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Schooled on my iPad

The atmosphere is tense. I'm at Dulles International Airport and all flights are delayed due to afternoon thunderstorms. People are pacing back and forth, checking the flights status on their phones and airport monitors. Others resign themselves to the delay; power up their laptops, and bury themselves in screens of Word and Excel. Obviously, there are a lot of upset business travelers.

I am not upset. I have my Apple iPad, a slim tablet-computing device, for entertainment. I launch Need for Speed: Shift a racing game that allows you to tilt the entire iPad as a steering wheel. Soon, I'm sitting back in the chair near my departure gate, holding and tilting the iPad with both hands like a steering wheel, racing the other cars that appear on the iPad's 9.7 inch glossy LED screen.

An unhappy looking, formally dressed, older woman is sitting next to me busy working on something scholarly. She's reading a small stack of photocopied journal articles recognizable because of the specially formatted abstract and headings that only an academic paper would display. She is writing notes on a pad of paper and also editing some kind of document. A small pile of books sits on the floor.  Her space is a carefully balanced mess, but an intelligent and academic looking mess.

She sees my iPad turned race car steering wheel and gives me a disparaging and judgmental look, sort of to condemn how I could play a game while those around me are so obviously stressed out doing their grown up, work related stuff.

Little does she realize that despite my casual video game playing posture, I could change postures with the flick of a finger across my glossy iPad screen.

When compared to her overstuffed carryon luggage that might not fit in that overhead compartment of the plane, I am wielding a flat and thin multimedia-computing device with 32 gigs of storage capacity. I have four years worth of all my ongoing doctoral coursework and resources, several articles and books in digital format, all my music, pictures, some movies, and dozens of entertainment and productivity apps with me- all housed in a sleek, silver metallic device contained in a hip, rugged and sporty case. Work? Play? I'm ready....

I decide to respond quietly to her obvious, uninformed stereotype and show her the efficiency of a 21st Century student armed with technology.

She is reading and highlighting a journal article. No problem. I launch the Dropbox app to access my files. Dropbox is also installed on my desktop PC, Macbook Pro laptop, iPhone, and my Asus netbook. Through the Dropbox app, I now have access to all my files, which Dropbox synchronizes on all my devices. So, the journal article that I downloaded on my PC is now viewable on my iPad.

I choose to read my journal article with the iAnnotate PDF app that allows me to highlight and comment on my digital journal articles in PDF format.

She sees that I can also read articles on my iPad. The competition is on.

As she finishes reading the bottom of a page, she must physically lift the page and flip it around and refold the top corner. I am more graceful. I simply slide my finger across the screen to move from page to page.

She highlights a sentence with an ink marker. In the iAnnotate app, I use my finger to highlight a paragraph. Then, she reaches in her cluttered overstuff bag and gets another colored highlighter. No problem. I also change my "ink" colors to underline. I have a wide spectrum of colors. I choose a nice light blue-ish tone, or is that a teal color? So many color choices!

She sees me underlining in different colors and takes out a pad of paper to write notes. No problem, I have my Evernote app. Evernote allows me to keep an online notebook that is also synchronized between all my devices. I type some notes on my iPad's on screen keyboard.

She then opens a book.

No worries. I also have my books. I launch my Kindle app to access my trusty "Handbook of Educational Policy Research", over 1000 pages of research goodness, and it's in digital format so it weighs nothing. And I've got dozens of other similar books in my digital arsenal. My, oh, my...

I am winning this silent academic showdown.

While she balances the mess around her, I am just opening and closing apps with a flick of the finger. I even slouch in my chair, then standup and stretch, while reading, to show how casually I can balance these multiple tasks in one device.

Then, the tide starts to change.

She reaches for her pile of articles. She takes out two articles and, side by side, is obviously making some kind of comparison between the two journal articles, making highlighting and making notes effortlessly. She then pulls out a third article and continues her cross comparison, studying sections of each article carefully back and forth.

Perhaps she is trying to find similarities or gaps in her various articles. Academics like doing that stuff to identify topics for new research.

I also know how to make comparisons and identify gaps, but it's getting tough. I can highlight and make comments in individual articles. But I can't open two documents at once and make a side-by-side comparison. It's August, and multitasking support for my iPad is still months away. But, even if I could multitask, I am limited by screen size. Working with multiple documents is not easy on a 9.7 inch screen.

Then, to make things worse, she takes notes on her notebook while referring to the three different articles, highlighting, making notes, and writing on her paper pad. Then, she opens a book, and turns to a page, then makes comparisons between the book and various articles.

I am struggling to do the same. I close each app to switch between apps. I have to mentally remember what I'm noting in each document. I think about pulling out my iPhone to read my articles while I type on my iPad, but then I realize that using two devices would look desperate.

She begins to edit her document with her pen. I launch my word processor app. But, while she moves quickly back and forth between pages, I am not precise. Without a mouse and arrow keys, I have to tap into the exact space where I want to edit. I am unable to make changes quickly. Meanwhile, she is making changes between various parts of the document with little effort.

Then, the unimaginable happens. The thunderstorms causing the flight delays are over. The sun comes out and shines brightly through the windows, and the glare on my shiny glossy iPad screen makes it hard to read. I must change seats or shield the direct sunlight if I want to continue working. She is making progress with her analysis. I'm not.

It's over. I have lost the productivity battle. But, I can still make a point.

I launch iTunes on the iPad, put on my headphones to listen to the music, and put on my sunglasses.

I've been schooled. Lesson learned. Although I am excited about all the new tablet technologies coming our way (I wrote about our school's iPod Touch pilot last year), I was mistaken to believe that digital access to all my files in one device could easily replace the simplicity and convenience of paper products. My iPad is a good substitute to a certain point. I'm fine if I just want to read one or two documents, a book, or write brief notes. I can do light work. I can watch or listen to various media.

Unfortunately, higher-level work, which requires deeper analysis and simultaneous access between multiple sources, may be more than what a single device and small screen can handle.

I've read a lot of headlines about schools investing significant funds in these tablet technologies to demonstrate their innovation and commitment in technology to replace our traditional paper based practices. Everyone talks about the potential of digital textbooks. We seem to think that educational transformation will be a simple process of just digitizing what we already have.

I suspect that in more demanding academic work, the traditional work flow of a messy desk or table with books and articles scattered around a computer will not fade away so quickly.

So, while we continue to develop these new and exciting tablet and digital technologies, let's not over hype their potential and overlook the efficiency of our traditional habits that were successful in getting us here.

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