As the leaves turn brown and the weather becomes crisper, the students are returning to their studies full of resolve and new purpose. When I was a lass, we used to celebrate the new academic year with a new pencil case or perhaps a new set of ring binder folders. Nowadays, the young 'uns like to invest in some shiny new tech. The question is: what to buy? A little netbook (now you can tinker with the linux kernel from where ever you happen to be)? Or an iPad (bound to impress the ladies)?
I am a big fan of the iPad, I am the first to admit. But I am not convinced it actually makes sense as a student purchase unless you have a kindly uncle who is bankrolling your university career. Let's assume that you are an average student at my university in Scotland. According to the helpful budgeting guide published by our student support office, you need to budget £6978 for living expenses for an academic year. The current UK price for the iPad is £500, so you would be spending about 7% of your budget on it.
A few comparisons help to bring it into perspective. Suppose you gave up washing clothes for a year, or relied on your mum to do it for you. According to the budgeting guide this would save £222, just about half of the iPad. You could go with dirty clothes for your first two years and buy an iPad for third year, I guess. How about food? The budget reckons £1295 for a year. Sheer extravagance! Two Pot Noodles a day would cost under half that at £547.50. Throw in some vitamin supplements at £1.69 and what more could you need? That saving alone would get you an iPad.
If you resisted the iPad in favour of eating or washing, what would you be losing? There has been much dewey-eyed hype about the use of iPads in education. Some universities have given free iPads to their students presumably in the belief that it will either help them to learn or at least convince them to study at their institution in the first place. iPads will transform education, apparently. “It occupies a new space in technology, one which is still undefined to some extent, yet which is likely to be significant over time,” according to an iPad education blog.
The new space referred to is the technology niche between the smart phone and the laptop: extreme light weight portability combined with readable screen size and the potential for educational applications. No longer do you need to be stuck in computer labs to work on your essay. You can even stray away from power points because of the excellent battery life of the iPad. No more waiting for the computer to boot up – press one switch and the iPad springs to life, eager to serve your every learning need. Want to share an article you are reading in a tutorial with the others in your discussion group? The screen will automatically switch orientation as it is moved. The App Store can provide free or low cost applications to help you study: anatomy flash cards for medical students or a beautifully animated version of the periodic table for chemists. You can seamlessly listen to or watch podcasts of your lectures or view lecture notes in Keynote. All this on the alluring multi-touch screen, with a sleek sexy interface in the style only Apple seem to be able to pull off.
But hang on. If you didn't have an iPad, you wouldn't actually lose many of these capabilities. Working on a netbook or other laptop might be a less joyful user experience, I grant you. But it is still entirely possible to work on it with others, to listen to podcasts, read lectures notes or take advantage of the millions of educational applications which are available online. Furthermore, if you happened to need to use a page with Flash content, you would be able to view it. In fact, in my five months of using my iPad, I have come to realise its limitations for productivity tasks. I can easily imagine it becoming an excuse for my students to not do tasks in class. “I can't log into the VLE on my iPad.” “I can't edit that file in my iPad with this version of Pages.” “Joe can't transfer his notes to my iPad because we're not on the network and there is no slot to plug in my memory stick.” “Wait a bit.. it's taking me ages to cut and paste between applications on my iPad so I can't keep up.” Kind of like primary school kids make excuses to go to the toilet when they are bored, except the limitations of the iPad could give the students genuine reasons to become distracted from the key concepts of the class.
Would there be any particular benefit of using an iPad to Computer Science students? Certainly developing for iPads (or iPhones) is popular with students, and can make for interesting projects for advanced students who want to learn a new programming language and environment. It is also an excellent case study for interaction design modules. For these purposes I would be inclined to say that the university should provide the hardware, rather than requiring students to get their own.
A netbook might be old fashioned and clunky in design terms but at least it will run the standard productivity software which lecturers tend to assume students have access to. They're also roughly half the price of iPads, thus requiring fewer sacrifices of nutrition or hygiene. So on the grounds of avoiding rumbling stomachs and malodorous students in my classes, I wouldn't recommend an iPad purchase on purely educational grounds.