Train your brain

Karl Hodge, John C. Welch & Rob Woodcock
6 October, 2011
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The iPad is the perfect device for dealing with student life: small, portable and packed with possibilities. You’ll only ever need the WiFi version at college – just hop on the local network and you’ll have a tool in your bag for taking notes, team working, following tutorials and more. Lecturers can use the iPad to enhance their work, too.

There are some shining examples out there of innovative iPad use in further and higher education. The University of East Anglia, for example, has released its current prospectus as an iPad publication, while The University of Liverpool supports iPad-using students with a list of recommended apps and network tools.

It’s a curious thing, though, that schools are much further ahead of the game when it comes to the adoption of iPads than colleges and universities.

Of course, it’s not just young people who can benefit from the iPad’s educational potential; mature (and casual) students can learn from it too.

When iOS 5 rolls out, with Apple’s iCloud service built in, Dropbox will be fighting for a piece of the online storage market. Until then, it’s the best way to get files on to your iPad

The iPad: Useful, but misunderstood

In many ways, the further and higher education sectors are lagging behind the times when it comes to the iPad. A trio of major US universities – George Washington, Cornell and Princeton – even went so far as to ban the devices from being used on their networks shortly after they were first released.

The explanation given was that multimedia consumption would suck up all their campus’s bandwidth, making it difficult for other users to access facilities. And all three institutions have since withdrawn those policies. But they highlight a misunderstanding that many have made about tablet PCs.

Improve the learning experience

The iPad is not just a games device; nor is it just a video screen. In university contexts, the iPad’s potential is incredible. It replaces many traditional tools, enhances tutorial activities and introduces new ways of interacting with educational content.

Until there’s mass investment, though, it’s up to students and lecturers to take control of their own small domain, using the iPad to improve their learning experience. Note taking in lectures, for example, can be tailored to the student. Some may be happy to tap out a few salient points using the iPad’s built-in Notes tool or a text processor like iA Writer ($5.49 from the App Store). Link the latter up to Dropbox (, the free online file storage service and you have an instant cloud-based backup that you can access from any machine.

Notes don’t have to be text and bullet points, though. Your iPad’s built-in mic makes it an ideal tool for recording lectures, when combined with the right audio app. One of our favourites is Dictamus ($15.99), which includes Dropbox and FTP support. The more budget-minded could use the free edition of Dictamus, but we think the full version is worth the outlay.

If you’re using Dropbox with your iPad, in any context, we recommend Send to Dropbox ( – a free, web-based add-on service that enables you to send files to Dropbox folders via email. This is invaluable with the iPad, as many applications include email and iTunes as file transfer options, but nothing else. In future, you can post photos, videos and other files direct to this address from your iPad, then access them anywhere using Dropbox.

With the iPad 2’s cameras, there are other ways to take notes. Use the built-in Photos app to snap a whiteboard, for example, or shoot video clips. Remember that video and audio both take up a lot of memory. Video can be uploaded directly to a YouTube account from your iPad’s photo gallery, where you can choose to make the clip public or private. Alternatively, you can email the clip to yourself or send it to Dropbox.

Dedicated note-taking apps

Another strategy is to use a dedicated note-taking tool with alternative storage. Our favourites are Evernote and Springpad, each with their own strengths. Springpad is a free, cloud-based service that enables you to store images, written notes, bookmarks and audio clips. It’s a good choice for students with access to Wi-Fi on campus. Built-in social networking tools make it easy to share links and notes with your classmates, too. And because everything’s online, you can even direct your friends to pages full of your notes from a particular project or lecture.

Evernote has similar functionality, but it works in tandem with a desktop client installed on a Mac or Windows computer for storage of media, syncing across the cloud. The interface is a little more streamlined and the notes you create are set to private by default. With Springpad, you have to toggle an option to hide your notes. Both are great apps and free for the iPad, though Evernote’s online service has a premium version that enables you to add any type of file to your notebooks.

Apps such as Dictamus let you record your lectures, which is handy if you miss an important point

Team work: Collaborative tools

A huge part of the college and university experience is working with other students. Whether in team assignments or tutorial groups, the iPad helps users to collaborate more effectively.

For many Mac users, iWork is the office productivity suite of choice, and that remains the same on the iPad. The main difference is that the component programs have been broken down into apps that can be purchased separately: Numbers for spreadsheets, Keynote for presentations and Pages for document creation ($10.49) each). All three can be used in conjunction with the Apple website (, which enables you to upload and share any file with fellow students. The site’s optimised for Safari and accessible by iPad, where you can make notes on files, edit them and chat with team mates.

iWork is a slick, powerful solution, but it has one key feature missing: Realtime editing. If that’s essential, then the mobile version of Google Docs is a better choice. Again, you get spreadsheet, word processing and presentation tools. You also have access to file storage and drawing applications. There’s no official iOS app for Google Docs, but the service runs well in Safari and it’s completely free.

