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Summary:

It’s still pretty difficult for a college student to get by using an iPad as a primary computer. Upcoming changes to iOS 8, however, could lighten the load.

Classroom

Every year around this time I start composing an article about how to get by in college with just an iPad. But in past years, once I get into it I realize that using your iPad as your only computer through college is like strapping a jet engine to your Chevrolet; you can do it, and it’s a fun experiment, but it’s not very practical.

There are some coming features in iOS 8, however, that may help students get more work done on just an iPad.

Current limitations in iOS7

While there are many reasons an iPad probably won’t work well as your main device in college — your major might have specific programs you need to learn, for instance — Apple’s current app sandboxing practice makes it very difficult to share data between apps.

Regardless of your major, you will need to write a research paper, cite your sources, and submit it. iOS7 makes completing all of these difficult. You can use Pages or Word to compose your research paper and reference your citations, and citation management tools like EasyBib and EndNote to manage your citations, but there’s still a lot of cutting and pasting to get your bibliography into your paper.

Lastly, there’s the seemingly simple part of actually submitting your paper. If your instructor wants you to email it, you’re golden; just use the Mail app. Most colleges, though, use an online courseware program like Blackboard for grading and submission. Unfortunately, the iPad app for Blackboard only works with Dropbox and Google Drive. That’s great if you created your paper in Google Docs; not so good if you used Word or Pages because neither of those programs natively save to those services.

Extensions (hopefully) could make things easier

Extensions in iOS8 will either dramatically move the platform forward or be a half-baked solution that doesn’t work nearly as well as I hope. While my money is on the former, I also remember thinking iCloud Documents were going to work a lot different than they actually did. That said, it does seem like iCloud Disk is a big step in the right direction.

Back to the citation management issue. On my Mac, I’d use either Endnote’s integration with Pages, or Office 2011’s built-in citation management tools and use the cite-while-you-write feature to add in my references as I went along. You can’t currently do this on the iPad. I can see this working with an extension, however. At the least, I’d hope a bibliography could have the ability to insert a citation into Pages and auto-add the bibliography. Actually, I’d like to see Pages and Word support citations natively, but that’s for another wish list.

What I also hope is extensions and iCloud Drive make it easier for programs like Blackboard to support all cloud services.

What roadblocks lie ahead?

Extensions could be a big help to students who want to either go solo with an iPad, or at the least be able to be more productive on it, but the harsh reality is the app needs to be updated to use these new features. If its possible to handle citations through extensions, I’d expect to see the citation management apps receive updates quickly.

The Blackboard app illustrates another problem I have with iOS in general. Even with everything Apple showed off at WWDC, there is still no easy way to upload a file with Safari. While you can use an app like Puffin to upload from Dropbox, I’d still like to be able to do this right from Safari. Maybe in iOS9?

How would I use the iPad in school?

I completed my last degree in 2011 (Technical Communications). The iPad had just come out the year before and the app library wasn’t as strong as it is now. So, three years ago my use of the iPad was minimal: I’d take notes with it and load it full of reference materials, but other than some Chemistry apps, I couldn’t get much done with it.

Three years later, I could see myself using the iPad more. I was a night student, and I think overall the iPad with a keyboard was a better way for me to take notes than on my laptop. I would also use the camera to take pictures of the instructor’s notes on the board. Submitting papers to Blackboard I would probably still just do from my Mac. it would be easier to access the files in Safari.

Even with iOS8, I think the iPad will make a great complementary device for students. My recommendation would be an iMac as your main computer in your residence, and the iPad as your mobile device for school and the library. In price, the 11″ MacBook Air is close in price to an iPad, but I think the 11″ screen is too small for OS X. While the screen on the iPad is smaller than the air, I think the design of apps and the iOS interface work better.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Losevsky Photo and Video

  1. Author, why on earth would a student want to? A MacBook Air is a much better way to go. I’m not in school. I’m an occasional tablet user. An iPad is perfect for me.

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    1. Cost…

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  2. Reblogged this on Taste of Apple and commented:
    A very interesting read. I have use my iPads for heavier types of work for a while now. While there are some trade offs to be made without the keyboard, it generally works well enough for me. I’m looking forward to seeing how iOS 8 and extensions can make things easier.

