iPad for Researchers and Scholars: the leap to enhanced reading

For the last 15 months I have owned an iPad, which I use for many purposes but, mainly, for my academic activity. Every now and then I am asked or find myself involved in a debate on why and how to use an iPad (or, in general, tablets) for research. Although an offtopic in this blog, this post here will save me lots of typing and talking elsewhere.

For the sake of the context, I must say that I am a social scientist working in the crossroads of the Knowledge Society and development, especially in what is related with individual empowerment (education) and social empowerment (governance). I teach at a 100% online university, which means that all my working tools are a computer, some common software and access to the Internet. My professional life is mostly digitized, and gathered in my personal research portal. I mostly do not work with paper and mostly do not work offline. I am quite a fast typist (my liveblogging sessions a proof of it) and have a very light (circa 1,000g) while powerful laptop which I can take anywhere without hesitation. I do not own any Apple computer and do not plan to own one in the nearest future (i.e. I am not an Apple fan).

So, how does an iPad or a tablet fit in this context at the professional level?

Enhanced Reading

Reading it not anymore what it used to be.

Reading used to be sitting with a bunch of papers. Maybe a pen would be handy to scribble some notes on the margins, underline some sentences. Maybe not on the margins, but on a piece of paper. Maybe even on a notebook. You would stand up to look up something on the dictionary or the encyclopaedia. And that was it.

Now reading is, for starters, not knowing what you will be feeling like reading. Maybe it will it be a couple of academic papers, maybe it will be correcting some assignments, or proofreading a paper of yours. Or them all: some trips are long and you want to carry everything with you. What is the weight of 500 pages? And the weight of 5 MB?

Besides the dictionary, or the encyclopaedia, you might search for a description of Aztec god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli or you might even want to see how Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli looks like; you can wonder how Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray would sound like when playing before Jack Kerouac or just listen to a live performance by Gordon & Gray; or you can imagine Jon Krakauer’s Stampede Trail or locate it on a map and pay a visit to it.

Now combine everything said above: picture yourself with a dozen papers; reading all them at the same time (those papers with interesting bibliographies…); underlining and taking notes on them; writing some other notes on a separate file which you can tag and categorize and store and search and retrieve; accessing on the go the authors’ personal websites and their curricula and their list of published works; writing a short e-mail to them asking them for a pre-print of a difficult to find paper; forwarding your annotated copy of the paper to a colleague; or copying and pasting a table of data on a spreadsheet to plot some graphics (why hadn’t they in the original paper?).

And that is enhanced reading.

Picture yourself doing all that sitting (or standing) on the train. Or sitting on your couch.

And that is a tablet.

Why not an eReader

I tried several eReader devices based on e-ink before trying the tablet. There are two main reasons why an eReader is not an option for me:

eReaders are very slow for academic papers reading. They may be fair enough to read a book (whatever its kind) whose content has been repaged for your device and for you to turn the pages sequentially, once a minute or two.

But if you are reading a PDF, A4-sized, with footnotes or endnotes and definitely with a bibliography, you will find yourself turning pages very often. Mainly because it is not optimized for the eReader. And also because the eReader is not prepared (yet) for continuous and quick page-turning. And if you want to compare different papers in parallel, the exercise of exiting a paper, opening a new one, closing that one and going back to the former one… that is simply not bearable for the common human being.

The second reason is that, usually, e-readers lack everything that is not strictly for reading purposes: browsing the internet, writing an e-mail or running an application (notebook, spreadsheet, etc.) are not usually supported by e-Readers. And if they are… aren’t we already talking about a table?

An eReader is mainly to read and to read plain text. But academic reading, enhanced reading, is much more than that.

Why not a laptop?

First of all, there is weight. Even if we assume that your laptop does not weight much more than your average tablet (which is quite an assumption), the iPad, one of the heaviest ones, is similar in weight as a 200 pages hardcover. You are already used to handle that weight. The best ultralight laptop will normally double that weight (and cut to a half the autonomy, BTW): if you think a hardcover edition of a book is heavy, try holding a pair of them for more than a while.

Second, there is comfort. Let’s speak only about reading for a while: for reading purposes, the extra keyboard in the laptop and the tactile screen in the tablet make a huge difference. Not only a keyboard is almost useless when reading — almost because you just type scattered notes ‐, but it is only uncomfortable: it takes extra space (and weight) of your surroundings (remember the crowded train: I spend, on average, 2h on it, daily) and key operating is much more difficult than simply touching a screen.

Besides weight and comfort, there is a third aspect, very subjective, but that I have tested several times, and is friendliness.

I’ve been to several “serious” meetings where people brought their laptops to take notes while I tapped and typed on my iPad. Unbelievable as it might sound, laptops all raised suspicion on whether their owners would be taking notes or reading e-mail or checking their preferred social networking site. On your iPad “of course” you are taking notes. Laptops are for writing and working and iPads are for taking notes, and you are supposed to take notes during a meeting.

And the fact that laptops raise a wall (the screen) between the owner and the rest and the iPad does not (because it rests on your lap or almost flat on the table) makes a huge “emotional” difference. Really.

Related to that, working at home is also different. We scientists know that there is no big difference between reading a paper for work or for leisure. But there actually is a tremendous difference between reading that paper in your home studio sitting in front of your desktop, or reading it sprawling on your couch. Especially if you do not live alone and it’s Sunday. Believe it or not, my Sundays or afternoons are very different now.

