The iPad in academic settings: what I like, what I’d like to see

Woman using her cat as an iPad Stand
"iPad Stand" by Veronica Belmont

One of the developers here at the library asked me to tell him a little bit about my experience using the iPad in an academic setting. Here are his questions:

  • Where do you find your self using the device the most?
  • What do you really enjoy/hate about the device?
  • Is there anything that you think is really missing(software or hardware)?
  • How would you use the device in an academic ¬†setting?
  • Is there any app that you think must be written for use in the academic setting?

And here are my answers:

I find myself using the iPad most for getting information of various kinds: reading PDFs, reading Twitter, getting email, going through RSS feeds, even using it as a teleprompter. I’ve also found it surprisingly useful for what you I guess you’d call “content discovery.” I really like applications like Zite (a “magazine” that suggests content based on your interests) and Aweditorium (a music-discovery app). I really enjoy interfaces such as Flipboard‘s that take advantage of the “swipe” gesture and the fact that images look so beautiful on the iPad.

I love the iPad’s portability, of course. I love the fact that you can hold it in so many different ways — like in your lap or propped up for reading in bed. I love the beauty of its display, and I love the sense of possibility that you get from the constant availability of new and interesting apps.

I do find it difficult to type on the iPad for any great length of time. The accessories that might make this easier are prohibitively expensive for me. I also haven’t been satisfied with any of the existing styluses or notetaking apps. Styluses tend to be too “fat” for me to use with any precision, and most notetaking apps are either too complex (requiring me to learn different gestures for, say, underlining text) or make it difficult to deal with file management. I also miss clicking and dragging — the existing mechanisms for moving items or copying and pasting text are pretty unwieldy. I had high hopes for TextExpander, but it doesn’t really work across apps.

In academic settings, I chiefly use the iPad to read and annotate PDFs (I use GoodReader and then import the annotated PDFs back into my Zotero library) and pull up information on the fly (say, I’ll be listening to a lecture and I’ll Google the theorist the lecturer mentions). Since I’m a film scholar, I also use an app called Film Study, which I love. Film Study allows you to take time-stamped notes on a film as it plays. I thought I’d use the Keynote app to give presentations, but I don’t, because it’s not full-featured enough (I use a lot of transitions in my slides). I also use Dropbox to get access to all my files. Sometimes I also use Audio Memos to record a talk.

I’d love to see a few different academic-type apps.

  • A book-discovery app that uses an interface similar to Flipboard’s. I think the swipe-style interface has a lot of potential for re-creating the sense of serendipity people miss in the transition to digital library content. So, for example, I’d love to see a library catalog that offers a Flipboard-like interface for exploring library shelves on your iPad.
  • The ability to view and annotate my Zotero library on my iPad would be incredibly useful. You can sort of do this with the Mendeley app, but it’s clunky.
  • I would also really love to see Zotero integration with Safari on the iPad.
  • I have this constant problem when I do archival research. Like many researchers, I use my camera to take photos of archival sources, and then, when I get home, I have a baffling list of “DSC”s to deal with. I’m always afraid that the photos will get separated from each other or that I’ll lose the proper metadata, and then my days of work will be useless. So, with the new availability of a camera-equipped iPad, I would LOVE to see an app that takes a photo, then allows you to add archive-specific metadata to the image and gather images into collections. Even better if this app could automatically perform OCR.

Academic must-haves? Well, I understand the reasons this doesn’t exist, but I find it incredibly maddening that you can’t read the library’s ebooks as ePubs, or even as PDFs. I hate, hate, hate the NetLibrary interface. I almost never buy books, since I always check them out of the library, and because you can’t really read a copyrighted book on your iPad without buying it, that means that I almost never use my iPad to read books.

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