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  3. Michael W. Perry Sunday, June 29, 2014

    When the iOS version of Scrivener comes out later this year, it’ll make serious writing on an iPad much easier than with Word on any platform. And don’t forget that public access computers on many campuses mean that an iPad doesn’t have to do everything. That computer in the library could handle the document upload.

    I’m a freelance writer and I’ve gone round and round about this MBA v. iPad conundrum. I like my iPad and what it can’t do my aging white MacBook can handle. Between the two, I’ve yet to persuade myself I need a MBA, particularly since much of my work is done on a Mac mini with two large displays.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

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  4. In my experience a student cannot afford anything with an Apple logo……roll on Android :)

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    1. And yet, if you look around college classrooms all you see are illuminated Apple logos from MacBook Airs and Pros.

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      1. It’s the same reason that the majority of those students will have a large amount of debt when they graduate and the same reason many of them will never be able to find a job that actually requires a college degree. This is America. People are easily influenced by trendy marketing, and they think that overpriced Apple products are “necessary.” I would bet the the majority of Apple customers can’t really afford Apple products, yet they still buy them. There are plenty of people with iPhones who claim they can’t afford health insurance.

        It is pretty amazing that the author can write this article without mentioning that an Android or Windows tablet is already capable of replacing a PC for 85% of users. Android has had all of these features that they’re toting here for literally years. I didn’t personally use Android until about a year ago, but I understand that in the early days it was rather glitchy. That is no longer the case. An Android device made in the last couple of years runs just as smoothly as an iOS device and is many times more powerful and capable. I’m writing this on a Note 3. I could literally replace my computer with just my Note 3. I could easily research, write, and submit a research paper right from my phone right now. In many ways interapp connectivity in Android is better than that on my Windows laptop. Sharing content between apps is built right into the OS.

        The majority of Windows tablets (anything other than the Surface RT) run a full version of Windows. They can do literally anything a PC or tablet can do. The only difference is the form factor and the power of the components, but it will be more than fast enough for those 85% of people who don’t use specialty programs requiring lots of resources. These tablets already exist and like Android, they are more powerful than iOS and often cheaper.

        The only thing Apple products have going for them is brand image, aesthetics, and absolute idiot proof-ness. Being that we’re constantly pushing all of this STEM stuff, why are we encouraging use of a dumbed down computer system that keeps the user far removed from learning how things actually work? One of the major reasons that the iPad remains so limited is that Apple is intentionally keeping it that way. Their loyal customers all buy a MacBook and an iPad. If people only buy an iPad, then they’re losing out on a lot of money. This is how they got to be a multi-billion dollar company. They keep each product as limited as possible so you will need many of them, and they all have huge profit margins. They also do things like soldering the RAM to the motherboard to ensure their computers can’t be upgraded with 3rd party components and need to be replaced sooner, ensuring that the Apple makes more money.

        If people weren’t so blind to this type of thing, our country probably wouldn’t be in the shitty financial situation that it’s in today.

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        1. “The only thing Apple products have going for them is brand image, aesthetics, and absolute idiot proof-ness. ”
          Having had multiple windows pcs and laptops … it is also the hardware.

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          1. Ray Myburgh Monday, June 30, 2014

            Great summary Rich.
            It is indeed sad that the world keeps clinging to the Apple brand thinking that they are still using the “best” technology available. Their functionality is now so far behind Android and Windows. It is evident in this article how you always have to find an alternative method to do what you can natively do on Android/Windows.

            In this day and age of available technology, it’s really only the idiots that should use the idiot-proof brand that is Apple.

            Everybody else should have the sense to lose the apparent “superior” image that Mac’s have for some reason and buy something decent for the same amount of money.

            And no, the hardware is not superior either Mark. I have had more frustration with Mac’s hanging up on their resources than I ever had with PC.
            Maybe 10 to 20 years ago, but no longer. I’ve used both platforms since the 80’s.

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  5. Surface Pro 3 pretty much covers everything you’re looking for.

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  6. Richard Rumelt Monday, June 30, 2014

    If you want to type more than 15 words a minute, get a real keyboard. If you want to do any real math on a spreadsheet, you need a real spreadsheet. College kids who use iPads are cheating themselves out of important tools just to be trendy.

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