and whether they actually need yet another computer—one that is bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a laptop.

Most initial reviews find the iPad a winner as a machine for consuming a range of media content—TV shows and movies look great, as do books, magazines, and newspapers. The bigger question and a point of disagreement among those who have tried iPads is whether they can also be a tool for producing content, as Apple claims.

When students are using an iPad in a beanbag chair, will they be sketching out their next big idea or vegging out to their favorite episode of Jersey Shore?

Composing vs. Consuming

One academic-technology leader has devised a personal experiment to test the iPad's limits.

Cole W. Camplese, director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, has vowed to carry one around for a month and use it as his only mobile computer. When he's in his office, he still uses a laptop connected to a large monitor. But he has stopped using his iPhone to surf the Net and check e-mail, and he no longer carries his laptop on trips or to meetings. He is reporting on his experiences on his blog.

This week I checked in with Mr. Camplese to see how things were going. He said he was surprised to find that the tablet computer blends in to the background more than his laptop did. "With a laptop, you open it up and it's staring you in the face," he said. "The iPad is sort of laying on the desk, and I find myself keeping it off more." He said he hoped that it would have a similar effect in the classroom. Students can now hide behind their laptop screens, chatting online with friends during class without the professor knowing. But a professor would have an easier time seeing what students are doing on their iPads, which could help keep their uses limited to classroom activities.

One of Mr. Camplese's favorite features is somewhat mundane: long battery life. Apple says the machines can go for 10 hours between charges, which means he never carries around a power cord, as he did with his laptop.

A focus of his experiment is whether the iPad can be used to write and create as well as surf the Net. Mr. Camplese said that he had created a short presentation for a meeting using Keynote, Apple's answer to PowerPoint, and that he was surprised at how natural it felt to drag images onto his slides with his finger and resize them by putting a finger at each end and stretching them.

It can take more time than with a mouse and keyboard, though. And when he wrote his first blog post on the iPad, his thumb accidentally hit the wrong spot and he exited the program, losing all of his work. It sounds as if he'll be ready to go back to using his laptop on some trips when the experiment ends.

In my own attempts to write with the iPad, I've had mixed success. The graphical keyboard is much easier to use than the keyboard on the iPhone, which is cramped on the smartphone's 3.5-inch screen. But cutting and pasting quotes from my notes seemed a hassle, even though it is possible to do by selecting text with your fingers and tapping it into place. About halfway through composing this article, I switched back to my laptop so I could make my deadline.

Apps for Students

The key to whether the iPad catches on in education will probably be whether innovative applications emerge for the new tablet.

Two of the most-talked-about apps so far rethink what an educational book or Web site can be. One of them is Elements: A Visual Exploration, which manages to make the periodic table seem cool by mixing large graphics with historical information. And Star Walk provides an easy-to-use map of the night sky, turning the iPad into a kind of personal planetarium.

Textbook companies hope the machine will help them sell e-textbooks. CourseSmart, a company created by major textbook publishers to sell their electronic editions, stresses that its iPhone application works on an iPad, and it released a promotional video that shows students easily taking notes, watching lecture videos, and organizing their study calendars on the devices.

Blackboard, the largest course-management-software company, released an iPad app last week that it says will let students "check grades and assignments, add discussion-board comments and blog posts, e-mail instructors and classmates, and much more."

It took the iPhone a couple of years to make its way to campuses in significant numbers, and the same will probably be true for iPads if they catch on.

At this early stage, several universities will run small experiments in a class or two. That's the case at Penn State, where Mr. Camplese plans a few small pilot projects to try the iPads in classes in the fall. He's hoping that about 20 professors will be given iPads, as well as some students in their classes, as a continuation of an e-textbook experiment that has used the Sony Reader, a machine designed for reading books.

"The talk now is either 'the iPad is going to destroy creativity as we know it,' or that 'this thing is going to fundamentally change education forever,'" said Mr. Camplese of the debate he has seen on blogs and Twitter. "Neither of those things are true, and there's something there in the middle. I'm trying to figure out what's in the middle."

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