On the other side, laptops — or desktops — are unbeatable for writing. But we were talking about (enhanced) reading, right?

The added value of the tablet

In my own experience, the main added value of the tablet can be summarized in some keywords: read, notes, train, couch, shoulder bag.

Having get rid of most my paper usage in the last years, with the tablet I succeeded in getting rid of all paper. Period. This means, specifically, getting rid of:

  • The annoying collection of separate sheets and stickies with casual notes you will never revisit but never dare to trash: the tablet keeps them all together, searchable and easy to transfer (to other people by e-mail, to more serious documents).
  • Printouts of readings with limited life-span (destroy after read): thousands of times more digital documents in your tablet than printed ones in your usual bag, immediate transfer, time and paper saving — and healthier back.

Even more important than working paperless, the tablet provides full mobility, especially if accompanied with an Internet connection (embedded 3G or using your cellphone as a hotspot). And full mobility means that the tablet is always in my shoulder bag. Instead of everything else. The laptop is something you consider bringing with you: the tablet is always with you, as a pen or a notebook used to be.

For those more curious, I’ve shared my setup (or most of it) in the following set of snapshots. Enjoy.

If you cannot see the slides, please visit <a href="http://ictlogy.net/?p=3713">http://ictlogy.net/?p=3916</a>.

Will the iPad pave the path towards e-Government? A comment to Andrea DiMaio

Andrea DiMaio has recently published two posts — Apple’s iPad Could Do For Governments More than the One-Laptop-Per-Child, Could the iPad Redefine Public Service Delivery? — about the hypothetical impact that the new device by Apple, the iPad, will have on e-Government and citizen participation in general. My point is not to show disagreement — I agree more than disagree with DiMaio’s statements — but to (a) put a grain of salt and, especially, (b) to move the focus from the device towards the concepts.

And I’ll begin with a strong agreement: the iPad is very likely to do more than the One-Laptop-Per-Child, just because the OLPC is doing very little for education, as I think is clearly explained in the Framing the Digital Divide in Higher Education monograph. But it is also possible that the iPad will do as little as the OLPC, just because it’s not about devices.

Pieter Verdegem co-authored two interesting articles — User-centered E-Government in practice: A comprehensive model for measuring user satisfaction, Profiling the non-user: Rethinking policy initiatives stimulating ICT acceptance — that, along with the aforementioned monograph, can help to centre the debate.

Just for the sake of clarity let us look at some points raised by the monograph authors, Verdegem and DiMaio about access to e-Government (including the “e-” part), keeping in mind that I fully share DiMaio’s vision on what e-Government should be and the conviction that, somehow, we’ll get to that point.

Affordability

This still is a key issue for many people not to go online, hence not to use e-Government services. It is decreasing in importance and becoming almost marginal in higher income countries. But. While a desktop/laptop + broadband connectivity might be affordable, the addition of a second device + the addition of a second broadband service (3G or whatever) is definitely not affordable for many many people.

Yes, I am assuming having both devices and duplication of Internet access services. But I think this will be the scenario in the short and middle run, for the simple reason that the iPad is not a typing-aimed device or a hard-computing-power device, besides the fact that I do not believe in quantum leaps in computer adoption (i.e. in the short run, iPad users will be computer users, not late-adopters).

Skills

Claire from liberTIC recently commented about lack of skills playing havoc on e-Democracy and Democracy at large.

I think the iPad — as its i-predecessors — will make computer usage simple, much simpler than before. But e-Government is not only about computer usage, but much more. As I introduced in Towards a comprehensive definition of digital skills and Goverati: New competencies for politics, government and participation, there is much field in the area of digital competences that the iPad just won’t and cannot address. And, as time goes by, technological literacy is less of an issue, which is were the iPad could make a major contribution.

Availability

Which leads to where the Gordian knot is: existence and access to content and services. I fully agree that the iPad can contribute to ease access to online public services through its applications, and I am already looking forward this to happen. But the prerequisite is either open data or open application programming interfaces (APIs). There already exist devices and applications to access online public services. And their successes and failures have mostly depended (a) on the richness of the data they could access and (b) the degree in which they could make an impact or contribute to a change. We take for granted that iPad applications will play magic, but the magic is in the data, not the device (though magic wands always help, let’s admit it).

Awareness and peopleware

But things can exist, be accessible, be affordable and people know how to use them, and still don’t make any use of them. This is, indeed, the tragedy of e-Government (and Internet adoption at large) today in higher income countries: I either don’t know what’s out there or frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. The iPad can raise awareness, and the more friendly user interface will help, but I haven’t seen much success in iPhone educational or e-Government applications being used massively.

I honestly doubt that the problem of e-Government (lack of) pervasiveness is a matter of the device, but of peopleware. If Obama succeeded it was not because of the Internet, but because of “hope”. And the Internet was there to deliver it, of course, and to channel people’s hope back. If Ushahidi succeeded in Kenya it was not because of SMSs and mashups, but because of the basic substrate upon which these were erected. I find AppsForDemocracy not only an amazing initiative, but amazing things in themselves and I look forward the day they will be used massively. But, so far, I have the sense it’s just for us the usual e-Government suspects.