Tech Tips: iPad—Mobility, Accessibility
I've had the good fortune to spend a couple of months with an iPad with a view to its utility in the education setting. This portable device is based on the iPhone operating system and will run applications developed for that platform, as well as programs designed specifically for the iPad's larger display.
Interface and Basics
The touch interface is easy to learn and intuitive for new users. More advanced actions that allow zooming can become second nature. The device is updated via the freely available iTunes software. I find iTunes to be challenging to use on an infrequent basis, however there are ample web sites available to assist with basic questions. The iTunes software is available for Windows or Mac operating systems, and with some emulation work, within some Linux variants as well.
iPads are available standard with wireless connectivity. This means that anywhere you can access a wireless hotspot, you can get online. An additional feature is 3G connectivity, which is available from AT&T on a month-by-month basis. I did experience problems getting the wireless connection to work in some locations, with no apparent cause.
The touchpad keyboard used for text entry is really only suitable for short bursts of writing—quick email messages or short notes. For more involved writing projects I highly recommend an external Bluetooth keyboard, and my brief experimentation with a couple of these devices proves that it is fairly easy to pair a keyboard to an iPad. Without a physical keyboard, do not expect to be creating a lot of text!
Synchronizing standard email accounts so they are delivered to the iPad is straightforward and works well for mainstream services such as Google Mail and Microsoft-based email. The mail interface on the iPad is very basic, and a limitation that bothers me frequently is the inability to choose between deleting messages or having them archived. You can only set one or the other for the delete/archive action (a horizontal swipe of a message in the list view). Otherwise the built-in mail program does a great job of letting one stay in touch while away from a desktop or laptop computer. This integration also works well for Google Calendars, and allows me to see both my personal and work-related calendar views in a single screen. Navigation is not as intuitive with this program, where one would be expect to swipe the page view to go forward or backward in the calendar. Instead, one must target the small buttons at the bottom of the screen.
Accessibility and Apps
From a usability standpoint, this device really shines. It's much easier to teach someone (an elderly relative for example) how to control the device and start browsing the web or using other applications quickly. The ability to zoom most any screen will assist those with limited vision, and Apple includes the VoiceOver screenreader built-in to every device (also with the other iDevices as well as their computers). Apple lists a large number of Bluetooth Braille displays that provide access for those who prefer to read Braille.
If a person needs assistance with reading due to a learning disability, there are a number of additional programs (called apps) that can be downloaded at low or no cost from the iTunes store. SpeakIt is a $2 app that allows voicing of any text found in email, web pages, and PDF files.
The most expensive app I've purchased is one that allows me to control some of my computers remotely. This is one way to overcome the inherent limitations of the iPad. With use of the Jump Desktop software, I can connect with computers at home or at work if I need to access files or use programs that aren't available within the Apple operating system. Controlling a Windows computer while using an iPad feels a bit surreal at first, but it is quite useful when needed.
The app I find of most use on the iPad is Evernote, a notetaking consolidation program that allows you to synchronize short documents between the iPad and Windows or Mac computers via a central account you set up. Evernote can read PDF documents and will also record audio while notetaking, which can be a very valuable tool for some students. The basic version is free and as all other apps, available through the iTunes store.
I was not prepared to enjoy using the iPad as much as I have; it now travels with me while at work and between work and home. The prospect of being forced to use iTunes software kept me at a distance for quite some time, as well as the closed architecture employed by Apple to control access to the device except through the limited interface. Many people concentrate on the games that are available for this device, but there is much more usefulness within the small glass square than knocking pigs askew! What I've discovered is a useful mobile tool for staying in touch via email and staying informed via the web. However it is not a substitute for a laptop or desktop computer due to the limited interface, even with an external keyboard. It is more portable than other computing devices, and with its built-in accessibility and low cost apps for productivity, something to be considered as an option above and beyond your basic desktop or laptop computer.