Both these tools are lacking in another feature that’s helpful in team collaboration – a shared place to sketch out ideas. On the iPad, that can be a virtual space. ZigZag Board is one of the best choices for this. Offering freeform drawing tools that convert finger squiggles, shapes and lines into vector objects, it enables users to work together on the iPad or online using a shared, virtual whiteboard. We’ve tried lots of these apps, but keep coming back to ZigZag Board because it’s simple and open. Other tools offer symbols and shapes and image import tools. With this app, you get a shared environment for sketching out ideas – and that’s enough. It’s free too.

Video calling

One key thing about collaboration via network technologies, including the iPad, is that you don’t all need to be in the same physical space to work together. That’s true of all the tools we’ve talked about so far. With your iPad, you can edit a spreadsheet in Google Docs alongside a team member who’s on another campus, in another town or even a different country. Sometimes, however, you still need to be able to talk face to face and with your iPad you can do that.

Video calling has long been the Holy Grail of technology. With the iPad 2’s built-in cameras, we have it. FaceTime enables you to video chat with someone else with an iPad 2, iPhone users and Mac users, free over your university’s network. The app comes bundled with your iPad.

If PCs or Apple machines that don’t yet support FaceTime are in the mix, you can use Skype instead. This popular, free tool does instant messaging, audio and video chat to other Skype users, or it can be used to call regular telephones at rock-bottom rates. There’s no dedicated iPad version yet, but the iPhone version works pretty well for the time being.

These collaborative tools can enhance student and tutor interactions as well. Virtual tutorials are possible with whiteboard tools and Skype, or work can be discussed and edited on the fly using Google Docs. We could take that thought further, to a circumstance where an iPad displaying a digital document might replace almost any hard copy of a piece of work, from a photographic portfolio to a scientific dissertation. It depends very much on the imagination of the people in charge of designing courses and modules.

Evernote is a note-taking app that works in tandem with a client installed on your desktop computer

Teacher training

The benefits are by no means confined to the student body. Lecturers and tutors can reap rewards by replacing some of the tools and techniques they currently employ with iPad-enhanced methods. The paperless classroom is finally a possibility, allowing you to replace lecture notes and cue cards with a document stored on your iPad, which can be shared with students using Google Apps, iWork or network access to Blackboard – the courseware system that most universities are stuck with.

Modern teaching methods demand far more than a talking head at the front of the class. The iPad equips teachers with a tool that can help. For example, presentations can be controlled from an iPad, remotely accessing Keynote on Mac in the same room, on the same network. Apple’s Keynote Remote ($0.99) is a budget iPhone app that enables you to do just that, displaying slides and hidden notes. It works on the iPad, too.

Of course, to do that you’d need Keynote running on one desktop machine, Keynote Remote running on the iPad and, perhaps, an iOS copy of Keynote for development. A cheaper route – always attractive to department heads – would be to use Google Docs’ presentation tool, running on a desktop computer, coupled with Connect My Mac on the iPad. This free app enables you to see and control a target, remote desktop – well enough to run a presentation from an iPad, for example.

For a more responsive solution, still at budget pricing, Splashtop Remote Desktop for iPad is just $10.49 and works with both PC and Mac. With the free companion application installed on the remote machine, it’s fast enough to stream video and even Flash to your iPad.

There’s even a third way – networked whiteboard applications. These tools are useful in collaborative groups too.

We’ve already covered a few. For teaching, Splashtop Whiteboard ($10.49) is a brilliant choice, enabling both teachers and students to show and control slides on a remote machine.

Students can hook up to class lessons with the iPad and annotate just about anything using the Splashtop Whiteboard gestures. They can draw and highlight content and add notes and take snapshots, all over a wireless connection. Like its counterpart SplashTop Desktop Remote ($1.99), the software can hook up an iPad to a Mac or PC and the iPad displays what is on the screen (and can be used to remotely control the display). What makes Splashtop Whiteboard special is that the person using the iPad can sketch and draw over the display.

Producing – not just consuming – media

A final point worth making about the iPad for lecturing and teaching is that it’s often categorised as an entertainment tool; a device for consuming media. Our experience leads us to a different conclusion. The iPad is also a great production device.

It’s perfectly capable, for example, of being used to expand presentations, edit audio, create diagrams and so on. One of the main strengths of the iPad 2 is its ability to shoot video as well as record audio, which makes it a superb workstation for lo-fi video tutorial production. Combine that with iMovie ($5.49), Apple’s low-budget but highly useful video editor and you can use screenshots, audio and images to build up tutorial material that students can view on their own iPads – or on any computer.

One of the iWork family of iPad apps, Numbers documents can be posted to, for sharing and annotation with invited members of groups and teams

Further possibilities…

All these techniques and enhancements wouldn’t be possible in quite the same way without the iPad, and we haven’t considered the plethora of subject-specific content available from the App Store. Tools for drawing, painting and photo processing. Interactive learning content and eBooks. Apps that replace or augment traditional learning tools, such as Google Maps, Mental Case and the iPad version of Wolfram Alpha. The iPad has its limits, but there are endless possibilities to be explored.

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