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Tablet Tales: Not Quite Replacing a Laptop

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 1, 2014 Deadline
May 2014 Issue

Tablet Tales: Not Quite Replacing a Laptop

Tablets almost, but not quite, replace notebook and laptop computers. That’s my experience after four months with an iPad Air.

Bad weather influenced the decision to purchase a tablet. I was using a rolling case for my computer, cables, adapters, textbooks and student papers. Ice and snow made it impossible to roll the cart up and down the hills of Pittsburgh; rock salt jammed the wheels. I attempted to carry my computer and supplies in a large case with a shoulder strap. My back and shoulders weren’t pleased.

Trekking through the snow, I decided my computer weighs too much. I love my 15-inch MacBook Pro, the last model available with an optical disc drive and six ports, but all the options add a fair amount of weight. I still use and record discs for projects, and I prefer having a wired network connection at home for extra speed and security. When I lug the system to campus, I also need the power converter and a video adapter, adding yet more weight to the carrying case.

My first thought was to replace books with an e-book reader or tablet. My university offers students and faculty electronic editions of many books. Many of my students use Nook and Kindle readers instead of carrying books to class. Even more students use iPads in place of traditional books. Replacing huge, heavy, books with a tablet was an obvious way to lighten my load.

When I asked about the electronic books, my supervisor mentioned that there were iPad apps for our online learning management system. I could use an iPad to access grades, homework and online discussions. Some faculty had switched entirely to iPads, carrying nothing else to class.

The iPad Air impresses me with how much it can do.

Reading books on the iPad is surprisingly comfortable, and I love being able to search texts instead of using an index. The ability to change font sizes or to magnify pages also beats traditional books. Now, I understand why students like the electronic books. With free apps, you can read Kindle, Nook, ePub and iBook texts on the iPad. That gives the iPad an advantage over a dedicated reader. Textbook publishers now offer “enhanced” iBooks with multimedia content, another plus. Watching a book? Welcome to the new generation of textbooks.

Presentations were the main reason I lugged a computer about campus. Most of our classrooms feature the infamous walls of moveable chalkboards. I do use chalk, as my dress slacks often reveal, but I prefer using a projector and computer. Visiting various online forums, I verified that a video adapter would allow me to use the iPad in class for presentations.

I appreciate presenting slideshows with the iPad. I switched from PowerPoint to Keynote years ago, and the iPad version is a pleasure to use. Paired with my iPhone as a remote, I see upcoming slides and notes on the phone, swiping from slide to slide. You can use an iPad or iPhone as a remote with a Mac, too, but I love the phone and tablet combination.

Tablets are great for surfing the Web and reading email. Because my classes discuss current events, public policy and economics, I use the tablet to show breaking news headlines. With the Safari browser’s “Reader” feature, we can read the news without any ads or unwanted distractions. Reader also enlarges the text, which improves the experience in a classroom.

The most surprising experience with a tablet has been the creative apps.

If you’ve never played music on a tablet, it’s hard to explain. GarageBand for iOS lets you strum a virtual guitar, tap piano keys and play a violin. The 50-in-1 Piano, by Alexander Gross, might be the most impressive MIDI application for the iPad, and includes instruments missing from GarageBand. For the best drum machine, try DM1 by Fingerlab. I’ve spent hours playing music on the iPad.

Despite minimal skills, I’ve always enjoyed sketching and painting. Download Sketchbook Pro for the next best thing to real paint. I’ve borrowed a student’s pressure-sensitive Intuos stylus, and drawing on an iPad feels like sketching on paper with a soft pencil. Tablets might be the best visual arts technology available.

I don’t need creative apps for teaching writing or the rhetoric of economics, but I enjoy having them on the iPad.

As for getting around campus, a tablet has been better than I imagined. I carry the tablet in a portfolio case with room for a legal pad, pens, student papers and a small video adapter. The portfolio seems lighter than the three-ring binders I used in the 1980s as a student.

Despite the strengths of the tablet, it also falls short in some areas.

Modifying presentations requires more dexterity than I possess. Trying to resize and move objects with my fingers on the screen has proved to be frustrating. The slightest twitch moves a text box across the screen or resizes an object. I gave up trying to edit slides on the iPad and instead send myself an email reminder to make changes later on my laptop.

Editing complex documents or spreadsheets? Not worth the effort. I tried Apple’s free Pages and Numbers, only to realize that I need a keyboard to be productive. Though I did buy a Bluetooth keyboard, that defeats the purpose of using a tablet. With a keyboard, Apple’s free apps are good enough for most tasks, but they aren’t Microsoft Office. I read Office documents on the iPad with MobiSystems OfficeSuite 7 and am pleased with how compatible the app is.

The iPad app for the Blackboard Learning System, which many schools use for online courses, costs money and is buggy. Mobile Learn might be the worst app I’ve used. Unfortunately, accessing courses via the Web with an iPad is a problem because the system relies on Java and Flash, two technologies not available on iOS devices. Accessing grades works, thankfully.

The inconveniences are minor, since I use my MacBook Pro for content creation. I love the iPad and am thrilled to carry it to class in place of a computer and a stack of books.

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