You already know how to use it

I got an iPad last spring. This is the first time I’ve bought a first-gen Apple device and I went in as a skeptic. I mainly wanted it because my wife and I spent a lot of time traveling last summer and she wanted to be able to read without lugging a laptop or a bunch of books around. Somewhat to my surprise — even though my iPod and my iPhone are among my most useful possessions — it quickly took over all my reading and much of my casual web-surfing. I’m even writing this post on it!

But still, there was something about it that bothered me. I felt like it was a very important step as a communications device, but I couldn’t articulate why. Was I just turning into a nonsensical Apple fanboy, in love with this thing for no apparent reason? I thought I might be, until I saw the new iPad ad campaign, which spells out exactly what is so groundbreaking about it, and why people who see it as a threat to traditional computing paradigms are correct: You already know how to use it. Like its iPhone predecessor, it is incredibly intuitive and designed to interact with the tools we know best — our fingers. Unlike the iPhone, its size allows it to feel like a computer. The pages you see on it look pretty much like what we expect from pages on computer screens. On top of that, its highly regimented and closed nature means everything is where you expect it to be. You turn it on and open Videos or Safari or Pages, and there’s everything you need. From an HCI perspective this makes all kinds of sense — as much as a traditional computer is more a content-creation device than a content-consumption device, the iPad is the reverse. Sure, you’ve got Notes and Pages and various drawing apps, but this thing is designed for reading the web and watching video.

What makes this such an interesting development (and an absolute head-basher for proponents of open platforms) is the characteristics of the people who still struggle with traditional computing models. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that many returning college students lack basic computer skills. This isn’t just a problem if you’re coming back to school to learn how to do marketing online or computer-assisted organization management — many basic pieces of the higher education infrastructure are now computerized. Students in my classes turn in all their assignments via our “learning management system,” Blackboard. Much of the material that I distribute to them goes out through the same system, including the bulk of their grades. Unlike the iPad, it’s not a system that’s designed terribly well for usability, and even the students (and professors!) with decent backgrounds in using computers have problems with it at times. Is this something that the iPad can fix? Not on its own, certainly, but I imagine LMS designers are thinking a lot about mobile and tablet computing these days, and a cloud-backed system that was built with the iPad’s interface and capabilities in mind could go a long way toward easing the transition into the basic information environment of modern higher education. Returning students would still need to get accustomed to the traditional computing model in order to learn, for instance, digital content production skills, but this first step might make learning those skills a smoother process.

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