Yesterday, I borrowed the department’s iPad and started playing around with it.  I wanted to get a sense for its good and bad points, see what the gadget-loving hobbyist in me thought of it, let the teacher in me ponder its potential place in my (often virtual) classroom, and finally experience for myself the device in the middle of the (as usual) hyped debate about the future of society.

My initial reactions were a mix.

First off, it is more sturdy than I had imagined.  When I hold it, it doesn’t feel frail.  Like my pretty sturdy iPhone, the iPad seems built to stand up to normal wear and tear — and my occasional lapses in judgment or attention.  I am still not sure I’ll be comfortable tossing it in my backpack – or just carrying it around like a book, but it also isn’t going to break in half  in a stiff wind.

But this is both good and bad.  After a few minutes, I had to adjust how I held it in order to deal with the weight.  I  kinda moved around a bit and finally settled on holding it in my left hand, resting on my left knee.  Over the course of a couple of hours, I still occasionally noticed that my hand was getting tired.  It is like holding a substantial book for hours – you just get tired.  While not as bad as my Gateway tablet, the iPad is still not quite the replacement for the paper copy of the New York Times or a paperback book in terms of how I “naturally” interact with print media.

This would be less of an issue if the screen were not so very shiny.  That much reflective surface quickly reveals where the overhead lights (or the sun!) are located.  This means that I need to shift around not only to manage the weight of the device but the direction of incoming light.  It can be a bit distracting at first and may be a problem for users in traditional classrooms and computer labs.

But as Malcolm Reynolds would say, “You’re hitting on all the sellin’ points.”

True, true.  The shiny screen is drop-dead gorgeous in its clarity and color.  Reading on the device is just as easy, for me, as reading print.  And I am not young.  At nearly 5o, I have bifocals and have often struggled to read text on my iPhone, PalmPilot, and even some computer screens.  The iPad’s books and program screens were crisp, clear, and readable.  So much so, that I almost forgot I was holding a computer and not a paper version of the Times.  (Have to be careful NOT to toss the thing onto the desk when done with an article!)

It is very refreshing to be able to hold digital media at the same angle I hold a book.  I leave it to usability experts and cognitive scientists to tell me if this position is somehow optimal or natural, but being able to hold a screen down and at an angle felt really good.  Again, I don’t know why this should be.  I’m no Ludite and have been reading a lot on the screen for 35 years.  But reading on the iPad felt less tiring than reading this on the screen.

I also greatly enjoyed interacting with the programs through direct touch rather than a mouse or keyboard.  Of course, most of what I did for those two hours did not require typing.  I was mostly reading and looking at unusual applications.  Oh, and playing Plants vs. Zombies (an ideal game for exploring the touch technology of the iPad, really …..).

As soon as I switched to trying to take notes in the Notepad application, I became frustrated.  It was like trying to learn piano with a hypersensitive teacher.  Typing on the virtual keyboard resulted in a great many typos.  In fact, for a while, I could not type ANYTHING correctly.  I started getting better after about 10 minutes, but I am not sure that the iPad will ever become a replacement for my main computer, unless I invest in a stand and a keyboard.  And that seems like it would defeat the purpose of having one.  And yet, the hobbyist in me is wondering if I could somehow justify the purchase of one for myself.  Just think …. if all I did was save the reams of paper involved in reading my favorite newspapers (and yes, I am a throwback to the Victorian era and do read multiple city papers), would that be a reasonable excuse?

Since gadget loving girl wants it, that brings me to the question of … does this device have a place in education, particularly in higher education? There are a lot of cool science applications available for this.  Some organize and provide reputable science information so that students may be less likely to run out to Google or Wikipedia to research everything.  Others provide data visualization or physics experimentation and play.  Any of these would be potentially useful.

But education is not passive consumption of information, and it does not take place in a vacuum.  Most educational activities require that students then get involved at some level by taking notes, doing assessments, or producing something – a report, a response, critical reflection, or their own understanding and new knowledge.  If nothing else, they must be able to produce artifacts that I will eventually grade.  And then I come back to my difficulties with the virtual keyboard.  I will have to experiment further to see how easy it is to take notes or make annotations or work in two different applications at a time.  While many educators vehemently decry multi-tasking, at many levels we require that students do so by reading and note-taking in near-simultaneous fashion.  My question is — does the iPad support this common work flow for students?  Or will they be juggling the iPad and a notebook?  Which, again, seems to negate the reasons for having this device.

I will keep looking at these questions over the next week or so.  Meanwhile, I encourage you to check over at Don’t Waste Your Time’s collection of opinions from other educators.  I really have to agree with David Hopkins — all we know for sure right now is that we have more questions than real answers.  We need to gather data before we make grand or pessimistic pronouncements.

Finally, the educational virtual world geek in me has to ask … will it run Second Life?  At the moment the answer is …. “yes and no”.  It does run the same apps that were available on the iPhone and iTouch for accessing a few streams of information from Second Life.  For most people, accessing chat, IMs and inventory were the main purpose for using Second Life on a mobile device.  And I have to agree that this is all I wanted on my iPhone. It allowed me to attend meetings in the virtual world when I couldn’t be anywhere near a computer — and that was great.

But I am now waiting for a real Second Life viewer to be developed for the iPad.  It seems to me to be the perfect platform for this interactive 3-D building environment.  Where the keyboard and mouse always seemed clunky, actual touch control of 3-D space could allow for natural “hands on” manipulation of objects a la Minority Report (remember how Tom Cruise’s character interacted with the computer system … wow).  Being able to rotate and move things while I’m building with my hands would be awesome sauce.

So, at the end of a couple of hours of play, I’m intrigued and hoping that we will come up with new ways to interact with digital media now that we can go back to kindergarten and use our fingers.  But until we make that step, the device seems mostly ready to allow users to consume media – by reading, playing, or listening/watching.  But it is not a device for serious creation or meaningful interaction.  Yet.